Posted Feb. 11, 2008 -- How can you tell when your lawyer is lying to you? According to the old joke, it's when his lips are moving.
Dr. Charles Ford, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of Alabama Birmingham, says the average person lies to others once or twice a day. How can you tell when you're being deceived?
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Most of the clues we've been taught to look for are pretty much useless unless you know how the person acts when they're not lying, says Dr. Paul Ekman, a professor of psychology at the University of California-San Francisco and the author of 'Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics and Marriage.'
And he cautions against attributing too much meaning to shifty eyes or squirming – especially when the stakes are high – for two reasons. First: because even though this kind of nonverbal communication reliably signals emotion, that emotion could just as well be fear of being disbelieved as fear of being caught lying. And second, because Ekman finds that one group in particular excels at making their speech and body language very sincere: pathological liars.
Ekman also shatters the myth that you can't trust a fast-talker. In fact he contends that the opposite is greater cause for suspicion. "The most common vocal deception clues are pauses and speech errors," he says.
"These occur either because the liar may not have worked out his or her lie ahead of time, or because even if they did expect to lie, they did not anticipate your particular question."
Ekman offers a few more tips for sharpening your B.S. detector:
1. Know their baseline behavior.
Many years of research have proven that it's incredibly difficult to know if someone is lying unless you have prior exposure to his or her baseline behavior and know how they normally act.
Be wary of making important deals with people until you've gotten to know them. Watch the person in a variety of situations to ascertain their normal speech patterns, gestures and facial expressions. Then see if those patterns change under questioning.
Also, avoid entering into agreements over the phone. Studies show people are most likely to lie via telephone.
2. Establish rapport.
Get them relaxed and comfortable. Subtly mimic their posture and movements; speak in their style. This will relax them and wear down their guard.
3. Ask for minute details.
Liars hate to give detail and often are evasive. Though con artists normally rehearse their lies and may look completely at ease answering your questions; ask for a lot of specifics. It will be difficult for them to remember what they told you, and they'll eventually trip themselves up. You may want to interrupt them with an unrelated question while they're in the midst of their story, then bring them back to their explanation and see how well it hangs together.
4. Watch for "false" facial expressions.
According to Ekman, even the most practiced liars are unable to produce the minute movements in the upper part of the face that naturally come when certain emotions are felt. For example, if someone truly feels fear or sadness their forehead will crease. And when people are genuinely happy, their eye muscles will be involved in their smile. Ekman also says a sign that someone is feigning an emotion is that the facial expressions or onset or offset of the emotion is too abrupt.
5. Give them an out.
Finally, make it easy for them to tell you the truth. Never show surprise or a negative reaction. Pretend you either didn't hear them correctly or didn't understand what they said. Always leave a way out so they can recant their words and tell you the truth!
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