Experts explain how to tell if someone is lying to you — without even hearing them talk
In a court hearing that went viral earlier this year, Coby Harris, a Michigan man accused of assault, is caught red-handed at his alleged victim's house. As the presiding judge notes, the bizarre moment would have been inconceivable before COVID-19 forced the law to be carried out via Zoom: Harris had violated the conditions of his bond by not merely contacting his accuser, but secretly being at her side during the hearing itself. It is difficult to overstate the danger; a domestic abuser in such a situation could not only intimidate a witness, but physically harm or even kill them.
Fortunately Deborah Davis, the assistant prosecuting attorney, felt something was off. In the video she informs the judge that she believes Harris and the accuser are in the same residence, citing "the fact that she's looking off to the side and he's moving around." The situation is promptly investigated, with police being called after Harris refuses to show his address on-screen and thereby prove he is not potentially intimidating the accuser. The clip reaches a climax when Harris abruptly pops up while being arrested. Cigarette limply dangling out of his mouth, he utters a half-heartedly apology to the court before painting himself as the victim. Davis facepalms, looking incredulous and disgusted as her worst suspicions are confirmed.
"At that very moment, I was dumbfounded that it actually happened the way that it did," Davis recalled to Salon, adding that she also felt significant relief that a possible crisis had been averted and the accuser was now safe.
What struck this author, however, was the fact that Davis had been able to spot Harris' lie at all. As someone on the autism spectrum, I struggle to read social situations; looking at the same footage as Davis, I only observed people staring blankly at their phones. I asked Davis how she was able to detect Harris' dishonesty based on such a seemingly sparse amount of information.
As it turns out, the answer has a lot to do with observational intelligence. To identify a lie as Davis did, the key is to pay attention to little details that are incongruous or simply strike you as off.
"My radar went up when her eyes were shifting and she wasn't answering the questions that we had just spoken about," Davis explained. The accuser shifting her eyes struck Davis as alarming because, while an accuser might look to the side at a defendant when both appear in a courtroom, people usually do not glance to the side during Zoom calls. Davis also described reviewing how the procedure works with the accuser shortly before the hearing, and made a mental note when the accuser suddenly began moving away from what had just been discussed.
"It's those types of non-verbals — where they know what you're asking, they know why you're asking it, and they know the standard that needs to be proven in order to move the case forward, but they have now backtracked on what they were saying," Davis told Salon.
It is notable that Davis' analysis came not just from non-verbals, but non-verbals that she understood within a specific context. Science is pretty definitive about the idea that you can't detect a lie based on non-verbal information alone; indeed, there is just no evidence that it works. Decades of scientific research and literature have failed to yield any consistent information about looks, sounds and any other non-verbal cues that can be indisputably linked to deceit. On many occasions, professionals whose jobs supposedly make them adept lie-detectors (psychiatrists, police officers, job recruiters) were no more adept at spotting fibs during an experiment than laypeople.
This does not mean that you can't figure out when someone is lying. (Just ask Davis.) To do so, however, you need to apply logic to your interpretation of their behaviors and find out where they would not make sense if a person was being truthful.
"It is hard to be consistent when lying," logician Miriam Bowers-Abbott, an associate professor at Mount Carmel College of Nursing, told Salon by email. "A liar must truly embrace any lie as a complete lifestyle to create consistency — like a delusion. Most people don't make that commitment."
This makes it relatively easy to expose bald-faced liars if you simply know how to grill them on inconsistencies. For someone telling a less brazen falsehood, however, you need to look for more subtle indicators, "a peculiar vagueness that someone might use to create a false impression." For instance, a person might say "a lot of people" feel a certain way or say that "some" individuals have a problem. Those statements may sound alarming, but they aren't specific; "a lot" and "some" could mean any number, and reveal precious little about the details within those numbers. To expose such possible lies, it is important to press the potential liars for the kind of information that they should already have if they are telling the truth.
Yet Bowers-Abbott warned against making assumptions about an individual's truthfulness based purely on physical signs. Like an actual lie, believing strictly in physical cues can lead you down a road of deception.
"I think it's common to look for physical signs, like lack-of-eye-contact, to indicate deception," Bowers-Abbott explained. Yet she added, "our world is more multicultural than it used to be, and there are many cultures where it's more normal to use less eye-contact. So, eye-contact isn't always a great clue."
The same principle applies for other supposed tells.
"How about hesitation?" Bowers-Abbott rhetorically asked. "Well, some people hesitate, when they're trying to be as accurate as possible. So hesitation isn't really a clue either." She prefers to look for signs such as a person who avoids questions, provides vague and ambiguous answers, tries to change the subject or is obviously pretending to misunderstand what their interrogator is saying. This approach involves analyzing the entire content of what a person does, while remaining sufficiently detached from the story they're trying to sell that you don't get suckered in by it.
It is also important to trust your instincts. David Ranalli, a magician, speaker and emcee, wrote to Salon that in his experience "there is no foolproof way to know if a person is lying." Ranalli explained that he gathers information from a number of places at once — whether the person's body language indicates they are nervous, whether their story seems believable, if they stay on the same subject for a long time — and draws his conclusions accordingly.
On one occasion, his honed instincts may have prevented a grisly incident.
"I once spotted someone lying during a very important and dangerous moment in my show," Ranalli recalled. "I play a game of Russian roulette with staple guns in the show, and I have someone mix a loaded gun among three empty ones. At the end of the routine, I staple one of the guns to my neck, betting on my ability to know which gun is loaded."
On one occasion, someone switched out the staples in the gun. "While it didn't matter which gun the staples were in, adding a lie into the fold gave me an eerie feeling that could have resulted in a dangerous outcome," Ranalli explained. When he asked if the staples had been switched and the person said no, Ranalli asked the audience if they had witnessed something sneaky.
"They all shouted yes," Ranalli told Salon. "It still ended with a fun outcome, but could have ended badly if I didn't notice that moment."
Not all scenarios involving spotting liars have a "fun" result. As Davis told Salon, much of her career has been spent fighting for victims of domestic abuse, and therefore has seen the damage that can occur when liars have their way. She talked about victims who are told by abusers to wear sleeves that will cover the bruises on their arms or to avoid speaking freely to religious leaders, or simply give stern looks that intimidate them where words cannot. And even when the liar is exposed for all the world to see, the sight can be horrifying.
This brings us back to Harris. Roughly two weeks after his infamous Zoom hearing, Harris had another court date, this one from jail. When things did not go his way during that hearing, Harris can be seen on video acting hysterically — screaming, wildly gesticulating, menacingly approaching the camera, at one point even storming out of the call room. Because his microphone was malfunctioning, Harris could be seen but not heard. As a result, his facial expressions and body language were a veritable smorgasbord of nonverbal communications — and their message was so explicitly violent that even I could easily decipher them.
"Looking at the behaviors of the defendant, based on the testimony of the victim, to me that says a lot about the truthfulness of the victim," Davis said. This happens in court a lot when abusers see their plans for getting off go awry; "you can usually see some form of a meltdown, or in other cases I've seen in Zoom where the defendant changes their posture and it goes from sitting and looking straight at the camera to standing and with their arms folded with the camera pointed up with more of an intimidation type of stance." While judges will never allow that kind of behavior, in court or Zoom, if they spot it, Davis explained that "for me as a prosecutor, sometimes I want to see that because I want to know whether or not we're on the right track and is justice being served, or is it somebody who's maybe fabricating or exaggerating what has happened."
In that moment, as he angrily flailed about, Harris illustrated a very important point about lying: Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, the uncomfortable truth will be stamped all over your body.
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