Well, basically, to tell you the truth, I’m lying to you

9781250005854People lie because the facts are not on their side. So when they say things like, “basically,” or other qualifying words, or terms like, “when the truth comes out,” they are doing everything they can to avoid the actual truth from coming out.

Recently, a reality TV show star was accused of harassing a 16-year-old girl. In defending herself, she said, “perhaps once all the facts are kind of brought to the fore and there’s kind of an overview by law enforcement of what happened, hopefully this matter will be over.” Wow! How many qualifiers were in that last sentence?  “Perhaps.” “Kind of.” “Kind of an overview.” “Hopefully.”

To use a line from comedian Mark Lundholm, “I’m not judgin’, I’m just sayin’,” but there was just a little bit of bulls*#t to that last sentence right?  I mean, what would you say if you were wrongly accused? Typically, you’d say, something along the lines of ‘no I didn’t.” But you wouldn’t typically say, ‘perhaps,’ ‘kind of,’ hopefully.’

Exclusion qualifiers enable people who want to withhold certain information to answer your question truthfully without releasing that information (Houston et al, 70). Some examples include “basically,” “for the most part,” and “fundamentally.” Perception qualifiers are used to enhance credibility. These are words like “frankly,” “to be perfectly honest,” and “to tell you the truth…”

Failing to understand simple questions, invoking religion as in, “I swear to God,” or having a selective memory over things that should be easily remembered are other indicators that you are being lied to (Houston et al 67-70). But the authors of  Spy the Lie: Former CIA Officers Show You How to Detect Deception say that “convincing statements,” which fall under the category of “lies of influence,” are very powerful lies. But keep in mind, some people always say, “I swear to God,” so there’s a little baselining in play here.

Convincing statements are designed to convince the questioner of something, rather than to convey truthful information. Such as if a person is being accused of theft they may say “that would be dishonest, and I’m not that kind of person.”  If an honest person were accused of theft they would typically outright deny the allegation, not try to convince you that they are not that type of person. That may be a subsequent statement, but their first response (i.e. the timing) is the clue. If their first instinct is to deny the allegation rather than try to convince you of their character then that may be a good indicator they’re telling you the truth.

Since our country seems to be full of politicians completely devoid of moral character who can’t avoid sexting, cheating or smoking dope, we get a lot of practice in watching people lie, which lets us really hone our lie detecting skills! (Hey silver linings right?)

Many body language experts talk about certain physical reactions that may indicate an individual is lying. What I have found, after nearly a decade of intense study of this topic, is that it is very difficult to remember all of these different gestures. Even if you have managed to memorize a majority of them, you still do not always know what they mean. But there still are some tried-and-true indicators:

  • Behavioral pause or delay (Houston et al 95). Ask someone where they were seven years ago and they’re going to take a minute to try and remember. Ask them if they robbed a bank seven years ago, and if they didn’t, the truth should come out immediately. They should not have to think about whether they robbed a bank seven years ago, either they either did or they didn’t. That is one of those significant life events you tend not to forget (I would imagine, unless you’re like, you know, a professional bank robber). So again, it’s about context and timing.
  • Verbal/NonVerbal Disconnect (Houston et al 96). Here’s some old-school body language for you, someone nods affirmatively while saying no. It’s important to keep in mind that sometimes it’s for simple emphasis so it is important to remember this indicator is only applicable in narrative response, not a one-word or short-phrase response (Houston et al 97).
  • Hiding the mouth or the eyes (Houston et al 97). The classic “see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil,” lie detection. Deceptive people often hide their mouth or eyes while being untruthful. There is a natural tendency to want to cover a lie, so if a person puts their hand in front of their mouth while responding to a question, that is significant. Also, people tend to want to shield themselves from the reaction of those they’re lying to, so they may shield their eyes so they can’t see the reaction of the person they are telling the lie to (Houston et al 97).

Another way to uncover a liar is to toss out the “punishment question.” Deceptive people are always looking for ways to manage our perception, which is one of the reasons it is important to ignore truthful behavior (Houston et al 113-114). “What do you think should happen to the person that did this?” is a classic punishment question. While both innocent and guilty people can blurt out a strong punishment, if an individual’s response reflects an abnormally lenient punishment that raises a red flag (Houston et al 114).

A question that I find rather useful myself (this works on kids too sometimes) is the bait question. The bait question operates on a psychological principle called a “mind virus.” Say you walk into the office one day and your coworker says “the boss wants to see you.” With just that little bit of information your mind may already be off and running about all of the negative outcomes of that meeting (Houston et al 126). “People often make decisions on the basis of this viral thinking and baits take advantage of that fact by posing a hypothetical question,” Houston et al (126-127). 

Bait questions usually start off, “Is there any reason…” Here’s an example: two of your children are standing in front of you both accusing the other of starting the fight. Talk to them separately if possible and ask the question, “when I talk to some of the other kids on the playground is there any reason they are going to tell me a different story than what you’re telling me?” And the mind virus is off and running. Most kids, and even most adults know that it is better to tell the truth themselves, rather than have eye witnesses, CCTV cameras or other evidence that later shows they both committed the offense AND they lied about it.

Exclusion and perception qualifiers, punishment questions, some old school body language and a bait question now and again, and you should be well on your way to being a human lie detector. You know, basically.

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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