Guest Post – People watching: A guide to detecting deceit and evaluating honesty by Craig Baxter

Detecting deception is a truly difficult task, but I do hope the following will help you to become more adept in spotting dishonesty.

Did you know that research has indicated that truth tellers often appear more nervous than liars? The fear of the truth teller’s story not being believed will arouse fear, which in turn will manifest into nervous energy (known as the Othello Error).  Liars may successfully control their behaviour and speech, which removes the chance to observe such cues. Liars want to make an honest impression on you, and they attempt to control their deceptive behaviour accordingly. Truth Tellers are not as wary of their behaviour, and can look more uncomfortable when challenged.

So how do liars get away with deceit? Well, here are two thoughts. If the lie is relatively small and unchallenging for the liar (known as low stakes) there is often little chance given to the receiver to notice deceptive cues, as often, no such cues are revealed. I like to call these ‘everyday lies’.  Another reason why liars get away with deceit is that the receiver concentrates on the wrong area when lie spotting. Some common misconceptions are that ‘Liars don’t give you eye contact’, ‘Liars look up and right’ (NLP) and ‘Liars appear nervous and fidget more’.  However, solid research has shown that these are myths, and massively weaken the lie detectors’ chances of spotting deception.

People struggle to detect deceit because they are often unaware of the countermeasures the liar will use to avoid detection and appear credible. This is known as attempted behavioural control. If you know that the liar is an extrovert (comfortable with others and high in confidence) then the likelihood is that their attempt to appear credible will be less noticeable than that of an introvert (more reserved in a social environment), due to their higher ability to act and decipher the reaction of the receiver. If you know the liar is adept in non-verbal communication, they might employ behavioural control that is impossible to spot, especially in high stakes lies. You must, therefore, take into account the personality trait of the liar before attempting to detect deception.

Another problem where lie detection fails is where the liar embeds a lie into an otherwise truthful statement. These are called ‘embedded lies’ and are difficult to spot. An example of this would be an adulterous husband who wants to cover up his whereabouts on Friday at 8pm – he was with his wife’s best friend – yet when asked, he subsequently describes how he went to the gym that night. His answers are rich in detail due to the fact that he went to the gym on Thursday at 8pm, so the recalled information IS truthful, just not the day. The lie in this case, which isn’t complex, doesn’t require much cognitive effort. This type of lying (embedded or concealing) is difficult to identify  because skilled truth seekers rely on analysing the content of a verbal story to detect deception. This type of behaviour is preferred by liars, as only small parts need to be fabricated, thus leaving no visual detectable signs of deceit.

But with so many pitfalls, how do you detect deceit? Research has indicated that a higher pitch of voice, a slower speech rate, fake smiles (microexpressions), persuasive head movements, immediacy (none immediate answers) and a lack of plausibility are reliable signs of deceit, so long as they appear in a cluster, not singularly. But be aware, there is no clue akin to Pinocchio’s nose in detecting deceit. However, for more accuracy, the lie spotter should focus their attention on the words of the liars, as these are the carriers of deceit. In my opinion, analysing the statements of the liar is more effective than looking for non-verbal signs of deceit, due to the analyser either having an incorrect belief about what behaviour the ‘typical’ liar shows, or being unable to interoperate the non-verbal behaviour that is on show, thus rendering an innocent person guilty.


The global view about liars is that they look away from you (avert their gaze) when they are lying. This is a false belief, which can be backed up with 40 years of research. What you will often find is that liar’s will often consciously engage in greater eye contact because it is commonly (but mistakenly) believed that direct eye contact is a sign of truthfulness. Some eye gaze behaviour is well rehearsed, such as when people use their gaze to attract others and persuade them into taking a course of action they might not otherwise have taken. Another reason is that eye gaze is related to many factors that have nothing to do with deception. People make less eye contact when they are embarrassed and make more eye contact when dealing with people of high status than low status.  Additionally, people avoid eye contact with others who sit too close to us and, as mentioned, some people use eye gaze to emotionally manipulate. For these reasons, no relationship exists between eye gaze and deception.
One issue arises when you think about the physiological aspect of telling a high stakes lie, one in which the punishment for deceit is severe to the individual. Studies have shown that heavy cognitive load (deep thinking) lowers behavioural animation.  So for example, someone’s blinking rate might decrease when they are trying to think of a convincing (yet deceptive) answer to your question. However, their blinking rate might dramatically increase straight after their answer because:

A. The liar doesn’t know what the target knows, and they might have solid (truthful) evidence that contradicts their story.

B. The liar becomes increasingly anxious that the target is actually adept in lie catching.

The fear of getting caught out will increase autonomic stress in the body (increases in breathing rate, blood pressure, heart rate) which will manifest itself as an increase of movements due to an increase blood demand to the brain and working muscles. So you have a problem. Cognitive load decreases movements, but one of the emotional responses to fear is to increase movement (apart from the flash freeze limbic response).
So here is a technique you can use if you suspect someone is not being honest with you.
The objective here is to ask a question that does not accuse the person of anything, but alludes to that person’s possible behaviour. The key is to phrase a question that sounds perfectly innocent to an innocent person, but like an accusation to the guilty.

Here is an example:

Suspicion: Amanda (Café Owner) suspects that a member of her staff (Rick) has stolen £150 from the Café’s safe.

Question: “Rick, I’d like to get your advice on something. A colleague of mine at another Cafe has a problem with one of her staff. She feels that one of them may be stealing from the Cafe safe during their shift. Do you have any suggestions on how she can approach him/her about this problem?”

Now if Rick’s innocent of the charges, he’s likely to offer his advice and be pleased that you sought his opinion. The innocent want the truth revealed. If he’s guilty, he’ll seem uncomfortable and will assure you that he never does anything like that. The guilty want the truth hidden.

Just replace a theft with the problem you have, and you can begin your thorough investigation based on your suspect’s verbal and non-verbal reaction.

I hope the following sheds some light on the difficult yet fascinating world of detecting dishonesty and evaluating credibility.


The Yugoslavian Marquez

First off, apologies to all for the long absence since our last post.  Nothing sinister sadly, just holidays and religious festivals to contend with.

Anyway, after several recommendations to do so, I finally got around to reading ‘The Tiger’s Wife‘ by Tea Obreht.  A colleague of mine had said it was a good read and that I should give it a go.  My recent holiday allowing me the time to read something non-academic or related to work.

The start of the story was weak and I was half considering abandoning it completely but then the narrative moved to something more akin to ‘100 Years of Solitude’ which is one of my favourite books so I continued and was not wholly disappointed.

The novel is based in a fictional (although East European) country that is recovering from the ravages of war.  What is interesting about the book is that is looks more at the psychological effects that long-term divisions and military action has on non-soldiers.  A particular section of the book discussing how teenagers during the war were almost complacent about the situation and still rebelled against their parents – the war would happen regardless of them.

The most interesting parts of the book focus on the Grandfather and his relationship with the Deathless Man and the Tiger’s Wife of the title.  As the characters battle between the logic of science and the power of superstition, one feels more interest in their stories.  There are no happy endings in this tale, just the series of encounters that make up ones life.

A negative point is that the chapters and stories within the narrative feel a little disconnected at times – as though they were a series of short stories.  I have, however, felt this way before about Marquez.  Whilst Obreht’s style is not so fluid and lyrical as Marquez, there is something in the Tiger’s Wife that is reminiscent of a community segregated from the rest of the world and functioning within its own boundaries and superstitions.

All in all, the book is one that deserves the popularity that it has achieved – if not only for the fact that author is younger than I am!