Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to know how to spot a lie and be like walking lie detectors who can never be deceived? The truth is- there’s no magic formula that can help you with detecting a lie every single time. What you can do, however, is increase your chances of detecting a lie.
Your strongest clues, when it comes to detecting lies, primarily lie in the other person’s body language. Studies show that people are better at detecting lies when they look at non-verbal behavioural cues.1 This is because our body language is often an honest expression of our emotional state.
Also, people are better at detecting lies from emotional cues than unemotional cues.2 This means that our chances of detecting a lie increase when liars generate an emotional response in us. In short, if you want to successfully detect lies, reading nonverbal behaviour is your best bet.
Many experts advise not to rely on a single gesture but look for gesture clusters when detecting lies. While it’s perfectly sound advice, the truth is that some gesture clusters can be present even when the person isn’t lying. They might just be nervous.
For example, when a person touches their face, fidgets, and breathes quickly- this cluster of gestures does not necessarily indicate lying. It could be that the person is just nervous or anxious.
Instead of focusing on gestures separately and getting lost in the process, I want you to focus on the categories of gestures. When you observe two or more of these categories in a person at the same time, the chances that they’re lying to you are pretty high.
These categories depend on two assumptions that we make about a liar. First, a liar will not be open and connected to you in the conversation. When we’re trying to deceive somebody, we ‘close’ ourselves, disconnect with them, and try to avoid them. We do this subconsciously to protect ourselves and avoid getting caught.
This closure, disconnection, and avoidance manifest in a liar’s body language.
Second, since liars are usually afraid of getting caught, they feel stressed and this stress can leak out in their facial expressions and body language.
Category 1: ‘Closed’ body language
The liar will ‘close’ their body to you. They might cross their arms, or legs if they’re seated. Or they might erect a barrier between you two using some physical object such as a cup or a handbag. They might make themselves smaller by shrugging their shoulders, becoming squirmy, and pulling their body inward in an unconscious attempt to avoid being seen.
This ‘closure’ of theirs might also manifest in their eyes. Their blink rate might increase or they might shut their eyes completely. Increased blink rate is often observed in situations where the person doesn’t like what they see or hear. Eyes are often completely shut when a person feels a strong emotion (such as while kissing or trying a very tasty food).
Look at the context of their behaviour to eliminate these alternate possibilities.
Category 2: Lack of ‘open’ body language
If a person is an experienced liar or has read articles such as this one about detecting a lie, they may not assume the obvious ‘closed’ body language gestures. They have two other choices then- either display neutral body language or if they’re highly skilled liars, they’ll assume ‘open’ body language to fool you.
Assuming that most liars are not highly skilled, if you fail to see ‘open’ body language gestures, chances are they’re deliberately maintaining a neutral and controlled body language to avoid giving away their deception.
If you don’t see open body language gestures like showing palms, their body turned towards you, eye contact, and reasonable proximity, there is cause for concern. Proximity is important as proximity signals connection. A liar believes they’re deceiving you and so cannot connect with you.
Hence, they usually have to maintain distance when they talk to you.
Picture a scene from a romantic movie where the two lovers are in each others’ arms. This isn’t a position to be in when you want to lie to someone, deceive someone. Too much proximity and connection.
Imagine the woman asking the man where he had been last night. Say the man cheated on her last night. What does he do? He’ll likely move out of the woman’s arms, take a few steps back, and face away from her. Having physically distanced himself from her, he then tries to fabricate a perfect lie.
I’m not saying this will always happen in such a situation but it’s highly likely to happen if the man hasn’t rehearsed his lie. The point is: physical proximity and deception rarely go hand in hand.
Category 3: Avoidance body language
As described in the example above, turning away from the person you’re lying to is a good example of avoidance body language. Another example is looking away while facing the person and not being able to maintain eye contact.
These can also be signs of shyness devoid of any lying but if you know that the person isn’t shy around you or has no reason to be, you can eliminate these possibilities.
Also, look at their feet. Are they pointed toward or away from you? Are they pointed toward the exit? In social interactions, we point our feet to where we want to go.
Category 4: Nervous body language
Bad liars often betray their lies with their nervous body language. Their breathing rate increases in an obvious manner, they look down and away, engage in self-soothing gestures like touching their hands, swallowing, and clearing their throat. They make manual mistakes like dropping the cup that they were holding, slipping, tipping over, or falling down.
Preoccupied with the nervousness and anxiety of getting caught, they focus less on the things they’re doing.
If you observe two or more of these categories when you’re talking to someone, you have reason to investigate more. Test people by moving closer to them and check if they feel intimidated and move further away.
Encourage them to assume open body language gestures and see if they resist and close up. Offer to hold their bag if you think they’ve used it as a barrier and check if they immediately assume the arms-crossed gesture to re-construct the barrier.
Using these types of tests frequently can enable you to be fairly confident in your judgments.
The first thing you should do is check whether what they’re saying is in alignment with their body language. If someone crosses their arms and tells you that they like you, you may find it hard to believe.
Similarly, if a person says something affirmative such as, “Yes, I want to go to the picnic” but their head is shaking side-to-side in a “No”, then they mean the opposite of what they’re saying.
If they say they feel a certain way but show absolutely no sign of the emotion in their facial expressions and body language, then they’re probably lying.
The speed of talking is also important. Liars tend to talk faster in an attempt to ‘get it over with’ as soon as they can. They also tend to speak in a low voice, particularly toward the end of the sentence, again, as an attempt to ‘hide’ from what they’re saying.
A liar may either reveal no additional details about the lie (because they don’t want to further complicate the lie) or they may give additional, detailed information about the lie (trying extra hard to convince you). This paradox can be resolved by asking yourself, “Did I ask them to give the details?”
If you did ask them for the details and they didn’t provide you with any but kept repeating what they said, that’s a false flag. If you didn’t ask for any additional details but they did provide extra, unnecessary information, it’s a strong indication of a lie.
Liars may end the conversation abruptly with a lie. This is because lying makes them uncomfortable and they’d rather get away from you, after they’ve dropped the lie bomb on you, than stay engaged with you.
If you change the topic of conversation, notice if they experience relief. Believe in their lie and tell them that you want to go get something from the other room.
Look at them secretly from the other room and watch if they breathe out a huge sigh of relief or have a wicked smile on their face, glad that they were able to fool you. Paul Eckman, the author of Telling Lies, referred to this happiness of a successful lie as ‘duping delight’.3
Establishing the baseline
It can be easier to catch a known person lying than a stranger. This is because you’re familiar with the known person’s baseline behavior- how they behave in normal situations. When they lie, you notice a discrepancy from their baseline behavior.
On the other hand, you might end up falsely accusing a stranger of lying who has autism because autistic people tend to be fidgety. So remove these possibilities by collecting as much information about the stranger, whom you suspect of lying, as you can. Also, remember that people have idiosyncrasies and sometimes differ in the ways they express their emotions.
Never accuse them of lying
Even if you’ve observed many of their body language and verbal signs that point to a lie, there’s still a chance you could be wrong.
Therefore, it’s never a good idea to accuse someone of lying. They’ll get defensive and re-assert the lie and if they’re telling the truth, they’ll stop trusting you and your relationship with them will get sprained.
Instead, keep testing your judgments. Eliminate all other possibilities before you can safely conclude that they’re lying. Once you’re fairly confident that they’ve lied, make them admit it by asking more questions.
Show them what they’re saying is inconsistent with facts. Better yet, agree with their lie and move forward from there to see how far you can go. Most lies will soon collapse because they’re not well- thought out. Make them fall into their own trap.
Detecting a lie with a lie
One good technique to make a person admit their lie is to lie to them. For instance, if someone says they were at a restaurant yesterday and you have good reason to believe they’re lying, tell them that the restaurant was closed yesterday.
Tell them confidently that you called up the restaurant yesterday but no one picked. Tell them that after doing that, you tried another number, which happened to be the manager’s number, and he personally told you that they were not doing business that day.
By adding these details, your story will become credible and the liar will be cornered and forced to admit their lie. If they still don’t admit their lie, then they were probably telling the truth and you’ll just end up embarrassing yourself. But hey, anything for wanting to detect lies.
- Forrest, J. A., & Feldman, R. S. (2000). Detecting deception and judge’s involvement: Lower task involvement leads to better lie detection. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26(1), 118-125.
- Warren, G., Schertler, E., & Bull, P. (2009). Detecting deception from emotional and unemotional cues. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 33(1), 59-69.
- Ekman, P. (2009). Telling lies: Clues to deceit in the marketplace, politics, and marriage (revised edition). WW Norton & Company.
Hi, I’m Hanan Parvez (MBA, MA Psychology), founder and author of PsychMechanics. PsychMechanics has been featured in Forbes, Business Insider, Reader’s Digest, and Entrepreneur. Feel free to contact me if you have a query.