Do you know when people are lying to you? A spouse, a son or daughter, co-worker or colleague? How about a job candidate?

I spoke to a professional acquaintance of mine recently on this subject. He has more than a little bit of expertise. He was in law enforcement for many years, including a super-secret black ops kind of stint working for some government hunting down war criminals in Eastern Europe.

There are of course all kinds of ways supposedly to "detect lies." Apparently you should look for sweating, which way people's eyes move, whether they make too much eye contact or too little...and so on.

My friend says it's all in the body language, the non-verbal cues.

"It's not what they are saying that I am keying on," he says. "It's how they are are saying it. Are they nervous, fidgety, slightly unsure of themselves? Of course you can have a practiced liar, who may have even convinced themselves they are telling the truth, but even they tend to eventually give themselves away somehow."

"It's not what they are saying that I am keying on. It's how they are are saying it."

I don't know what you think about your lie detection skills but apparently most of us aren't very good at it. Multiple studies show hit rates for detecting lies runs right around 54%. Not very impressive, considering a pure guess gives you a 50% chance!

So, why is it so difficult to tell when people are lying? That's what Hartwig & Bond (2011) examine as they drill down and take a critical look at dozens of studies. They looked at a wide variety of cues such as changes in posture, head movements, eye contact, speech rate and so on.

What they found is that overall, most of use are keying on the things that can give away a liar. These include:

  • Vocal immediacy, i.e. the extent to which someone replies directly to questions. The vaguer someone is, the more likely they are to be lying.
  • Indifference: if the speaker seems unconcerned then this is associated with lying. It's probably because they're trying to play it cool.
  • Thinking hard: lying is hard work so when a person has to think hard about a question, it might indicate they are lying.
  • Being uncooperative: pretty obvious, but still being uncooperative is often a cue that someone is trying to conceal something.

But what if a candidate is merely nervous, or doesn't interview particularly well, or is thoughtful about their answers? Do those things make you suspicious they aren't being truthful? Can you tell the difference?

But what if a candidate is merely nervous, or doesn't interview particularly well, or is thoughtful about their answers? Do those things make you suspicious they aren't being truthful? Can you tell the difference?

But if overall people seem to know what the right cues to lying are, why aren't they better at detecting them?

How  much information is enough to go on?

It is often very difficult to read other people's thoughts and feelings. Despite the expertise of my law enforcement friend, body language is ambiguous and may not give you the right answer, or even good clues.

I recently read about one method for improving the odds of lie detection is to try and put "more pressure on them." My friend says he used to interrogate suspects and ask them "tell their story backwards." One study shows lie catchers do a better job when people try to tell their story backwards.

In the end though, rather than any specific skills, it is probably better simply to rely on your gut, your instincts, your first impressions. Study after study shows those are amazingly accurate when it comes to judging people.

I'd love to hear from you. Tell us about your lie detection skills. With the desperation level of job candidates rising recently have you seen an uptick in resume fabrication and lying in interviews. Share your experiences.

Tags: News, Job candidates, Interviews, Lying, Body language in the workplace