Tips from the CIA for Detecting Lies

Oct 30, 2012
9 Min Read

There’s an episode of the old “Gilligan’s Island” television show where the castaways eat seeds that make mind reading possible. While it seems fun at first, the Gilligan gang soon finds out that sometimes it’s best not to know what everyone is thinking all the time.

But wouldn’t you like to know what your boss is thinking? Wouldn’t you like to know whether someone at work is telling you the truth or not?

There may be a way to do that without eating some seeds on a fictional island.

If you take the advice of some of the best lie detectors in the world – CIA officers – then you may be able to glean when the boss is fibbing about giving you a raise or a co-worker is lying about meeting a deadline. Such information can be helpful in making career decisions and avoiding missteps that can get you off the fast track.

In a new book, “Spy the Lie,” three former CIA officers share decades of experience in recognizing deceptive behavior and how you can apply their methods to everyday work situations.

One of the authors, Michael Floyd, has spent 35 years finding the truth for the CIA and the National Security Agency. While he says that you don’t want to use these methods to decide who is lying about a romantic weekend liaison while gossiping around the water cooler, it can come in handy in more critical work situations, such as a job interview or to discover who may be cheating on an expense report.

The authors stress that the average person often doesn’t detect untruths because he or she believes that others simply won’t lie or they are just uncomfortable judging someone else. In addition, sometimes we rely on beliefs by others that a person is honest, so we don’t look deeply enough and take everything at face value, they say.

“We’re not human lie detectors,” Floyd says of his fellow authors, Philip Houston and Susan Carnicero. “But we’ve developed a method to help spot deceptions based on our experiences, in real-world situations.”

One of the indicators that a person may be lying is a “cluster” of behavior. Exhibiting what’s considered one suspicious action isn’t enough to show someone is being deceitful, they say, but several clues should put up your radar.

Listening for lies

Some of the verbal cues that someone is not being truthful include:

  • Failing to answer.  Dodging a direct answer to your question may indicate the person is trying to come up with a good answer because he or she doesn’t want to admit the truth.
  • Denial.  If you ask someone, “Did you do it?” and he or she answers with “I didn’t do it,”  “It was not me,” or “I didn’t do anything,” instead of a simple “no,” consider that significant.  Giving such answers are a way for the person to psychologically avoid an out-and-out lie.
  • Repeating the question. This helps buy the person time while he or she formulates a lie.
  • Attacking. “Why are you wasting my time with this stuff?” can be a way to attack the person asking questions when the liar feels backed into a corner. He or she may try to impeach your character or abilities.
  • Being too specific. Sometimes a liar may try to “technically” be correct while skirting the truth and provide too much information to create a “halo” effect as they try to manage your perception of them.
  • Being too polite. Complimenting you on a great tie or saying “yes, sir” in response to only one question may indicate the person is trying to get you to like him so that you’re more likely to believe him.
  • Bringing up religion. Psychologists call it “dressing up the lie” when someone being questioned starts talking about God. Look for phrases such as “I swear to God” or “As God is my witness,” which may indicate they’re “dressing up the lie.”

Looking for lies

There are also nonverbal cues that can indicate someone is being less that truthful. It’s important, the authors note, to consider only those cues that come in direct response to your questions. For example:

  • Watch for disconnects. If the person nods affirmatively while responding “no” or shakes his head negatively while saying “yes” then that’s a disconnect, which can be an indication of deceptive behavior.
  • Hiding. There’s a natural inclination to cover a lie, so someone telling an untruth may cover her mouth or eyes.  The same clue can be given when the person simply shuts her eyes while answering, indicating on a subconscious level that she doesn’t want to see the reaction to her lie.
  • Touching the face. Licking lips and pulling on lips or ears can be an indication of a lie. Why? A person’s flight-or-fight response can kick in while lying, prompting blood to rush to certain areas and trigger a sensation of cold or itching.
  • Moving anchor points.  Anchor points are those areas that keep someone in a particular spot or position. A person standing uses feet as anchor points, while a person in a chair is using the buttocks as an anchor point. Once those anchor points start shifting, it can be a sign of deceptive behavior. The authors note they often place interviewees in a swivel chair because it can become a “behavioral amplifier” and make anchor point movements easier to spot.
  • Grooming. A man might adjust his tie or a woman straighten her skirt or move her hair when responding to a question. They may even begin to tidy the area. Such gestures in response to a particular question can indicate deception.

Finally, Floyd says one of the best ways to make sure you’re getting all the information you need is to ask a catch-all question, such as “Is there anything else I need to know about this incident?”

“You can’t think of every question to ask, and they may not tell you if you don’t ask directly,” he says. “They often give you some very good information.”

What are some ways you have combated lying?  Let us know in the comment section!

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