Let’s face it: Most of us lie every day. A famous study at the University of Massachusetts found that “60 percent of people lied at least once during a 10-minute conversation and told an average of two to three lies.”
Most of us are not very good at spotting a lie. And science so far hasn’t done much better. Polygraph machines aren’t reliable enough to be used in most courts. And while brain researchers keep trying to unravel the mechanism of lying, they have come up with nothing definitive.
Even so, knowing a few things about lies and their tellers might help you. Here are 10 of the more popular techniques researchers and others working in law enforcement recommend when trying to spot a lie:
1. Voice changes
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Changes in a person’s normal behavior can betray discomfort of some sort, and might be a tip-off to lies. These departures from normal behavior are most useful when you are observing someone you know well and are familiar with their normal patterns and departures from those patterns.
If you don’t know your subject well, spend time paying attention to how she or he normally talks and acts when relaxed. Is her speech normally slow or quick, loud or soft? What is the quality of his voice usually like? Then, watch for distinct, but not subtle, changes from the normal pattern, retired FBI criminal profiler Gregg McCrary tells Real Simple.
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Guilt and the accompanying anxiety are thought to cause some people — though perhaps not accomplished liars — to squirm and fidget. But experts disagree on whether fidgeting really is a telltale sign of lying. Again, it might be more important to know whether fidgeting is typical for a person, or if it is an unusual behavior.
Some people do the opposite of fidgeting — they cope with stress by standing still or freezing.
3. Protesting too much
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“The lady doth protest too much, methinks,” says Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, as they watch a play in which a character swears she’ll never marry if her husband dies. The queen is pointing out that liars sometimes give themselves away by making too big a point of proclaiming their innocence.
A twist on this is when someone loudly denies guilt or takes offense at the idea they might be thought guilty even though no one has actually accused them of anything. This hostile defensiveness can include finger-pointing.
4. Vowing honesty
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Liars often work too hard to demonstrate their honesty, and that can be a dead giveaway. They’ll make too much use of vows and expressions like “to tell the truth,” “to be perfectly honest,” “I swear on a stack of Bibles” and “as God is my witness.”
5. Subtle eye movements
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Lying is thought to be stressful for most liars. They have to think about what’s true and concoct a story that departs from the truth, causing a level of strain that, even when it’s subtle, may be observable.
This stress can show up in a number of unconscious gestures. Liars are said to look away, or perhaps glance at an exit, betraying a desire to escape, says Psychology Today. Liars sometimes point their feet or even move their bodies toward the exit.