In his new book Born Liars, English author Ian Leslie debunks the conventional wisdom regarding how to spot a liar. Newsflash, people: Pinocchio was never a "real boy," and the truth is that most of us don't have the skills (or the scientific equipment) to sort fact-spouters from fiction-spinners. Citing a study where subjects asked to distinguish truth from lies answered correctly only 47 per cent of the time, Leslie says most people are better off tossing a coin, but for those determined to DIY-lie detect, here are a few tips.
Seek the smooth talker
"We tend to think of liars as twitching, shifty-eyed, sweaty, but the evidence says otherwise," says Mr. Leslie. When seeking out a liar in a group, you're best to go with the most suave and charismatic individual. Successful lying requires a high level of social and emotional intelligence, qualities that are also prominent in highly successful and popular people. In other words, don't be so quick to believe the homecoming queen next time she tells you she didn't steal your boyfriend.
Set aside everything you learned from TV
The TV drama Lie to Me was an instant hit when it premiered in 2009. Audiences loved watching Dr. Cal Lightman expose liars based on the slightest facial twitch or blink pattern, and the result was thousands of couch potato crime "experts," who now fancied themselves living breathing lie detectors. Turns out the opposite was true. A study conducted last year pitted Lie To Me viewers against people who had never seen the show, and the fans proved less capable of correctly identifying a liar. It's not that the science isn't there (the Dr. Lightman character is based on Dr. Paul Ekman, a pioneer in the field of facial expression), however proper interpretation of facial cues requires the right equipment and training.
Keep the suspect talking
We've all seen the bad-cop routine work wonders on TV, but according to a study by Dr. Aldert Vrij, author of Detecting Lies and Deceit, being overly accusatory or confrontational with a suspected liar (whether it be a cheating business partner or a curfew-breaking kid) is the wrong approach. This type of pressure will cause him or her to clam up, when what you really want to do is keep them talking. Lying requires a huge amount of mental effort, so the more talking your suspect has to do, the more likely they are to run out of lying steam, so to speak. In this sense, telling a lie is a lot like running a race - if the distance is far enough, eventually you're going to collapse. Or, in this case, confess.
Common sense is your friend
"Does this person have a track record for lying?" asks Dr. Leslie, listing history as one of the practical considerations that will help separate truth tellers from truth benders (or breakers). Other contextual indicators include reputation (do other people consider this person honest?) and motivation (what does he or she stand to gain?). So if your sis claims she just plumb forgot about her promise to babysit, consider the following: Has she bailed on you before, do her other friends have similar beefs and did she happen to come into front row Lady Gaga tickets on the night she "forgot" about diaper duty?
Be aware of your biases
We grow up hearing it's what's inside that counts, but the reality is we live in a world where people are judged on everything from weight and skin colour to what kind of jeans they're wearing. Dr. Leslie says most of us carry around a whole whack of unconscious prejudices that affect our ability to uncover the truth. It has been proven that criminal suspects with foreign accents are less likely to be believed. On the other side, people who are attractive are unconsciously considered more trustworthy (because apparently beautiful people don't have enough advantages already!).
Special to The Globe and Mail