The Lying Meter

A 4895Wouldn’t it be awesome if whenever someone was talking to you, a little meter popped up over their head, with a needle that pointed from Truth to Total BS? That way you’d know whether to trust them or not. Well, in a way, that’s what body language does – you just need to know how to read the meter.

Janine Driver calls it the BS Barometer (Driver 11). But before we get to  tuning up your barometer, let’s separate the wheat from the chaff. First, there is a difference between us “normal” people, when we lie, and when people who are in positions of power lie. Powerful people lie to gain something. We lie so we don’t lose something. (Driver 15)

When a “normal” person lies, their cortisol increases (the stress hormone), negative emotions increase and their ability to think is hampered. BUT, when a person in a position of power lies, the opposite occurs – their stress goes down, their positive emotions increase and their cognitive ability increases. So, being in a position of power makes it easier to lie and also reduces the guilt that lying normally causes, (Driver 15). Absolute power does in fact, corrupt absolutely.

We lie for many reasons and not all of them are bad. Perhaps we’re lying to save our job or we lie (or cheat) to prevent us from  failing a class in school. We may feel a personal or professional relationship is in danger if we don’t lie (Driver 17). We lie to minimize hurt feelings, to protect ourselves and to avoid tension and conflict (Driver 19).

In the last decade there have been numerous books published about body language and lie detection. The TV show Lie to Me was fairly popular for awhile but the research on the show concluded that people who watched it were no better at detecting lies than before, but were better at accusing honest people of lying (Driver 19). Sort of a reverse effect there. But it makes the point that there are all sorts of myths around body language psychology and lie detection. Let’s blast a few of them right now:

  • A liars eyes will move to a certain direction or actually become shifty – NOT TRUE. You have to first baseline the individuals normal eye movements then watch for a shift in the baseline (Driver 21).
  • All liars will laugh or giggle when lying (or try to stifle a smile or laugh) – NOT TRUE. Inappropriate laughing is often a sign of deep distress, but not necessarily lying. There may be an indicator here of deceit, but you have to look for other clues (Driver 21).
  • All liars scratch their noses – NOT TRUE. When people feel stress their “fight-or-flight” response engages and causes blood to rush to their extremities – when you don’t fight or flee, the blood rushes back to your head and engorges your nasal tissues. The person MAY be having a stress response because they are lying, or they may just be stressed for another reason – again, more clues are necessary (Driver 22).
  • All liars: squirm, overwhelm you with details, pause when telling the lie, skip details, repeat the question, or aren’t very definitive – MAYBE.

In fact, all of the above information and bullets are maybe’s. People squirm for a variety of reasons, some overwhelm you with details, others skip details, some repeat the question as they stall for time to find the right answer, while others repeat the question while they invent an answer. The fact is this. All effective behavior detection is based on the baseline.  To detect deception, we have to first establish what is normal behavior about a person, then we watch for changes. We also watch for clusters of clues, we have to understand the context, the place and time, the situation and several other items before we can effectively call ourselves good lie detectors.

This is where the TSA’s behavior detection program has run into trouble. The program, known variously as Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT), or the Behavior Detection Officer (BDO) program, has not impressed the Government Accountability Office, yet behavior detection remains an effective tool for law enforcement, customs agents and security officials throughout the world. Why aren’t we better at it here? I believe the main reason is that TSA uses (so far*) passive observation, and doesn’t engage their target. The baseline they use is a generalized structure for passengers at an airport, not a specific baseline for an individual.

When you start talking to the person, the BS barometer is far more effective – and as we will learn, it can take mere seconds to baseline an individual. In fact, it can be just like seeing a BS meter over their head.

Driver, Janine, and Mariska van Aalst. You Can’t Lie to Me: The Revolutionary Program to Supercharge Your Inner Lie Detector and Get to the Truth. New York: HarperOne, 2012. Print.

*TSA has experimented with their “Assessor” program, specifically at Boston/Logan airport, whereby BDO’s engage passengers in conversation.


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