How the CIA tells if you’re lying (and how you can use this technique)

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Several years ago the art of reading body language and attempting to detect deception through nonverbal cues started to become popular. I recall ago when I was in England researching Practical Aviation Security, I was at a bookstore in Greenwich (okay no research went on there other than to say I had a beer at 0° longitude), but that’s where I picked up a book on body language, and thought it was excellent. I’ve since read dozens, taken courses on reading body language and detecting deception and have taught several courses to law enforcement officers, security personnel and others on the subject.

The problem with virtually every text on the subject is that it gives you much to pay attention too – more than any normal person can actually remember (unless they do this for a living). The other problem with most body language programs is that certain nonverbal cues have multiple meanings. For example, arms crossed could mean the person is closed off, shy, trying to hide something, is cold, or their stomach is upset and it feels better to rest their arms that way. The authors of Spy the Lie: Former CIA Officers Show You How to Detect Deception take a different approach and even challenge some of the norms in body language basics.

In my day job, as a professor and an aviation security expert I am always teaching nonverbal communication so that people can possibly spot a terrorist or criminal. However, understanding nonverbal communication can help you in any aspect of your life, such as whether your boss is lying to you about the company’s financial status, or your spouse is lying to you about hooking up with friends versus “hooking up,”  — you may be able to determine whether your new client will actually keep their verbal commitment to buy from you (my word is my bond Jerry Maguire), or whether your teenager is being honest with you about the great big bag of weed you just found in his room and he claims he is only holding for a friend (Houston, et al 4).

Houston and his co-authors start with a gigantic qualification, which, no matter how good you get at this, will always be true: there is no such thing as a human life detector (Houston, et al 15). No matter how good you get, unless you absolutely know the opposite to be true, can never beyond certainty, about what a person is thinking. Even a polygraph doesn’t say whether or not you’re lying, it only detects psychological changes in your

body in response to a stimulus.

However, there are some very good tools at detecting lies that you can use, and more importantly, remember during times of stress. First, you’ve got to get beyond the myths of deception deception:

  • One of the biggest challenges many of us have in detecting lies is that we don’t want people to lie to us so we actually lie to ourselves, by ignoring the obvious clues (Houston, et al 16). 
  • Recently, the TSA was again criticized for their behavior detection program and its perceived ineffectiveness. This is another challenge in detecting deception. There are a lot of signs that a person is being deceptive, so called “tells,” but there still is not enough evidence to support their validity (Houston, et al 18).
  • The vast majority of communication between two individuals remains nonverbal, yet most people have had little to no training in nonverbal communication (Houston, et al 18-19). So how can we be that good at something that we’ve never been given training on?
  • Human behavior is not logical nor does it always conform to our expectations (Houston, et al 22). What may seem logical to us in a particular situation, may seem completely illogical to someone else – if you think I’m wrong go outside and bring up the topics of politics, religion and gun control with three random strangers. Let me know how that turns out for you.

The model used by the authors, which they say is one used by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is essentially based on the polygraph model, in fact they refer to their technique is as “the model,” (Houston, et al 31). There are two key guidelines to implementing the model, timing and clusters (Houston, et al 31).

Timing refers to the question or statement that’s the stimulus for potentially deceptive behavior. In order to determine whether a person is being truthful look and listen for the first deceptive behavior to occur within the first five seconds after the stimulus is delivered (Houston, et al 31). Passed that, the chances increase that the individual will start to think about something else, like a plausible lie. Research shows that we speak at a rate of 125 to 150 words per minute but we th

ink 10 times faster than that (Houston, et al 31) – so if we take 5 seconds to answer a questions, that’s like having 50 seconds to actually think about it.

Cluster is defined as any combination of two or more deceptive indicators whether they are verbal or nonverbal (Houston, et al 32-33). Many times an individual will display one deceptive indicator but no others – if that happens it’s not time to start sound the alarm. If you see a single deceptive behavior in response to the stimulus ignore it.

Finally, the another critical component detection deception is to go into what the authors call the “L–squared mode,” which means you have to look and listen simultaneously for the deception (Houston, et al 32).

Even if you see a cluster of deceptive behaviors that occur within the first five seconds of the stimulus statement being introduced, can you definitely conclude the person is lying? No. You’re not a human lie detector, but you can conclude is that that is a potential problem areas and you have more work to do (Houston, et al 35).

Houston, Philip., Floyd, Michael, Carnicero, Susan, Tennant, Don. Spy the Lie: Former CIA Officers Show You How to Detect Deception. New York: St. Martin’s, 2012. Print.

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