Former CIA officer teaches you how to recognize a lie

Imagine you could quickly see if someone is lying or telling the truth, at your job, in investments, dates, buying a car or hiring a building contractor.

According to Susan Carnicero, a person lies on average 10 times a day, and she has to know. As a former CIA officer who has conducted interrogations, interviews and lie detector tests with suspects for more than 20 years, she has learned a lot about how to recognize a liar.

Carnicero has also developed behavioral screening programs used by the United States government and is a co-author of the book Spy the Lie, which teaches us how to recognize delusions. She is also a co-founder of QVerity, a provider of behavioral analysis and screening services for the private and public sectors.

It may seem shocking that people lie so regularly, but remember that not all lies are malicious. According to a study published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, small white lies are told more often than big, important lies. This also includes innocent comments such as that you are fine when someone asks you how you are doing – even if that is not the case.

There is a wide range of lies, as Carnicero notes in the video above. At one end of the spectrum are lies that protect the feelings of others or are intended to prevent a conversation from going in a direction that you do not want.

At the other end of the spectrum there are the bold “I didn’t do it” lies. In the latter case, the ability to recognize a liar can definitely be in your favor, in more cases than you might imagine. For example, if you want to hire a new employee or invest in a financial project, it is important to know the truth.

The same applies to your private life if you are wondering whether your new flame is trustworthy. Even if you buy a new car or are looking for a building contractor for your home, it can help you avoid an expensive mistake if you pay attention to treacherous signs of fraud.

How to recognize a lie: analyze instead of speculate

It is difficult, if not impossible, to see a person by simply looking at whether they are lying. That would be pure speculation. Instead, Carnicero emphasizes the importance of analyzing the situation. “I want to find out how a person reacts”, she says and gives an example of a person sitting with his arms crossed – a “global behavior”.

Even if this looks like a closed or deceptive attitude at first glance, there are many reasons why someone is sitting like this, from cold to pure habit.

We give global behavior far too much importance”, says Carnicero. “We want to do away with that. This is pure speculation.” To find out what is relevant and what is not, you should first identify the stimulus – the questions you ask – and then focus on the behaviors, that are directly connected to the person’s answer. The timing is the key here; an important warning signal is deceptive behavior that occurs within the first five seconds after the question.

If the person does not show deceptive behavior within five seconds, they do not lie”, she says, adding that paying attention to clusters is another key. “I would like to see at least two or more behaviors [during the answer] so that it is a fraudulent answer.”

In some cases, the first deceptive behavior can occur before you even put the question to an end – which is also a warning signal – but remember, that the first behavior should occur within the first five seconds, and there should be at least two in total to recognize a lie.

Dealing with prejudices and recognizing evasive maneuvers

Many people are taught that lies are wrong and that they should try to find the good in people. But when trying to recognize a liar, it is important to ignore truthful behavior, as this only leads to bias and contributes to it, what Carnicero calls „Halo effect”. “Deceptive people can give us truthful answers”, she says, and will try to manipulate you so that you believe them.

In many cases, they give you more information than you asked to make you think you are a good person. According to Carnicero:

The people we know are already looking to control our perception, they go far beyond what we ask. The purpose is again to convince us that they are good people and what occurs when I am a beginner is that I start to think that this is a good person and I will overlook the bad.”

So be careful to ignore truthful behavior and instead focus on deceptive behavior. Recognize evasive tactics that are an important indication that a person is not honest:

Refusal to provide information – Does the person speak for a long time, but does not answer the question you asked?

Denial – “The most important for an honest person is to give you the answer and deny it if they haven’t done something. The truth is their greatest ally”, says Carnicero.

Use of exclusive qualifications – Does the person often use the terms “mostly”, “basically” or “actually not”? In these cases, a follow-up question is required to find out what is missing.

Aggression is often a sign of a lie

When assessing a person’s trustworthiness “some behaviors outweigh others”, Carnicero said. “Aggression is one of them.” If you ask your teenage son if he had been drinking with his pals and he is immediately angry, this is an important warning sign. The same applies if there has been theft in your company and the employee you interview is attacking you because you asked about the theft.

If you have someone to jump on your throat because you ask him a question – and it can even be your child – then you have a problem”, she says. One can also attack a third party, e.g. the company itself because it does not offer enough security to prevent theft from the outset.

Another treacherous sign that someone is not telling the truth is an inadequate level of concern. For example, if you dismiss an important question as irrelevant, smile at an inappropriate time, or seemingly get angry for no reason, you will probably lie.

Carnicero also emphasizes the importance of distinguishing between convincing statements and those that are intended to convey information – the former are a sign of a lie. Let’s say you ask someone if he stole anything.

When the person begins with a long answer about their good employment history and trustworthiness, these are convincing statements that sound true but indicate a lie. A simple “No” is information that is probably true.

Carnicero says: “A convincing statement is the strongest arrow a person can have in their quiver. If someone says: ‘I am a good person’, ‘I am a good worker’, if someone tries to convince you of something instead of conveying information, is a clear sign of a lie.”

Consideration of small details can also reveal a lie – for e.g. the statement “I would not do this” in contrast to “I did not do this”. The former – “would not” – is often a lie. We have to pay attention to “didn’t”, says Carnicero. Calling religion is another tactic that liars often use to cast a spell over you and control your perception, by saying for e.g. “I can swear on a stack of Bibles”.

Other subtle characters are “perception qualifier” like “honestly”, “to tell the truth” and “completely open”, with which a lie is verbally “disguised”. In combination with other deceptive behaviors, you can recognize a lie if you pay attention to this elemens.

Non-verbal signs of deception

A person’s non-verbal advice is also important to assess whether they are lying or not. Carnicero recommends paying attention to the following non-verbal signals:

Break in behavior – If you ask a person a vague question, e.g. “What you did years ago that day” is expected to take a break before answering. However, if you ask if you robbed a bank 10 years ago that day, the person should respond immediately. In the latter case, a delay is a sign of a lie.

Verbal / non-verbal interruption – If a person nods his head while saying no or shakes his head while saying yes, this interruption is considered deceptive behavior (except in certain cultures, in which nodding does not mean yes).

Anchor point movements – Another sign of a lie is the movement of an “anchor point”, e.g. feet on the floor, arms on the desk or even a dangling foot when a person’s legs are crossed.

Care gestures – Moving back a tie or other piece of clothing, straightening the hair, pulling the glasses back or fiddling with the shirt cuffs can be an unconscious way people try, suppressing their fears and is often a sign of a lie. Swallowing before the answer is also a sign of deception.

Hand-to-face movements – When a person leads their hand to the mouth, licks his lips, pulls on their ear or otherwise touches their face or head, this is another deceptive behavior. Parade observed:

The reason for this lies in simple school science. You asked a question and the question triggers a fear boost because a truthful answer would burden you.

This in turn causes the autonomous nervous system to get to work to reduce anxiety by taking blood from the surfaces of the face, derives the ears and extremities – which can cause a feeling of cold or itching. Without the person concerned noticing, his hands are drawn to these areas, or there is a wrestling or rubbing of the hands.”

Recognizing a liar is not an exact science

While it is not always easy to determine when to be lied to, following Carnicero’s guidelines can be helpful. For more details, including many anecdotes that show the guidelines in action, see Carnicero’s book Spy the Lie: Former CIA Officers Teach You How to Detect Deception. The ability to decipher the truth can transform your professional and private life, and you can even use it to save money and avoid being ripped off.

As for lying, if you are on the donor rather than the recipient side, you should consider that honesty is the best policy – not only for your fellow human beings, but also for yourself. People who only told the truth for five weeks had an average of seven symptoms less, such as sore throat, headache, nausea and psychic tension, than the control group. The researchers suspect that lies can cause stress that dampens the immune system.

However, many people lie without thinking about it. To protect your health – and your reputation –, you need to recognize and transform your behavior before your environment notices it.


April 24, 2023


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