How I specifically detect lies – by ‘a human lie detector’

[This guest post is by Eyes for Lies who has a rare ability to discern lies from the truth. After studying deception for several decades, scientists have tested more than 15,000 people and only identified 50 people who can discern lies from the truth with great accuracy. Eyes for Lies is one of these human lie detectors , or “wizards of deception detection”. (Wizards are at least 80% accurate, but no wizard is 100%.) In her blog she applies her skills to current high-profile cases. Her exceptional accuracy is there for all to see.]

How I specifically detect lies

At first, I thought that my decision-making process and determination of a who was lying was all subconscious, because I called a liar within seconds to minutes. But after looking back and forcing myself to think out loud for over a year now, I’ve realized that there are processes that I use to detect a liar that I can consciously recollect. The processes are not set in stone like A, B, C, but rather they are random and only drawn upon when needed.

Regardless, I still process a lot of information within seconds, and I have no explanation for how I do it. I suspect it is due to my innate ability.

Most of the time, it takes me less than three minutes to determine if someone is lying when they are asked direct questions. Sometimes I can spot a liar in 20-30 seconds. However, there are times when it can take up to 10 minutes or longer.

The reason for the delay in making a call is that some liars don’t lie right away, or worse, they are pathological. Pathological liars are the trickiest of people to read, because they are without emotion and without remorse. When someone doesn’t feel remorse, nor display any emotions, I lose 50% of my clues. Furthermore, if a pathological liar is highly intelligent, he won’t mess up his facts, which makes it almost impossible for anyone to catch his falsehoods. It is the pathological liars who are highly intelligent who most often get away with the worst crimes.

According to Dr. Maureen O’Sullivan, who studies lie detection wizards, “There are two categories of clues to a lie: thinking clues and emotional ones.” (Source: Wizards” can spot the signs of a liar, AP, Oct. 14, 2004).

To further elaborate on that, specific examples of emotional clues are facial expressions, body language and spoken words. In essence, is the person reacting normally to the circumstances? Are they truly happy? Are they truly upset? Are their facial expressions consistent with what they are saying? Are they shrugging their shoulders like they don’t know when they are actually saying yes? Is their body language consistent with their words? Do their words match their emotions? Are their actions matching their projected emotion? Are their responses appropriate for how they are feeling? Do they convey how someone should feel in their situation?

While this process may sound simple, I believe it is rather complex, because to determine a liar, you must be able to answer these questions quickly, almost without thought. For most people, it is hard to spot such inconsistencies—even given the time—but for me, this process happens instantaneously. It’s almost, if not, innate.

The second set of clues are thinking clues. Thinking clues are what liars give off when they are making up the truth or trying to tell you a story they “made up” in their head. More specific examples of thinking clues are hesitations in speech, stuttering, stammering for words, weird word order, or speaking incoherently by incorrectly choosing the wrong words or not completing sentences. Other times, liars will speed up or slow down their speech. Or a liar will confuse the facts, so when added all together, the facts won’t add up. However, one or two clues alone are not enough to call a liar; it is the compilation of all the clues—emotional and thinking—that paints the broader picture of a lie.

Microexpressions are emotional clues that deserve a subtopic of its own. Microexpressions are flashes of emotions that come across the face of an individual who is lying. If someone is trying to conceal a strong emotion, it often leaks out in 1/25th of a second. This is known as a microexpression. Over ninety percent of people don’t see these.Furthermore, according to Dr. Ekman, a facial expression expert from the University of California at San Francisco, you can’t mask your true feelings. When you are happy, you smile one way. When you are mad but pretending to be happy, the muscles you use to genuinely smile are not used and other ones are. Hence, when you wonder if you saw a fake smile, you probably did!

 In essence, you as a human do not have the power to activate your true happiness (smile) muscles unless you are truly happy. Wizards—scientifically proven human lie detectors—hone in on these falsehoods in expressions, according to Dr. O’Sullivan.

To me, Scott Peterson is famous, because I believe he was one of the first few microexpressionists I noted consciously. He tried to act sad and worried, yet he couldn’t help but flash microexpressions of glee. His expressions of glee only lasted for a fraction of a second, and most people didn’t even see them. Watch Scott Peterson’s famous Barbara Walters interview: Perhaps you will be one of the few who can spot them.

I also find I use a personality catalog in my head or personality-matching technique when trying to spot a liar. I don’t use it every time, and I don’t know specifically why I use this technique—I just do. This technique involves matching personalities of people I’ve known in the past to people I am observing now.

For example, if I notice that you have traits of someone else I’ve known in the past, my mind will immediately match you up with that person. The person’s face I have known in the past will just pop into my head without thought, and I will then consciously compare behaviors. If you are similar, you should act similarly. It’s amazingly powerful, though I must state I believe there are hundreds of different personality types. I’ve come to call this paralleling. Paralleling is something I don’t do by choice, people just pop into my head from memory without thought.

How down-to-earth are you? The more down-to-earth you are, the more likely you are to be honest. This technique allows me to hone in on the dishonesty much more quickly. So far, to date, these are the skills or techniques that I use within seconds to minutes to quickly spot a liar.

* * * * * * * *

Call for links, stories, articles where lie detection is needed. Do you know a story where you wonder what the truth is? If so, ask me. All that I need is a video clip with a headshot of the suspect talking, for preferably a few minutes.

30 thoughts on “How I specifically detect lies – by ‘a human lie detector’

  1. ‘Paralleling’ is a fascinating process. The trick, I guess is not to project prejudices/assumptions, etc. based on past experience onto the new situation, but rather to use past experience as a yardstick. Or maybe the two aren’t seperate – prejudices/assumptions based on experience have enough truth in them to be useful as yardsticks for the present.

    The nice thing here is that one can test it – was I picking up something or was I projecting?

    Very subtle!

  2. Interesting thoughts, Dr. Steve. I think it is both–depending on the level of similarity. Sometimes the people are so similar, I can be pretty confident that there is a near match. Other times, the similarities are there, but not as striking so I look for clues that confirm potential assumptions or prejudices.

    As weird as this is, my brain really parallels people for me. It’s not a complete conscious effort for me. My brain calculates data faster than I ever could and just gives me th answers so I don’t really know the ins and outs of it. I just go with it–a little more cautious some time than others. I suspect my subconscious brain is always working overtime.

  3. eyes – 1. You seem to be describing a very refined kind of empathy: the ability to imagine yourself into others’ minds (two people at a time!) and then kind of measure them up.
    2. You say, “I suspect my subconscious brain is always working overtime.” I believe this is probably true for all of us, only we don’t have as ready access to it like you do. The psychoanalyst Thomas Ogden says that we’re dreaming all the time, and that the goal of therapy is to help people dream better. By this he means having better access to the irrational – to be able to use it better (and not be so used by it.)

  4. Funny that you say that because when I discuss things with people, I almost always am thinking through the conversation from both sides–my side and theirs–simultaneously. I am always putting my feet in other people shoes. It’s natural for me to do so, and doesn’t require much effort for me. I don’t think I could stop myself from doing it, actually.

    I thought all people did this, but I have learned differently.

    Sometimes when my husband and I disagree, I will tell him after the disagreement what he could have said to me that would have stopped me dead in my tracks. I often see my own shortcomings because of it LOL.

    I do think I am very empathic, but I am also very strong-willed when I see people who want to play the sympathy card, but have little regard for others. In that light, I’m quite hard-nosed, and probably often misunderstood as cold during those times.

    Fairness rules my world, and is part of my moral compass.

  5. eyes – 1. “After the disagreement I’ll tell him” not during – that is funny. I wonder if this would be a useful exercise for couple in marital therapy.

    2. ‘Empathy’ is a very sloppily used word and you’re right to be specific. What I meant was the ability to imagine what’s going on the other, not feeling overwhelmed or sorry for or any ofthose other things. I’m actually gearing up to write a heap of posts trying to re-define empathy.

  6. Hello Dr. Steve and “Eyes for Lies” —

    I don’t know if this is of interest, but here is a link to recent scientific paper with brain imaging of people when they believe someone, when they disbelieve, or when they are uncertain.
    (The link is to a PubMed abstract, and you can click through to the full article — I think it is publicly available free).

    I remember the Scott Peterson expressions — I did get the feeling of glee — maybe the microexpressions were why.

    As far as getting on the same page in defining empathy, I think of empathy as understanding the emotions or even physical sensations of others.
    When you actually care about those feelings or sensations, that word may be “compassion”.

    Looking forward to more on this topic —

  7. Thank you very much for including me in your blogroll. I’ve added your site to my own links (under psychological perspecitves). I’m not blindly reciprocating. If I had found your site first, I would have been the first to link up.

    This post was impeccable. I’ve wondered about this topic, and I also always felt the most difficult liars to catch are the ones who are not self-critical. They have a lot of practice lying to themselves.

    Reading this also reminded me of my grandmother. When I was little, she could always look at me and tell whether or not I was telling the truth. I don’t know how she did it. But she always knew.

  8. indeterminacy – Very glad to have you on board. For readers who don’t know, is one of those internet ideas you come across and think: “Why didn’t I think of that? Brilliant!” Here’s the idea:

    The Synchronicity of Indeterminacy photo blog is to be a synchronous experiment in creativity and indeterminacy. It will feature photos randomly found via p2p sharing programs paired with an ultra-short story inspired by the found photograph. Real lives and an imagined story will be linked by that visual image captured for all eternity. Any resemblance between fantasy and reality will be a consequence of synchronicity. The idea is based on the Indeterminacy recordings by John Cage, pairing one-minute short stories with random sounds.

  9. swivelchair – Thanks for the reference – the article looks like it could have important implications.

    Thanks in particular for the word ‘compassion’. In planning for my discussion of empathy I’d got a bit stuck between ’empathy’ and ‘sympathy’. I knew the latter wasn’t the word I was looking for.

  10. There is a company in the U.S. called No Lie MRI. Have you heard of it? They are trying to move forward with fMRI for deception detection.

    My question is this: If my brain is being looked at by an fMRI, and I think I am going to lie, and then change my mind last minute, will they be able to tell that? Or, will they see all areas of the brain lit up?

    Many scientists say there needs to be many more studies done on this to prove it is effective.

    Happy Holidays!

  11. I’ve always been pretty good at reading lies. And if I think about it – there is that quick process described here. Problems have come in though because I’ve felt pressured (by society I guess?) to IGNORE that ability. And damn & blast, every time I’ve not listened to my gut, I’ve regretted it eventually, sooner or later. In fact, my ‘gut instinct’ is so invariably right it scares me sometimes. When I read “The Gift of Fear” it was SO comforting to know that I have always been on the right track after all.
    I really think a lot of people have this ability, but have shoved it aside almost because it’s not socially acceptable or something.
    Kind of like the atrophied moral muscle mentioned in another post on this blog.

    And the part about the fake smiles is so true. There’s been those times when I’ve been watching a movie and suddenly the facial expression I see is so genuine it actually strikes me like a slap in the face. Like it jumps out at me that the actor must’ve REALLY been feeling that emotiona in that moment – even if it was about something else! It doesn’t happen often, so even the best of actors obviously can’t fake it consistently on purpose.

    And that point about the split second facial expressions I’ve found to be true too.
    I also saw someone I’ve known all their life, interviewed on television news, and he was acting all serious & professional, but those of us who knew him, caught a glimpse of the expression of pure zany that flashed across his face at the moment he said one particular word. When I showed the video to people who didn’t know him, they didn’t catch it until I pointed it out. I saw it immediately. Which makes me wonder how many of us miss those glimpses on a regular basis on people we’re not familiar with.

    I heard the book “Blink” is about this type of thing, though I’ve never read the book myself.

    I also have found that I do that personality parallel type thing, also not on purpose. I don’t know that I find myself comparing people as they say or do something. Certainly not consciously. But there are often times that someone will remind me of someone else – even though they really have seemingly NOTHING in common with the other person. It’s only been recently that I’ve pinned it down to being directly related to personality disorders. Usually, that’s about the only thing they have in common – the one person who reminds me of the other. I’ve known several people, with 2 specific personality disorders, over the years, and I now realize it’s very obvious, even when you first meet someone – if you know about it. When I didn’t, they just reminded me of the last person with that same disorder. It’s like people with certain conditions are almost like they come out of a cookie cutter in some ways.

  12. chloe – Most informative, thanks. A couple of points.

    1. Do read ‘Blink’ – you’ll love it.
    (One interesting issue he raises but doesn’t really resolve, I think, is that an intuitions and prejudices both pop up immediately. The issue he doesn’t get to is how to pay more attention to the former and less to the latter.)

    2. What you say about personality disorders is right, I’m sure of it. (And not just those. I have a colleague who claims to be able to tell instantly whether someone is bipolar. It’s a particular glint in their eyes, he says.)

  13. DrSteve: OMG yes! Bipolar glint in the eye! I think it’s true!
    I never thought about this before, but upon thinking about people I know/have known with Bipolar, I think you’re onto something there.

    In fact, there’s one man I knew who, well, had more than a glint, it was almost a wild sparkle in his eyes. It was at once a bit spooky, but also humourous in a way. He was definitely disturbed, but I got to know him because I knew him in a situation where we were forced together interacting. I remember someone else musing that “maybe he’s a psychopath”, and even then I thought – no – he’s not that. Even then, I didn’t sense him to be a cold calculating person. Unstable, yes. Ruthless, no. And since then, reading what I have now about sociopaths, I know he’s not one. Definitely has “issues”. And I’ve long suspected Bipolar might be it.
    Because even now, I can’t match a personality disorder to him, and he’s not schizophrenic. What’s left? Maybe PTSD.
    But that wouldn’t explain the mania-like zoomer moods he’d have without the benefit of any chemicals (caffeine just can’t explain that level of jacked up).

    I don’t come across this guy much anymore. But forever, that’s what I’ll always remember about him. From the first time I met him, that wild glint in his eyes!

  14. chloe – Excellent description – I can see him!

    If one puts side by side two large parts of the DSM-IV one has a pretty good set of tools for getting to grips with types of folks: mood and character. Each person exists on both axes, but with some the one is what stands out. With your guy it was mood.

  15. AH, very interesting… About the mood vs. character. That’s not to say that this zany person was always of “good character”… I daresay the list of flaws someone might make might be longer than the average person. But yes, when it came right down to it, even with his questionable behaviour, that would make you suspicious of his character, if not judge him poorly, seemed to stem from mood issues, rather than actual shady or shifty motives.

    Whereas with a sociopath, that doesn’t seem the case at all, does it now.

    Anyway, I hope you’re giving a testament to my writing skills. 😉 heehee.
    Though I have to say, this guy is quite a character, and it’s rather easy to describe someone so extreme.

    I was just reminded of one situation, in a group where something was being discussed… This guy, as usual, seemed pretty hopped up (again, moreso than you can blame on a cup of high test coffee!). And he was so earnestly & fervently, and I believe in his mind, honestly, saying he wasn’t angry about something. And afterwards, this other guy, bless his soul he reminded me of an aging hippy, he very calmly & nonchalantly said, “Well, {name} SAYS he’s not angry. But I was listening to him, and thinking — but he sure SOUNDS angry to me.”
    I thought it was hilarious. Because it was true, his demeanor & tone totally betrayed his words, true or not. But I think he actually was honest because by “not angry” zany guy meant “not in a state of burning fury”. I think when overwrought is your usual state, the term “anger” would have to refer to an actual bursting rage. The good news is the last time I saw him, he seemed somewhat more calm (though still, more keyed up than the average person).

    Now thinking about it, as a photographer, I remember thinking he was an interesting subject, probably because I was hoping to catch that something we’re talking about! ha! But I don’t think I ever really did catch it. Although, ironically, I have one picture he’s in that many described as “peaceful” – but even in that, I can see something in his posture that clues you in, if you look closely.

    As it happens, this guy DEFINITELY reminded me of someone I knew. Right from the get-go meeting him I recognized the similarity as kind of spooky. But there were SO MANY things that he had in common with the other someone, that I chalked it up to that. Like hobbies & lifestyle, style of dress & looks, etc, not just personality. But maybe there was a mood connection there as well. Something to think about.

  16. Oh no, this guy had anger management issues, he admitted as much openly. I do believe he sounded angry because he lived in a state of some kind of low-grade anger all the time. Unfortunately I’ve known a few people like that, and many times they don’t even realize it, I think because they’re so used to feeling that way.

  17. Sure. Why not?
    I mean I don’t think that would be the most comfortable way to live for the person in that position.
    But jeesh, just add some daily alcohol consumption or a liberal prescription for valium, and voila… No problemo.

  18. I do concur that you have a unique innate ability which I absolutely believe is a gift from God. This special talent is one which so precious few human beings are endowed with at birth. This skill is then finely honed to razor sharpness by the end of the third decade of life. This gift is so rare that statistically it appears as an anamoly. In the practice of law enforcement this ability has always given me the upper hand when pursuing the truth in the interest of justice. To my ears there is no more beautiful sound in all of nature then that of the majestic “RING OF TRUTH”. Godspeed in your pursuit of this most elusive phenomenoa.

    1. Yes, Ake, there are. I recommend that you check out the work of Paul Eckman. His book called ‘Lying’ is excellent. He also sells a computerised method for teaching the detection microexpressions.

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