Sanctuary for the Abused
Sunday, September 17, 2017
How to tell when you’re not being told the straight story
By Cynthia Hubert
You think you can tell when he’s lying.
His eyes dart back and forth. He can’t keep his hands still. He stutters and stumbles over his words.
Deception is written all over him, right? Not necessarily.
Nailing a fibber is not nearly as easy or instinctive as most people think, say scientists, authors and other keen observers of the art of deception.
“There is no simple checklist,” says Gregory Hartley, a former military interrogator who applies the techniques he used on enemy combatants in a new book for civilians, “How To Spot a Liar.”
But with a little practice, Hartley insists, you, too, can become a human lie detector.
It is a skill that has challenged us through the ages, says Dallas Denery, a professor of medieval history at Bowdoin College in Maine who is working on a book about the history of lying. “The problem of lies and liars has been with us forever,” he says. “In the Judeo-Christian tradition, history really begins with a lie, with Adam and Eve and the serpent.”
Fast forward to modern times and a 2002 study suggesting that most people lie in everyday conversation. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts observed people talking for 10 minutes and found that 60 percent of them lied at least once, telling an average of two to three fibs. Some of the lies were benign, but others were extreme, including one person who falsely claimed to be a rock star.
“We didn’t expect lying to be such a common part of daily life,” one of the researchers, Robert Feldman, observed after the study was published.
Over the years, CIA agents, police detectives, psychologists, lawyers and others have tried a variety of methods to identify liars, from polygraph machines to “voice stress analysis” to analysis of barely perceptible facial movements that can give away hidden feelings. None of the techniques has been foolproof.
And the search for the truth continues. The science of liars and lying remains a hot topic in research circles, and book after book offers the latest theory about how to tell when a spouse is cheating, a witness is lying in court or a car salesman is overstating the value of a vehicle.
Check out just a few of the titles on the subject at www.amazon.com: “Lies and Liars: Pinocchio’s Nose and Less Obvious Clues,” “Liar! A Critique of Lies and the Act of Lying,” “When Your Lover Is a Liar,” and “The Concise Book of Lying.” It’s enough to shatter your trust in humanity.
John Mayoue, an Atlanta divorce lawyer who has represented famous clients - including Jane Fonda in her breakup with Ted Turner - says lying is rampant in his business.
“In the courtroom, there is no end to the lying, particularly if money is at stake,” Mayoue says. “The more money, the bigger the lies.”
The greatest lie in relationships, he says, is “Honey, I love you but I’m no longer in love with you. That’s someone’s way of saying they’re cheating on you.”
The Internet culture has made lying practically a sport, Mayoue observes. “You just have to assume that you’re in the midst of a liar’s ball when you’re online,” he says. “It’s a fantasy realm. I can’t see you. I can’t look at signals. I can’t test you. There is no verification.”
In court and in daily life, Mayoue believes, a person’s eyes tell the truest story.
“Looking at someone in an unwavering manner and answering the question is very telling,” he says. “When I see eyes shift side to side and up and down, it just causes suspicion.”
Hartley, the former interrogator, agrees that body language can hint at deception. But not always, he says. “Your eyes drift naturally when you’re searching for information,” he says. “I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t move their eyes when looking for details.”
The key to uncovering a lie, he says, is knowing how the liar behaves normally, when he or she is relaxed, and picking up on changes in voice patterns, eye movement and other body language.
“You’ve got to ask the right questions, then observe how that person responds,” Hartley says.
Signs of stress, which may signal that someone is lying, include flared nostrils and audible breathing, shaky hands and elbows moving closer to the ribs, according to Hartley.
“Stress does horrible things to our brains,” he says. “Stress hormones can virtually turn off your brain and make you become reactive.”
For the most notorious liars, the tendency to fib may be biological, suggests a study by researchers at the University of Southern California.
Pathological liars, the scientists found, have structural differences in their brains that could affect their abilities to feel remorse and learn moral behavior and might give them an advantage in planning deceitful strategies, the researchers discovered. Other scientists have suggested that pathological liars owe their behavior to the psychiatric diagnoses known as narcissism or sociopathy, and may truly believe their own falsehoods.
But the average, everyday fibber lies to achieve a goal, says communication expert Laurie Puhn, author of the best-selling book “Instant Persuasion, How To Change Your Words To Change Your Life.” Most people lie to avoid hurting someone’s feelings, to avoid a commitment or a task, to cover up bad behavior or to elevate themselves professionally or personally, she says.
Puhn advises people who suspect someone is lying to ask unexpected questions, look for contradictions in their statements and ask a follow-up question a couple of days later about the suspected lie.
“If someone says they had to work late to deal with a new client and you are suspicious, ask them about it a week later,” she says. “They’re likely to answer, ‘What new client?’ It’s hard for liars to keep their lies straight.”
Bettyanne Bruin, who parlayed her experiences with a former partner into a book and a support group for people who have been deceived, says the first step toward detecting a liar is overcoming denial.
“People tend to ignore the red flags,” says Bruin, author of “Shattered: Six Steps From Betrayal to Recovery.” “Their gut tells them what is going on, but they really do want to believe the best about the person they love.”
The most critical sign that a partner is lying, she says, is defensiveness.
“Liars are very defensive when you question them,” says Bruin. “They will become very resistant and angrier and angrier upon each attempt to probe.” Often, she says, they make their partners feel guilty about questioning them. “They’ll say, ‘You’re being unreasonable,’ or ‘Why are you treating me this way?’ ”
Types of lies
Joseph Tecce, an associate professor of psychology at Boston College who has studied liars and lying, identifies six types of untruths, some more egregious than others.
He classifies them as:
The ‘protective’ lie, which can shield the liar from danger.
The ‘heroic’ lie, created to protect someone else from danger or punishment.
The ‘playful’ lie, such as an angler’s fib about the size of his fish.
The ‘ego’ lie, designed to shield someone from embarrassment.
The ‘gainful’ lie, which somehow enriches the fibber.
And the ‘malicious’ lie, told to deliberately hurt someone else.