Category Archives: body language

Simple strategies to ferret out deception

In this article I am going to address some possible scenarios that can occur at work in which you would like to know if a coworker, employee or boss is a friend or enemy.  Since we can’t go around accusing others at work of being liars or thieves without substantial evidence, it is important that we take a look at alternatives to give us a higher statistical probability of avoiding the pitfall of believing a liar. I will take a look at three possible scenarios that can occur and outline a simple strategy to help get to the truth.

Let’s say, for example, you suspect your coworker of being a snake in the grass.  You would like to know if he is in it for the team, or if he is out to submarine you.  A tactic you can use is to ask him for his advice on an important assignment you have been given.  Tell him you are considering a strategy that you secretly know is a horrible idea, and he should know it is a horrible idea as well.  If he agrees with your doomed strategy, knowing full well it is a bad idea, then he is not in it for the team.  He is allowing you to proceed and fail without regard for how it affects the team, instead opting to further his own agenda. Now you know you cannot trust him going forward.  The psychological principle in play here is motivation.  People will rarely pass up an opportunity to further their plan.

In another scenario, let’s say you are the owner of a small business.  As with most small businesses, you are on a tight budget and have limited resources.  You suspect one of your few employees of stealing from the register.  In order to find out if your suspicions have merit, you can use the following approach.  Address the topic with the employee directly without accusing her and see what happens immediately after you bring the topic of theft up.  Start with something like “You know, I can’t believe some people think they can steal from their boss and not get caught.”  Now look for signs of agreement or discomfort. This is a powerful tool that reveals a suspect’s motivation.  If she is guilty, she will naturally assume you are accusing her.  If she is innocent, she will agree and further the discussion. The important point is to look for defensiveness and decline in comfort and confidence.  This will give you a strong indication of your employee’s level of guilt. The psychological principle in play here is guilt. Guilty people have a tendency to fall prey to a psychological phenomenon known as the “illusion of transparency”.  Once accused, the guilty will fear that the accuser can see through the lies and know her current state of mind.

In a third scenario, you suspect your mailroom manager of being involved in a lapping scheme, which is a common form of skimming. (It is undertaken by mail room employees who are responsible for receiving payments.  They skim the checks received, depositing the checks into their personal accounts and falsify company account records in order to cover the theft.) Since, he is the manager he has a good knowledge of the workings of the mail room.  He understands the process.  The strategy you can employ is to ask him for his advice.  State “You are the mailroom manager.  You know this operation better than anyone.  If you were to steal from the company, how would you go about it?”  Now he can take the bait.  If he is innocent, he will most likely tell you the easiest plan, the plan most likely to succeed.  In this case, the lapping scheme.  If he is guilty, he will want to draw attention away from his lapping scheme and might come up with a more complex, convoluted response or one that will not involve lapping schemes at all.  He does not want you to look at that possibility.  The clue that he might be guilty will come in the form that he does not give you the obvious answer but instead opts to redirect your thought process away from the crime that he is committing.  Of course, if you do not know where the weakness lies within the mailroom, you should educate yourself before questioning the manager, otherwise you will not know if he is giving you the appropriate response or not. The psychological principle in play here is fear.  The manager fears being discovered as a thief. When we are threatened by something, we fear it.  Whether we like it or not, we have a strong tendency to distance ourselves from anything that is threatening.  Being exposed as a thief is very threatening, as is the prospect of being fired or even arrested.  The manager must protect himself and not allow you to know what he has done.

Keep in mind, that none of these strategies are fool proof.  There are no guarantees, but they can help you by increasing your odds of success.  Beware aware of which psychological principles are relevant, as this will help you choose a strategy that allows you to find the truth.  To be sure, many psychological principles or emotions will be present, but there will be one primary emotion that forces the individual to act in a particular manner.  Knowing which emotion is in play is important information in helping you strategize.  I recommend you read Dr. David Leiberman’s book, “You Can Read Anyone”.  Dr. Leiberman outlines several psychological principles and strategies in this highly effective book.

Also, for a great resource on Body Language and Deception, check out  It is full of articles by respected and accomplished experts in the field.


Want to catch a liar? Look for the truth.

It is very easy to get caught up in trying to spot a liar by looking for clues to deception.  That just makes sense.  While there are hundreds of possible cues to deception, many of which I have addressed on this blog, the best strategy to consistently catch a liar is to look for the opposite- the truth.

Indicators of truthfulness are easier to spot than indicators of deception.  The key is to understand when there is an obvious lack of truthful indicators.  This is when you will see all those signs of deception.  In this article, I will point out some strategies to observe honesty.  Only in the absence of truth, will lies be revealed!

1. Smooth gestures.  This one is a favorite of mine.  When someone is talking or explaining something, the accompanying gestures, known in body language circles as “illustrators” are smooth and well timed.  Their intensity matches the spoken word. A well timed gesture usually begins right before the spoken word.  If there is a delay after the spoken word and then the gesture comes, the timing is off.  The emotion might not be genuine.  If gestures are mechanical and stiff, they are more than likely manufactured and not genuine.

2. The expression.  I have seen this one in high stakes situations.  While accusing a liar, the liar will often be expressionless.  His mind is on how he will respond.  The accusations do not offend him, because they are true (and he likely has already rationalized and justified his deception).  An innocent person, however, will show emotion at the onset of the accusation.  Real emotion.  I had to terminate an employee for his involvement with selling illegal drugs.  As I explained the undeniable evidence against him, he stood there emotionless.  He offered weak denials.  Most people would be outraged at losing a job for something they didn’t do, much less being falsely accused of being a drug dealer!  I was sure of the evidence prior to the discussion, but I still wanted to be thorough. Later in the discussion, I accused him of something I knew he didn’t do- theft.  He became irate and extremely agitated.  The difference was significant.  He didn’t steal and that prompted a true, emotional and strong denial.  The accusation of selling drugs did not.  Game. Set. Match.

3. FPPTSD.  First person, past tense, singular denial.   This one is a good indicator of honesty.  Deny the conclusion, deny the charge.

“They haven’t arrested me because they don’t have any evidence and they never will because I did not do it.”

-Richard Jewell, falsely accused Olympic bomber

I once investigated a theft case where an employee was accused of stealing expensive electronics.  He reportedly had taken a flat screen TV home.  When I asked him about the television, he stated “we got rid of it, it didn’t work”. Everything up to that point in his story had been “I”.  There was no “we”.  When it came to his denial, it wasn’t singular. This was his way of sharing blame.  Listen to any politician.  When his administration does something good, you will hear a lot of “I” and “Me”.  When things go bad, listen for “We”, and “Us”.

A truthful denial will look or sound something like:  “I didn’t do it” or “I didn’t steal the purse.”  The denials are direct.  The further away from this the denial gets, the more it needs to be scrutinized.

I will discuss more indicators of truth, but these are a good place to start. For an outstanding resource on body language and deception detection, visit  this site has articles from some highly respected experts in the non-verbal field. Check it out!

Understanding context in body language

Body language cues are, in concept, the same as single words.  Alone, they can mean a number of things.  For example, crossed arms, can mean a person is cold, feeling unreceptive, low confidence or threatened.  What will clarify the meaning of the crossed arms is the cluster of accompanying gestures.  Much like the single word needs other words to help relay meaning.  Think of the word “cool”.  It can mean hip, describe a breeze, or a way of indicating things are ok (it’s cool, man).  Putting the words together form a sentence, a complete thought.  Look for the body language cues to form clusters, or sentences of their own for the most likely meaning of any single indicator.

Take a look at the following photos of people with their hands behind their heads.  They all have obviously different meanings, based on the context.





Businessman sitting in chair, hands behind head, smiling, portrait, cut out

In each of these photos, the arm gestures are the same but convey different meanings. The main thing to understand is that the meaning of each is supported by other indicators.  This allows us to make sense of the gesture.

Mom’s body language gives this one away

Yesterday, January 3rd, 2014, High School Football player Gerald Willis III, a top recruit, announced on live television the college football program of his choice.  He is from New Orleans and his mother is a huge Louisiana State University fan (LSU).  I knew she is a LSU fan because a few years ago her other son, Landon Collins was a top recruit and chose to go to the University of Alabama against her wishes.  She stated she was a LSU fan. Willis had narrowed his choice down to two final colleges: The University of Florida and LSU.

As I watched this, I knew which school Willis was going to choose.  Mom wasn’t happy, which means he was going to Florida. Her body language clearly indicated she wasn’t happy.  Since she is a LSU fan, it gave away the ending- Willis is going to be a Gator.

Willis is a good player and will do well at Florida, which has an elite defense.  LSU, however, is a great team and will not be short of amazing players either.

A look at emotional dissonance-Chris Weidman, UFC Champion

In the included clip, UFC Middleweight Champion Chris Weidman is discussing his victory over the legendary Anderson Silva.  In the fight, Silva had suffered a complete break of his lower leg when he threw an inside leg kick at Weidman.  Weidman checked, or blocked, the kick with his upper shin and the result was a horrific injury to Silva.

As a former amateur Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) competitor, coach and current enthusiast, I can attest to the pain of simply checking a kick with the bare shin.  I can only imagine the pain SIlva felt, however.

In the above video, Weidman is trying to give the impression of concern for Silva, but his dominant emotion is that of joy.  It is very hard for him to show concern for Silva’s well being at that moment.  This is an example of dissonance, which is a disagreement between what we are thinking, believing or knowing and what we are doing or saying. This does not, in any way, make Weidman a bad person.  It is very likely his abundance of joy is stemming from the events of the evening in which he won a championship bout against one of the greatest fighters of all time.  It is also possible, that Weidman has a little less concern for Silva, as Silva had previously been disrespectful toward Weidman (and many of Silva’s prior opponents as well).

Chris Weidman, UFC Middleweight Champion

Chris Weidman, UFC Middleweight Champion

Having spent countless hours training with and coaching competitive MMA fighters, including many that have competed in the UFC, I have learned that they all accept the risk of injury, Silva included.  In a fighter’s world, injuries are understood to be part of the game.

That makes this clip a good example of why we should believe what we see in the emotion of a speaker over what we hear them say.  Try watching the clip without sound, and just observe Weidman’s facial expressions.  You will come away with the impression of a person who is happy, not concerned.  If you have trained or are familiar with micro expression or subtle expression recognition, what did you see?

Congrats to Chris Weidman, and a speedy recovery to Anderson Silva.

Follow me on Twitter: @RyanMannWVMMA

A declaration of honesty increases truthfulness in statements


Research shows that if you have a subject sign an declaration of honesty prior to an event such as a test, job application or witness statement, the odds increase significantly that the subject will be considerably more honest than if he does not sign a declaration of honesty or he signs one at the end of the event (Lisa Shu et al. 2012).

The research showed that if the subject signs a declaration of honesty after the event, the subject still lied 63% of the time.  If the subject did not sign anything at all, he lied 79% of the time.  If he signed a declaration of honesty prior to the the event, however, the dishonesty occurred at a much lower 37%.

Increasing the odds for truthfulness is important in so many areas- human resources, law enforcement interviews, buying a car, etc. Anything that improves our odds of getting honesty out of others, is worthy of consideration.

The psychology behind this phenomenon is known as Cognitive Consistency Theory.  This theory states the need to be consistent is a powerful drive in human beings.  In order to keep our belief system in alignment (psychologists refer to this state as “equilibrium”), we must act consistently.  The theory purports that the actions we take strongly influence our belief system, and not always the other way around.  Therefore, signing a declaration of honesty sets in motion the need to be honest.  This need to be consistent can be used to your advantage.  It is also a powerful driving force behind some negative situations such as confirmation bias, which is the tendency to seek out and emphasize information that supports an established belief while under valuing or outright ignoring facts and information that are counter to that previously established belief.

A similar and more well known psychological phenomenon, Cognitive Dissonance Theory, holds that when our actions do not match our belief system, we experience internal conflict.  This conflict must be resolved to reestablish equilibrium.  Edward Snowden’s NSA situation is likely a result of a strong sense of internal conflict (dissonance) brought on by the fact that he was acting (in his role for the NSA) in a way that did not align with his beliefs.  In order to bring himself back to balance, he had to act just as strongly in the opposite direction.  I am not advocating Snowden’s actions.  His actions appear to be strong example of dissonance.  (Of course, there could be another reason for Snowden’s decisions. I’m simply theorizing without all of the facts of his case here for illustrative purposes.)

If your subject is showing signs of discomfort beyond those expected for the situation (and what is known for that person, if any), then he might be experiencing dissonance.  His discomfort is possibly being brought on by the need to act (tell you a lie) in a way that is in conflict with what he believes (knows).  Your applicant may be telling you he is a punctual, hard working and detail-oriented person while knowing he has had problems with his work ethic in the past.

An important point to keep in mind, however, is the risk vs. reward decision process occurring with your subject.  If you are interviewing a murder suspect, who is looking at life in prison or the death penalty, it is considerably less likely to get the confession out of him simply because he signed a declaration of honesty prior to making his statement.  However, it won’t hurt.  The strategy can be a first step in moving toward a successful interview.  A subject’s motivation is an important factor and must considered, if known.  As is well established, our moral standing erodes when faced with strong temptation.  For example, if you find a wallet with $1 in it, returning it to the owner is not a big decision.  Turning in a lost bag with several $100 bills in it to the police is a much more difficult choice to make.

If you do not have the opportunity to have a subject sign a declaration of honesty, or anti-fraud statement, you can swear him in or simply reiterate to him the importance of honesty in the upcoming procedure and get him to verbally agree on the importance of being truthful.  This will help put him on the right path.  During the interview, thank him repeatedly for his honesty.

Scout's honor

Scout’s honor

Signing the declaration of honesty is a great tactic to encourage the truth. Add it to your hiring process, interviewing strategy or wherever you can best use it to increase the odds in your favor. Good luck!

Follow me on Twitter! @RyanMannWVMMA

Behavioral cues to deception

There are many cues to deception, a lot of which are discussed here on this blog.  They run the gamut from eye movement, facial expressions, word choice, paralanguage and so on.  In this entry, however, I am going to discuss an indicator that is a bit broader.  Overcompensating behavior.

In his excellent book, You can read Anyone (Viter Press, 2007), Dr. David Lieberman addresses this behavioral cue.  When an individual is trying to manipulate your perception of him (deception) he will act in a way that is in direct contradiction to how he really feels.  A suspect being interviewed by a detective may slouch, yawn and attempt to look overly relaxed.  This is a dead give away.  Most anyone being questioned by police regarding a crime, whether innocent or guilty, should not be displaying that kind of body language, as some nervousness is expected and normal behavior for the situation.

Slouching in intense situations can indicate overcompensation.

Slouching in intense situations can indicate overcompensation.

When we are trying to manage other’s perception of us, we become very self aware.  Our focus is primarily on what we are doing and how it should look to others.  There is no better place to see this type of posturing than at a poker table. The player who has a strong hand does not want to scare off other players, so he acts like he is pensive, taking his time to push his chips in.  He is engaging in perception management.  Conversely, the player who is bluffing, wants to give the impression of supreme confidence in his hand and may throw his chips into the pot very quickly as if to say “I can’t wait to take this pot!”.

Call this guy's bluff.

Call this guy’s bluff.

When trying to pull off a deception in a high stakes situation, we become anxious. This causes our actions to be mechanical, stiff and awkward.  Anxiety often affects physical action by altering how movements are calibrated and adjusted based on perceptual information. It can also affect movement execution directly. Under anxiety, the excitability of the corticospinal motor tract (The corticospinal tract conducts impulses from the brain to the spinal cord that make possible the execution of precise voluntary movements) is increased in order to more quickly respond to a threat, and this leads to higher levels of muscle activation and more force production (Nieuwenhuys & Oudejans, 2011).  Anxiety will cause an incongruence in gestures.  While our deceiver is attempting to look relaxed and calm, his gestures will betray him through his lack of smoothness in movements.  Anytime there is incongruence between what it said and what is shown, the truth is more likely to be what is shown.  He may say he is calm and confident, but his movements display a nervousness.  Your best bet is to believe he is nervous.

When someone is engaging in overcompensating behavior, you will often get a gut feeling that something is awry.  Anxiety will cause the timing and fluidity of his gestures to be off. His eye movement will often increase and he will possibly look rapidly from side to side (Day, 1964).  Stop and take a minute to see if the subject’s movements are smooth and truly comfortable.  Look to see how much eye darting is going on. Slow down and let the anxiety the subject is truly feeling, but does not want you to see, manifest within.  Perception management is tough act to keep up for any length of time.  This is even more so when the stakes are elevated.

If you are nervous and in a situation that would make anyone nervous, don’t try to fake it!  That doesn’t mean to let your nerves overtake you, as you should attempt calm yourself and keep your composure,  It just means deal with your nerves honestly and do not concern yourself with perception management.  Instead concern yourself primarily with managing your emotions.  Once your emotions are properly managed, the signals you give off will not be the fake, overcompensating displays of a deceiver, but instead an honest and true body language that commands respect.