By David Robson
7 September 2015
This story is part of BBC Future’s “Best of 2015” list, the greatest hits of the year. Browse the full list.
How does one go about detecting a liar? One approach would be to focus on body language or eye movements, right? It would have been a bad idea. Study after study has found that attempts – even by trained police officers – to read lies from body language and facial expressions are more often little better than chance. You might as well just flip a coin.
According to one study, just 50 out of 20,000 people managed to make a correct judgement with more than 80% accuracy.
There are other more effective ways to identify the fakers in the vast majority of cases. The secret? To throw away many of the accepted cues to deception and start anew with some startlingly straightforward techniques.
When it comes to spotting liars, the eyes don’t have it.
Most previous work had focused on reading a liar’s intentions via their body language or from their face – blushing cheeks, a nervous laugh, darting eyes. Bill Clinton touching his nose when he denied his affair with Monica Lewinsky is a famous example – taken at the time to be a sure sign he was lying. The belief was that the act of lying provokes emotions – nervousness, guilt, perhaps even exhilaration at the challenge – that trigger unavoidable tiny flickers of movement known as “micro-expressions” that might give the game away. The problem is the huge variety of human behaviour – there is no universal dictionary of body language.
Dr George Simon [blog], author of several best-selling books on psychopathy, has given descriptive labels to three manipulative tactics that all victims of narcissistic/psychopathic abuse are sure to recognize. The terminology offered by Dr Simon makes it easier to make sense of behaviors that otherwise may seem confusing or even cause self-doubt, and to discuss them. When you see manipulative behavior, it will probably reflect one or more of these tactics.
Abusers tend to be comfortable lying, having years of practice (and no qualms,) and so can sound believable when making baseless statements. The abuser benefits when people feel too uncomfortable to ask a seemingly sincere, respectable person to substantiate a claim, or fail to look closely at evidence—if not ignore it—because of his charm or perceived authority. He also benefits when people believe that they can “just tell” who is lying and who is telling the truth, and so fail to adequately investigate.