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 http://www.bodylanguagelearning.org.uk/  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.

Addressing eye movement in deception

When addressing myths of lie detection, one of the most common examples is that liars tend to avoid eye contact.  Many deception experts and body language specialists advise that this is not the case.  The more seasoned professionals tend to state that avoiding eye contact can be an indicator of deception if it is a deviation from the subject’s behavioral norm, or baseline.  If the subject’s baseline behavior is known, then this is a very agreeable assertion.  Knowing another person’s baseline is difficult in many settings such as a job interview.  This is where the interviewer’s skill comes into play.

Avoiding eye contact may or may not indicate deception. Isn't that helpful?

Avoiding eye contact may or may not indicate deception. Isn’t that helpful?

The best strategy when it comes to gaze aversion (looking away) and how it plays into deception is to notice any sudden change in response to a specific stimulus (question, photograph, etc.).  If you know you are about to present an important question or present key evidence to a subject, look for their first reaction.  It should be the most honest one.  After you ask your relevant question and the subject suddenly looks away, while every or most prior questions have not drawn that response, then you have likely detected an area that is sensitive and needs to be further explored. Keep in mind, no single conclusion can be drawn from any single indicator.  You may have spotted an area that is sensitive, but there is more work to do.

Another theory about how the eyes give away lies comes from Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP).  The theory states that where they eyes go indicates the subject’s thought processes.

Screen shot 2013-12-15 at 9.10.01 AM

Looking at the diagram (Visual Access Cues) above, NLP states if the subject is looking upward to her left, she is recalling something she saw.  Conversely, if she is looking upward to her right she is constructing or imagining something.  As the diagram indicates, looking straight left is remembering something heard (such as a conversation) and straight right indicates the imagining of a sound.  Down and to the left is known as deep thought or internal dialogue (talking to herself) and down and right is recalling a feeling.

The premise behind using NLP in deception is that if a subject is lying about what she saw, her eyes will go up and to her right (if she is right handed). If she is telling the truth, her eyes will go up and to her left.

These indicators of deception are very controversial and for good reason.  If, for instance, your suspect has rehearsed her false story and is recalling that rehearsal, her eyes may go up and to her left indicating recall and you will incorrectly conclude she is being honest.  The best way to deploy this model, in my opinion, is to see if your subject displays visual access cues in response to easy questions.  If you want to see if her recall is to the upper left, ask her who was at her wedding reception or some other control question that she should remember but requires recall.  And then do the same for an imaginary question.  If you get a solid read on where her eyes go, you may be able to use that information down the line.

One of my college professors would memorize his lectures.  The entire time he was speaking, he eyes were locked in the upper left position, indicating recall.  There is some value to understanding and being aware of visual access cues, but proceed cautiously.  If you cannot get a solid read on a person’s use of visual access cues, move on and find other indicators.

There is an abundance of research that concludes eye movement is not a reliable indicator of deception, and that research should be respected.  That being said, you can glean some information from the eyes, but it is very important to not overstate the relevance of your observation.  Besides, there are many other stronger indicators of deception that should be available (if your subject is indeed being dishonest).  That being said, experiment with visual access cues and come to your own conclusion.  I have found that many people do indeed use visual access cues, but not with the frequency that I am comfortable with in using the cue as an indicator to deception.