The moment you discover someone is lying or has lied to you, the trust is broken and you then find yourself second guessing everything that person has said from that moment on (and anything they may have told you previously). We have all been lied to at some point in our life and I’m sure we have all told a little “porky pie” at some point too. It doesn’t have had to been harmful or hurtful, it could be something as simple as a charming compliment “you look like you’ve lost a lot of weight” (when they clearly haven’t) or “I’m so glad your football team won today” (even though they are your arch rivals).
In this months piece, I want to talk about some skills I learnt many years ago in the British Army during my time as a Prisoner Handler, Tactical Questioner & Interrogator (quite a mouthful I know, try saying it after a few beers too). These are the very skills that I now often find myself using in my role today as a “Hunter” on Channel 4’s BAFTA nominated programmes, Hunted and Celebrity Hunted. A show which sees myself and a group of leading experts from the police, security services and military, track down fugitives on the run trying to evade us for their share of a £100K cash prize. Everyday brings new challenges as myself and my partner on the show Danni Brooke, one of the UK’s most experienced covert cops test our skills and tactics against those that think they can outwit us in a real life game of “Man Hunt” (sorry...”Person Hunt”...*sexist disclaimer in).
As you can imagine during the 25 days of tracking down these fugitives we have to interact with their families, friends, close associates, work colleagues and more. Many of them want their fugitive friend to win, some will stop at nothing to help them and others simply don’t care what happens and see us as a hindrance to their daily life and business. Our job is to find clues and follow up lines of enquiry to further our investigations in hope of eliminating them from the show with a successful capture or clean sweep.
We come across many people who naturally want to mislead us, throw us off scent and hinder our progress in anyway they can through lies, deceit and any other method they can use to give their fugitive the best chance of winning a big sack of dosh.
So how do we spot those that are telling the truth from those who are pulling the wool over our eyes? Well it’s certainly not easy but here are so tips and tricks I have learnt through both my military training and working with the UK’s elite on the programme.
When it comes to detecting lies, people often focus on body language “tells,” or subtle physical and behavioral signs that reveal deception. Some of the standard suggestions are that shifty eyes, constant fidgeting, sweaty palms and avoiding eye contact are sure fire signs that the speaker is not telling the truth.
While body language cues can offer clues to deceptions, research suggests that many of the most expected behaviours are not strongly associated with lying as such.
Most people I come across like to believe that they are pretty good at detecting lies, and folk wisdom suggests a wide variety of ways to root out dishonesty. I would say though that generally people being interviewed or questioned under pressure will show signs of discomfort or displeasure anyway due to the sheer unnatural nature of these types of scenarios. Although language can be useful and should be observed, it can not be relied upon completely to detect lies that’s for sure. Some people are also very good liars and will be familiar with all of the above too.
Ask Them to Tell Their Story in Reverse
Lie detection is often seen as a passive process. People often assume that they can just observe the potential liar’s body language and facial expressions to spot obvious “tells” as we have just mentioned. While research has shown that this is a far from the best way to detect lies, taking a more active approach to uncovering lies can yield better results in my experience.
I have found that one of the most effective methods to detect deception or lies is to increase the mental load on the subject. For example, asking people to recite their stories in reverse order rather than chronological order can increase the accuracy significantly of lie detection. When I was questioning suspected terrorists, enemy combatants or prisoners in the Army I discovered that the verbal and non-verbal clues that distinguish between lying and truth-telling become more apparent as cognitive load increases.
Lying is far more mentally taxing than telling the truth. If you add even more cognitive complexity, behavioral cues may become more apparent. Not only is telling a lie more cognitively demanding, but liars typically exert much more mental energy toward monitoring their behaviors and evaluating the responses of others. They are concerned with their credibility and ensuring that other people believe their stories. All this takes a considerable amount of effort, so if you throw in a difficult task (like relating their story in reverse order), cracks in the story and behavior tells often start to appear and also become much easier to spot.
This sort of active approach to lie detection can be particularly useful in law enforcement or military type situations where a formal interview or Q and A is in play, but perhaps less appropriate in every day life such as in business or love.
Trust Your Instincts
Having studied and practiced the art of detecting deception as part of my studies at university in criminology, which was part of my BA (Hons) in Security & Risk Management. My personal research and experience taught me that your immediate gut reactions might be more accurate than any conscious lie detection method you might attempt to utilise.
Chances are your intuition is often spot-on when you get that feeling someone is telling you a lie. There’s that uneasy inner feeling that things somehow just don’t add up. Usually this is because what the person is saying to us and their body language is at odds and they are sending us mixed signals. Our intuition then kicks in as it is usually far more observant than we are in reading contrary messages. Psychologists are always telling us that 93% of all communication is non-verbal! So, if your intuition is saying that someone isn’t being straight with you, what are the other signs to look for that backs this up?
* Truth tellers mostly go straight to the point as they have nothing to hide. If you are being given a long winded explanation with lots of detours but little specific details or facts this could indicate the person is trying to deflect your attention from the truth
* Liars tend to fall back on denial as in ‘I wasn’t cheating’ or ’I don’t know what you’re talking about’ as opposed to statements like ‘I’m in a relationship with you, not anyone else’. Typically they put things back on you – ‘You’re paranoid’, ‘You know how you always react’, ‘This is the reason I didn’t tell you this’
* Liars will often try to deflect you or change the subject quickly. Watch out for statements such as ‘You know how it is with my work’ or ‘I’ve had a hard day and now you’re interrogating me’
* General terms are another heads-up the truth may be getting stretched – buzz words to watch out for are ‘always’. ‘never’, ‘obviously’, ‘everyone’ and ‘nobody’
* If someone isn’t telling the truth they are thinking of ways to disguise it. This means they have to come up with a plausible sounding excuse which takes time. If someone starts speaking more slowly or takes longer than usual to reply this is another sign they may not be telling you the truth
* Not telling you something you need to or are entitled to know is the same as lying despite what the other party may claim
* Despite what you may think or have hear, when someone is lying to you they may make eye contact – as we said early liars do not always avoid meeting your gaze but they may not be giving too much away by coming across as restless, nervous, twitchy or start fiddling with something, so pay attention to the rest of the clues and not just their body language, it’s a common myth and doesn’t reveal as much as you may think.
The fact is, none of us like being lied to. When we find out we have been this makes us feel gullible, stupid and insecure as trust in the other person is destroyed quickly. Follow up on your intuition with these tips and above all, if you know you are being lied to, try to be as non-confrontational as possible in your responses – although this can be hard. Statements such as ‘ I always give you the courtesy of telling you the truth and all I ask is the same in return’ or ‘I don’t know why you feel I cannot handle the non-edited version of events’ may serve you better than out and out statements such as ‘You’re a liar!’. Unfortunately, liar’s pants are rarely on fire so let your intuition guide you when it comes to discovering the truth.
In reality, there is no universal sign that someone is lying. All of the signs, behaviors, and indicators that researchers have linked to lying are simply clues that might reveal whether a person is being forthright (or not). So the next time you are trying to gauge the veracity of an individual's story, stop looking at the clichéd “lying signs” and learn how to spot more subtle behaviors that might be linked to deception. When necessary, take a more active approach by adding pressure and make telling the lie more mentally taxing, this is where people trip up more often that not when they have something to hide.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, trust your instincts. You might have a great intuitive sense of honesty versus dishonesty. Learn to heed those gut feelings, you know a lot more than you think, I promise you!