How to Tell If Someone Is Lying, According to Science

Wouldn’t it be nice to know how to tell if someone is lying?

We’re going to see what the research has to say on detecting lies, avoiding deception and more. And this is the industrial strength package. We’ll look at how to avoid being deceived by the pros in this arena: con artists.

To get the real answers, I called an expert. Maria Konnikova is a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her wonderful new book is The Confidence Game.

Maria has insights from research on how you can get better at spotting lies and dodging fraud. She even sat down with real con artists to see how they think and act.

First, a warning: detecting lies is hard. Don’t think there’s a magic bullet. There isn’t. If there was, everyone would use it. And most of what you think you know is wrong. Here’s Maria:

“There’s no Pinocchio’s nose of lying. There’s no telltale sign no matter what we might think, nothing that always signals a lie no matter what. There’s so much folk wisdom about how you spot a liar. They avert their gaze. They sweat. They blush, all this stuff. In truth, when you’re talking with good liars, it just doesn’t happen.”

So what can we do to detect lies and avoid being scammed? Here are answers…

1) Use “Cognitive Load”

Telling lies is tricky. You need to balance the truth, the falsehood and try not to get caught. That means your brain has to work overtime.

Via The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life:

“Lying can be cognitively demanding. You must suppress the truth and construct a falsehood that is plausible on its face and does not contradict anything known by the listener, nor likely to be known. You must tell it in a convincing way and you must remember the story. This usually takes time and concentration, both of which may give off secondary cues and reduce performance on simultaneous tasks.”

So if you want to make a liar reveal themselves, you want to increase their cognitive load. The more they have to think, the more likely they are to make a mistake.

How can you do this? Police detectives ask open-ended questions that make them keep talking. Unexpected questions they’re not prepared for are the best. Anything that mentally exhausts someone is good.

Maria also suggests trying the reverse of this: decrease your own cognitive load. Good liars will attempt to distract you from the facts.

Don’t let them. Ask questions to keep things simple so you can focus on what’s important. Here’s Maria:

“Our cognitive load affects our ability to spot deception, so when we have a lot of things going on, we stop being able to notice as much. What we can do is try to avoid the cognitive load ourselves because they’re going to try to cause cognitive load for us. They’re going to start saying all of these things that disorient us and so we become more reliant on emotion rather than rational reasoning.”

I’m not going to lie; increasing cognitive load isn’t always easy in an informal situation. And this method also has a bigger problem — it doesn’t work on professional liars like con men and psychopaths. Here’s Maria:

“Unfortunately, when we’re dealing with con artists, we are dealing with a lot of those types of people for whom there is no cognitive load because they live this. This is who they are. They’re not lying to you. They’re not trying to juggle anything. They really live their identity as a con artist.”

(For more on how to use cognitive load to beat liars, click here.)

So reducing your cognitive load and increasing theirs can help you detect lies with amateurs, but like Maria said, this won’t work with pros. What will?

For that, we need to use one of the con artist’s own weapons against them…

Eric Barker: How To Get People To Like You: 7 Ways From An FBI Behavior Expert

2) Get Motivated

Face it, you’re not usually trying to detect lies. You’re trying to have a normal conversation. But con artists and other very experienced liars are quite motivated to deceive you.

Luckily, you can improve your chances of detecting deception just by being motivated like they are. Next time you think someone may be lying to you, really pay attention.

A simple bit of motivation to detect lies can make a real difference. Here’s Maria:

“When your motivation is high, you actually become much more accurate at judging other people accurately. Most of the time, our motivation isn’t very high because that takes more of our resources, but when we’re motivated, we suddenly become much better judges of character. We become much better able to read cues. Then you start being able to discern certain things.”

Pretty simple, right? And simple is good. So what else should you pay attention to when you think someone is trying to mislead you? Many say you should focus on the details of their story. Wrong.

If you really want to resist someone’s attempt to deceive you, you might want to pay a little more attention to yourself…

3) Watch Your Emotions

When we’re emotional, we pay less attention. Our brains take shortcuts. We get roped in.

Focus a little more on staying objective and not being swept away by emotions. Here’s Maria:

“Emotions are the single most powerful driver of our behavior, because when we are in an emotionally aroused state, we start taking mental shortcuts that we wouldn’t otherwise take and we don’t even realize we’re taking them. That’s exactly what a con artist wants, so they draw you in emotionally and then you stop asking questions. You stop seeing red flags.”

We’ll question facts. We’ll question logic. But we rarely question our feelings. And when we start trusting our feelings when someone is deliberately manipulating them, that can lead to bad decisions.

Why? Because we all secretly believe that we deserve to have good things happen to us. And when people give an emotional presentation that might be a little too good to be true, we want to believe it. Here’s Maria:

“We are really good at saying “if it seems too good to be true, it is” — when it applies to someone else. We never think when good things are happening to us that they’re too good to be true. We think they’re just good because of course we deserve good things to happen to us. If you invested with Madoff, you didn’t think his huge returns were weird. You think you picked the right person with whom to invest. You said, “See, I told you he was good.”

So keep a cool head. Don’t get swept up by big promises and start fantasizing before you’ve examined the facts.

(To learn the four things neuroscience says will make you happier, click here.)

Okay, when you think someone might be messing with you, let logic rule. Great. But what form are the most hard-to-resist lies going to take?

Eric Barker: New Neuroscience Reveals 4 Rituals That Will Make You Happy

4) Stories Are Dangerous

When people tell us stories we tend to let our guard down. We don’t think we’re being “sold” on something, so we tend to go along for the ride. We quietly lose motivation to detect lies.

This is a mistake because research shows stories are actually the most powerful way to deceive and to get you to change your mind.

From The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every Time:

“When psychologists Melanie Green and Timothy Brock decided to test the persuasive power of narrative, they found that the more a story transported us into its world, the more we were likely to believe it… The more engrossed a reader was in the story, the fewer false notes she noticed. The sweep of the narrative trumped the facts of logic. What’s more, the most engaged readers were also more likely to agree with the beliefs the story implied…”

This is no small problem. Your brain is wired to respond to stories. Neuroscience research shows nothing beats a story when it comes to convincing you of something.

“Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist at Claremont Graduate University and director of its Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, looks at the power of the story in our daily interactions, be it with friends, strangers, or even objects (books, television, and the like). What he has found repeatedly is that nothing compels us to receptivity, emotional and behavioral, quite like the neat, relatable narrative flow.”

Keith Quesenberry at Johns Hopkins reviewed over 100 Super Bowl ads to see what the most effective ones had in common. The answer? They told a story.

(To learn an FBI behavior expert’s secrets for how to get people to like you, click here.)

So what’s the most powerful tool in your arsenal to avoid being conned?

5) Know Thyself

Maria interviewed people who repeatedly infiltrated cults that used the most extreme forms of manipulation and deception. How did they resist being influenced?

They had a strong sense of self. They didn’t rely on other people to tell them who they were. They knew what was important to them, what they wanted, and what their hopes and dreams were.

By having a strong self-definition they were able to resist the most intense forms of coercion. Here’s Maria:

“One of the things that unites victims of con artists is emotional vulnerability, so con artists can sense when you’re feeling vulnerable and strike at those points. Vulnerability often affects your sense of self because you are unsure of your life and you start craving meaning. What Sullivan and Jen Stalvey meant was that you need to be absolutely certain of who you are rather than dependent on other people for telling you who you are. When a con artist profiles you, they try to figure out your strengths, your weaknesses, what motivates you, what drives you. We don’t usually do that for ourselves, but we should. We should sit down and figure out Who am I? What’s important to me? What makes me tick? What do I wish for? What are my hopes and aspirations? so that you become very certain of that and no matter what happens, you retain that so that no one can attack it and no one can use that as a point of vulnerability.”

On the flip side, who is most vulnerable to being manipulated? Someone who has big changes going on in their life — good or bad. When our lives are unstable and shifting we’re open to change.

And that can mean bad things if someone is deliberately trying to influence you. Here’s Maria:

“The one thing that I found that tends to make everyone a more attractive mark is when they are at a point of change in their life. It could be job loss, job gain, getting a divorce, getting married. Our world is destabilized then and then that quest for meaning becomes much more pressing and con artists are very happy to provide that meaning.”

Sum Up

Here’s how to tell if someone is lying and how to resist deception:

  • Use cognitive load: You want to reduce how much thinking you need to do and increase the amount they need to.
  • Be motivated: You can boost your ability to detect deception by actively trying.
  • Watch your emotions: When you’re feeling you’re not thinking. Stay objective.
  • Stories are dangerous: They are the most powerful way to influence someone.
  • Know thyself: People with a strong sense of self were able to resist the most intense manipulation by cults.

Are you still feeling like you’re a little too trusting and won’t be a good lie detector? Well, that’s a very good thing.

Ironically, what makes us unsuccessful at lie detection makes us happier and more successful as human beings in the big picture.

Research shows trusting people more and seeing the world as a little better than it is leads to a better life. Here’s Maria:

“It’s actually not good to spot deception. It’s much, much better to go through life with slightly rose-tinted glasses, to use a cliché. The best evidence of how incredibly important and adaptive that is is that the only subset of the population that doesn’t have this bias are clinically depressed. It’s one of those great ironies of this human condition: the very thing that makes you not just a successful, but a happy human being is the exact same thing that makes you vulnerable to con artists. Research shows extensively that being trusting actually correlates with all sorts of great things. It’s correlated with high intelligence. It’s correlated with happiness, with better health, with better life outcomes, so it’s very psychologically protective in some sort of way. We need to trust one another. We need to forge relationships, build connections.”

When you’re dealing with that used car salesman, get motivated to detect lies, use cognitive load, watch your emotions, don’t get swept into stories and keep a strong sense of who you are.

But most of the time you should trust those around you. Give people the benefit of the doubt. It’s the secret to more success, better relationships and a happier life.

By Eric Barker

1 Comment

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