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Pamela Meyer on the science behind “Liespotting”

5 min read


Pamela Meyer is the author of “Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception.” SmartBrief Senior Editor Mary Ellen Slayter recently spoke with her about the story behind the book and how what she learned can help business leaders do their jobs more effectively.

What inspired you to write the book?

  • I couldn’t believe that this well-developed science — this huge body of research on what deceptive people do with their posture, their eyes, their breathing rate , their language structure — had not hit the mainstream. And I wanted to shine a light on it.
  • We have a deception epidemic gaining ground in our society, and we can each do our part to keep it at bay. You have probably already heard at least 25 lies already today. We don’t expect CEOs or public officials to tell us the truth, our TV networks lean blue or red, we were barely outraged by Bernie Madoff, our political campaigns are shouting matches between adversaries screaming “Liar Liar!” –instead of discussions of the issues.
  • We are losing touch with the value of face-to-face interaction. We have thousands of Facebook friends, but don’t know which are real. We are e-mailing and texting snippets and fragments of thoughts which are often misinterpreted out of context. We are inundated with commercial offers and spam. We don’t talk much to each other at home : Two-thirds of all families have TV on during meals; 70% of kids 8-18 have TVs in their bedrooms. We seem to have forgotten that it’s not a good idea to close a business deal with someone whose voice never heard, whose hand you will never shake. We need to rethink who we should give the very valuable currency of our trust to.

You mentioned that you accidentally discovered this world?

About five years ago, I attended my Harvard Business School reunion, and while I was there, I took a workshop in which a professor detailed his findings on how people behave when they are being deceptive.

I witnessed something you rarely see: For 45 minutes straight, 350 exceptionally busy people were riveted. No one was tapping their BlackBerries. No one was running to the hall to start a conference call. People who thought they had seen it all were seeing something completely new and useful. When I witnessed this unusual moment of executive silence I knew I had happened onto something interesting. I was not the only one wanting to learn to read people in a much different way. I was not the only one who was walking around thinking we were living in what Ralph Keyes calls  a “post-truth society.”

Are there industries that you consider particularly dishonest? Or are they all equally shady?

I have not come across any research that indicates that one industry is more deceptive than another; however, we do know that certain personality types are more comfortable lying.

For example, extroverts and gregarious people tend to be more comfortable being deceptive, and they will persist longer at it than introverts. High self monitors — those that intuitively perceive how others view them and read emotions well — tend to be better liars than the rest of us, so you might be able to conclude that industries with more of these personality types are more deceptive, but there is no research I have come across that would confirm it.

What are common tipoffs that someone is lying in a business setting?

First, you have to learn to “baseline” your subject. Observe someone’s normal behavior so you can recognize when they veer from the norm. Observe their posture, their laugh, how they handle stress normally — what kind of pacifiers do they use to calm themselves down? If someone normally taps his foot all the time, don’t accuse him unjustly of lying when he starts tapping his foot.

Then look for clusters of verbal and non verbal tells:

  • Nonverbal tells. Liars don’t rehearse their gestures, just their words. The cognitive load is already huge, so when they tell their story, they freeze their upper body, look down, lower their voice, and slow their breathing and blink rate. And they will exhibit a recognizable moment of relief when the interview is over. Interrogators will often end an interview prematurely just to look for that shift in posture and relaxation.
  • Verbal tells. People who are overly determined in their denial resort to non-contracted rather than relaxed language. “Did not” rather than “didn’t”  They will use distancing language as in “ that woman” rather than someone’s name. They will often pepper their story with inappropriate detail as if to prove to you they are telling the truth. They will look you in the eye too much, as if to appear honest, when in fact most people telling the truth only look you in the eye a comfortable 60 % of the time.
  • Stories told in perfect chronological order. Try to get them to tell their story backwards. They can’t do it. Honest people remember stories in the order of emotional prominence. Liars tend to concoct a time-stamped story but they falter when asked to recount it differently.

These clusters of behavioral cues are just one piece of the puzzle. In the book, I outline a five-step method to get to the truth. It teaches you how to phrase questions, how to find gaps in someone’s story and most importantly how to confirm your hunches so you don’t accuse someone wrongly. The point is to get to the truth — not to be that nitpicky kid in the back of the room saying “gotcha!”