Tell-Tale Signs Someone Is Lying
Humans are naturally bad liars and there’s scientifically proven ways to tell if someone is not being honest.
Throughout his career, our Director, Alex Martin, has cross-examined and interviewed many witnesses in both the courtroom and boardroom. He’s experienced in forensically analysing someone’s story against the evidence.
So, can you really tell if someone is lying? Alex recently spoke with radio legend, Spencer Howson, on 4BC about his experience on catching someone out in a lie.
You can listen to the interview below or check out the transcript underneath.
If you have a specific concern, you can also reach out to one of our experienced litigation team members at Taurus Legal Management on (03) 9481 2000 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Spencer Howson – Well, have you ever had a feeling in your gut that someone is lying to you but you couldn’t be sure? Well, my next guest is going to share with you the tell-tale signs someone is not being honest with you. Alex Martin is the director of Taurus Legal Management and has faced liars in the courtroom and the boardroom as part of his job, and it’s made him very good at spotting those who aren’t exactly truthful. Alex, welcome to afternoons on 4BC.
Alex – Hi Spencer, thanks for having me on.
Spencer – What’s given you such insight into the tells that someone is lying to you?
Alex – Well, it started with the experience I’ve been in in court many, many times and I’ve interviewed many, many witnesses. And so it began with experience. And then as a result of that experience, I did some research and I’ve read, you know, academic papers and psychology reports and that sort of stuff. And so I have developed a real interest in detecting liars.
Spencer – And you say as a starting point that humans are bad liars. Is that right?
Alex – Yes, that’s right. And it’s actually- probably the most interesting thing that I’ve noticed from my experience and from the research is that human beings don’t like to lie. They’re uncomfortable with it. I suppose that’s quite reassuring, but it’s that – being uncomfortable that leads to you being able to spot when someone’s lying because they exhibit the same sorts of behaviours when they’re uncomfortable.
Spencer – And they try to avoid lying with the answers that they give, right?
Alex – Yes, that’s right. So the important thing is asking specific questions so that people can’t avoid the lie because normally people get vague or they try and avoid answering the question at all if they can. And in general conversation often you allow people to not answer a question, you know, you’re not always being cross-examined in court. But when you’re trying to detect whether someone is lying, it’s important to ask specific questions so that they can’t avoid the lie even if they want to.
Spencer – So can you give us any examples that, even just a simple example, of how you can use that follow up question?
Alex – Oh, sure. Yeah. So you want to ask, “did you take the money yesterday?” Not “would you have taken any money from us before?” Or what you would have done is not of interest. What you want to ask is did you, have you- you want active, specific questions that are to do with a specific circumstance.
Spencer – Because if you say, “would you have taken the money?” “Oh, no, no, that’s not something that I would do”.
Alex – “I wouldn’t do that sort of thing.” Yes, it’s actually a classic response in liars. They talk specifically about what they did when they’re telling the truth and then they suddenly switch to what they would have done. “Yesterday I would have taken the dog for a walk” rather than “yesterday I walked the dog.” What they would have done is not of interest, and often it’s a way of people- because they feel guilty when they’re lying, they suddenly switch their language to this kind of vague general language when they’re normally a specific person.
Spencer – And this is what you call lying language.
Alex – Yes, that’s right. That’s right. So there’s a number of examples of lying language – avoiding the question is, is one of them, becoming vague is another and using passive language rather than active language. So you know, I walked the dog is an active statement rather than the dog was walked by me. People get suddenly vague and passive when they’re lying and there’s all types of lying language, as I call it.
Spencer – The scenario that always fascinates me- it’s quite sort of away from court cases specifically, but where there’s been, let’s say, someone, there’s a missing child or something like that, and the police hold a media conference with the parents. And we’ve seen this time and time again and it’s used by police, isn’t it, to analyse the language of the parents- like they’re not just doing it so the parents can plead for information. There’s a lot more of this sort of analysis going on that you’re talking about.
Alex – Absolutely. So in that case, you’ve got 2 classic techniques that are used. One is you putting the person under a lot of pressure because they’re in a media conference, so they’re under a lot of pressure during the conference. And the number two is that you’re recording the whole thing and recording is very important if you want to analyse something closely. It’s very difficult, especially if you’re not trained to- it’s difficult to analyse someone’s behaviour closely at the time while you’re trying to thinking about the next question. But if you’re able to record, especially video record, you can listen very carefully to what they said and watch exactly what their eyes do, what micro-expressions they make. And you can scientifically analyse their responses from when they were telling the truth. And, you know, they were telling the truth to that, to the particular conduct where they might change the way they’re expressing themselves suddenly, which is indicative of a lie.
Spencer – Okay, let’s tell me more about that. The physical signs that someone’s lying and specifically that you’re talking about eye movement and comparing what someone does with their eyes when you know they’re telling the truth when they might be lying.
Alex – Yeah, so that’s a great example. The sort of stereotype is that someone looks at their toes when they lie to you and they look you in the eye with telling the truth. And that’s true to a degree. The reality is extroverted people look you in the eye a lot, and typically an extroverted person will look you in the eye while they’re lying because that’s what they do, or as an introverted person might look at their toes when they’re telling the truth. So, the important thing is to look at their baseline behaviour. What are they like when they’re comfortable, when they’re relaxed, when they’re truthful, and then look at the changes from their baseline behaviour when they’re telling a lie because most people still feel guilty about lying, although they might be lying through their teeth, they might be lying a lot. They might have stolen money, but they still deep down know what they’ve done is wrong and they feel guilty about it and exhibit these behaviours, whether or not they want to.
Spencer – Is there any truth in people touching their face being an indicator that someone’s lying? Because that’s something I always- when if ever I see, say, a politician? I mean, you could say a politician’s mouth moving is a physical side of them lying. But you know, if they touch their face, I just go, “Oh no, there’s a reason it’s caused you to be itchy. Maybe because you’re telling a lie.”
Alex – Yes. Well, I think on Seinfeld, they say the further up the face you go, the more upset you are. You know, if you touch your chin, it’s no problem. But if you don’t, if you touch your forehead, you got to get out. Certainly, there is some truth to that. Again, it’s about baseline. So if somebody who’s a fidgety, vague person generally, you know, they might touch their face when they’re speaking. Normally, that’s not indicative of a lie if they do that. But if somebody is, you know, Bill Clinton, when you watch Bill Clinton interviewed, he never touches his face – he’s a smooth operator. But then in some of the stuff to do with Monica Lewinsky immediately hands to mouth and hands even to forehead which is certainly- and it while he was exhibiting some of these behaviours. I’m talking about getting vague, not answering the question and answering a question that wasn’t asked. He did all of those things. Even though he’s a very experienced politician and a very good speaker, he still was not able to stop himself from touching his face. So touching his face is an example if that’s not what the person normally does.
Spencer – Fascinating topic. Final question and you may not have the answer to this, but I wonder what age we develop these behaviours, like if you try to spot whether the kids have been lying or taking the last biscuit, have they yet developed those behaviours?
Alex – Well, what I can tell you is that intelligence is that lying is a sign of intelligence and so that the more intelligent kids tend to lie earlier. So if your kids are trying to pull a swiftly on you, that’s probably a good sign that they understand enough to understand that you don’t see things the way they do and that they can deceive you. They time that in terms of guilt, I imagine. And I’m not a developmental expert, but I imagine it’s when the children start feeling guilty about lying, they would exhibit the similar signs that adults would. It’s about the guilt that you feel when you lie that leads to those behaviours that you can spot.
Spencer – Fascinating. It’s been great having you on the show and I’m not touching my face as I say that. Alex Martin, the Director of Taurus Legal Management. Fascinating topic it is. Thanks for your time.
Alex – Thanks Spencer it’s a real pleasure.
Spencer – 14 to one. Interesting, isn’t it? If you’ve got any theories or anything you’ve observed over the years about, you know, how to tell that someone’s lying, the other one for me is if someone says, oh, to be honest, I reckon whatever comes after that – dead set a lie.