Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

Liar, liar, pants on fire

Lie to Me
Fox Broadcasting Company

Can dogs lie?  No, I don’t mean hanging around on the sofa but actually communicate a falsehood?  Curiosity was killing the cat, so to speak, so I put the question to the Dali Lama of the Internet to see what I could find out.

I didn’t find much.  Not even my fav Cesar Millan really answered the question on his website.  (I did pose it to him via Twitter @cesarmillan, so we’ll see if he responds.)  What I did find though, were answers from various psychologists who posit that deception is a sign of intelligence, thus the more intelligent an animal is, the more the capability to lie – humans of course, being at top of the brain chain.  A couple of other psychologists explored the idea that a “true lie” is where the liar knows  what he is doing, versus a “behavioral lie,” where the liar is getting the target to behave in a certain way without knowing he (the liar) is doing it.  This point of view suggests that behavioral lying may not require strong cognitive ability.  We do it, but it is not a conscious thing.  Rather it’s something useful that we’ve learned from past experience that gets us what we want.  That’s probably what dogs do, I bet.

True or “real” lying requires an understanding that people see the world differently from each other and so have different desires, beliefs and intentions.

To intentionally lie, or manipulate another person’s beliefs, one needs to understand that they have a point of view that can be manipulated.  This is where intelligence comes in.  But behaviorists also tell us that even when a true lie is being verbally expressed, our bodies still give us away.  This is because our brain first has to stop itself from telling the truth, make up the lie and then handle the emotional stress of guilt and fear of getting caught.  Mouths can lie, but bodies can’t.

And thus, the popularity of television shows such as The Mentalist and Lie to Me.

I recently had the experience of observing a panel interview for a client who wanted to be sure the organization was bringing in the right person into its c-suite.  There had been a huge issue with the previous executive who not only demoralized the staff, but caused great stress (financial and otherwise) for the company as a whole.  They asked me to observe each of the five candidates during the interview process to determine any behavioral cues being given that could help indicate whether or not the person was the right person for the position.  The experience was exhausting, (it’s hard to stare at people all day), but one of the most interesting tasks I’ve had the pleasure of working on.

Well, things progressed and after the third interview I was getting pretty good at observation.  I began to notice several things the fourth candidate was doing that led me to believe she was lying through her teeth.  Here’s what I saw:

Hint #1.  Heightened stress response – the candidate sailed through the first set of questions, which were designed to help put candidates at ease.  It’s a similar strategy that police interrogators use with subjects; start with non-threatening questions first and then watch for changes in the nonverbals that indicate deception when the questions get harder.  In candidates who are telling the truth, I find they will start to settle down, rather than ramp up emotionally, as the interview progresses.  But, the longer this interview went on, the more this candidate became agitated and unable to sit still.

Hint #2.  Longer, more direct eye contact – it’s a myth that people avoid direct  eye contact when they are lying.  The opposite is true.  Some people will actually stare you right in the eye as if to dare you to confront them with the fact they are lying.  This was what the candidate was doing with the interview panel.  I was opposite her at the conference table and she picked one person to consistently make eye contact with; and it wasn’t me.  As a matter of fact, she picked the person probably with the least influence on the panel.  That didn’t bode well with the rest of the team.  It made them not like her.

Hint #3.  Shorter response time – when a lie is premeditated, the person will start to respond more quickly to a question than someone telling the truth.  But if caught off guard, the opposite will be true; the person will take longer to frame a response as creating a lie takes some brain time.  You guessed right; this candidate was taking a tad too long to respond, and coupled with the other cues I was getting, was leading me to believe she was not telling the truth.

Hint #4.  Different verbal cues – this one was easy to spot.  When lying, a person’s voice will change pitch and get higher.  Think of a little kid who shouts out, “But I didn’t do it, Mom!” with that little squeak at the  end.  The other verbal cues I was getting from this candidate included a lot of rambling (went all around the questions, but didn’t really answer many of them), stammering (uttering the phrase, “you know?” way too much), and qualifying (using phrases such as “well, to the best of my knowledge”) in answering questions.  I caught this one when responding to the questions regarding company operations, which made me believe she didn’t even read the candidate prep package.  She also kept swallowing and licking her lips.

Hint #5.  Self-comforting behaviors – when lying many people will try to calm themselves by various tics and twitches.  They’ll shuffle their feet, root around in their chair, and stretch to get rid of tension.  Some of the best cues regarding self-calming behaviors though, are when people start to touch their face.  This was the big red flag for me.  Our candidate was constantly rubbing her nose (did you know that when you lie you get a rush of adrenaline which opens the capillaries in your nose and makes it itch?).  She kept crossing and uncrossing her arms.  Playing with her hair.  Rubbing her knees.  Shrugging her shoulders.  Hunching over and then sitting up straight.  Covering her eyes of and on with her hands.  And the biggie:  not mirroring the behavior of the rest of the panel members.  Snag.  Caught her.

Of course there are pathological liars who can outsmart even the most experienced human lie detectors.  If the person truly believes the falsehood there pretty much is almost no way to detect the lie.

Needless to say, this candidate didn’t make the cut.  And I bet she knows the truth why.


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