How to spot a liar – Ted Talk by Pamela Meyer (Transcript)

July 15, 2014 9:53 am | By More

 

Pamela Meyer – Author of Liespotting

Okay, now I don’t want to alarm anybody in this room, but it’s just come to my attention that the person to your right is a liar. Also, the person to your left is a liar. Also the person sitting in your very seats is a liar. We’re all liars.

What I’m going to do today is I’m going to show you what the research says about why we’re all liars, how you can become a liespotter and why you might want to go the extra mile and go from liespotting to truth seeking, and ultimately to trust building.

Now speaking of trust, ever since I wrote this book, “Liespotting,” no one wants to meet me in person anymore, no, no, no, no, no. They say, “It’s okay, we’ll email you.” I can’t even get a coffee date at Starbucks. My husband’s like, “Honey, deception? Maybe you could have focused on cooking. How about French cooking?”

So before I get started, what I’m going to do is I’m going to clarify my goal for you, which is not to teach a game of Gotcha. Liespotters aren’t those nitpicky kids, those kids in the back of the room that are shouting, “Gotcha! Gotcha! Your eyebrow twitched. You flared your nostril. I watch that TV show ‘Lie To Me.’ I know you’re lying.” No, liespotters are armed with scientific knowledge of how to spot deception. They use it to get to the truth, and they do what mature leaders do everyday; they have difficult conversations with difficult people, sometimes during very difficult times. And they start up that path by accepting a core proposition, and that proposition is the following: Lying is a cooperative act. Think about it, a lie has no power whatsoever by its mere utterance. Its power emerges when someone else agrees to believe the lie.

So I know it may sound like tough love, but look, if at some point you got lied to, it’s because you agreed to get lied to.

Lying is a cooperative act

Truth number one about lying: Lying’s a cooperative act. Now not all lies are harmful. Sometimes we’re willing participants in deception for the sake of social dignity, maybe to keep a secret that should be kept secret, secret. We say, “Nice song.” “Honey, you don’t look fat in that, no.” Or we say, favorite of the digiratti, “You know, I just fished that email out of my spam folder. So sorry.”

But there are times when we are unwilling participants in deception. And that can have dramatic costs for us. Last year saw $997 billion in corporate fraud alone in the United States. That’s an eyelash under a trillion dollars. That’s 7% of revenues. Deception can cost billions. Think Enron, Madoff, the mortgage crisis. Or in the case of double agents and traitors, like Robert Hanssen or Aldrich Ames, lies can betray our country, they can compromise our security, they can undermine democracy, they can cause the deaths of those that defend us.

Deception is actually serious business. This con man, Henry Oberlander, he was such an effective con man British authorities say he could have undermined the entire banking system of the Western world. And you can’t find this guy on Google; you can’t find him anywhere. He was interviewed once, and he said the following. He said, “Look, I’ve got one rule.” And this was Henry’s rule, he said, “Look, everyone is willing to give you something. They’re ready to give you something for whatever it is they’re hungry for.” And that’s the crux of it.

If you don’t want to be deceived, you have to know, what is it that you’re hungry for? And we all kind of hate to admit it. We wish we were better husbands, better wives, smarter, more powerful, taller, richer — the list goes on. Lying is an attempt to bridge that gap, to connect our wishes and our fantasies about who we wish we were, how we wish we could be, with what we’re really like. And boy are we willing to fill in those gaps in our lives with lies.

On a given day, studies show that you may be lied to anywhere from 10 to 200 times. Now granted, many of those are white lies. But in another study, it showed that strangers lied three times within the first 10 minutes of meeting each other. Now when we first hear this data, we recoil. We can’t believe how prevalent lying is. We’re essentially against lying. But if you look more closely, the plot actually thickens. We lie more to strangers than we lie to coworkers. Extroverts lie more than introverts. Men lie eight times more about themselves than they do other people. Women lie more to protect other people. If you’re an average married couple, you’re going to lie to your spouse in one out of every 10 interactions. Now you may think that’s bad. If you’re unmarried, that number drops to three.

Lying is complex

It’s woven into the fabric of our daily and our business lives. We’re deeply ambivalent about the truth. We parse it out on an as-needed basis, sometimes for very good reasons, other times just because we don’t understand the gaps in our lives. That’s truth number two about lying. We’re against lying, but we’re covertly for it in ways that our society has sanctioned for centuries and centuries and centuries. It’s as old as breathing. It’s part of our culture, it’s part of our history. Think Dante, Shakespeare, the Bible, News of the World.

Lying has evolutionary value to us as a species. Researchers have long known that the more intelligent the species, the larger the neocortex, the more likely it is to be deceptive. Now you might remember Koko. Does anybody remember Koko the gorilla who was taught sign language? Koko was taught to communicate via sign language. Here’s Koko with her kitten. It’s her cute little, fluffy pet kitten. Koko once blamed her pet kitten for ripping a sink out of the wall. We’re hardwired to become leaders of the pack. It starts really, really early.

How early? Well babies will fake a cry, pause, wait to see who’s coming and then go right back to crying. One-year-olds learn concealment. Two-year-olds bluff. Five-year-olds lie outright. They manipulate via flattery. Nine-year-olds, masters of the cover up. By the time you enter college, you’re going to lie to your mom in one out of every five interactions. By the time we enter this work world and we’re breadwinners, we enter a world that is just cluttered with spam, fake digital friends, partisan media, ingenious identity thieves, world-class Ponzi schemers, a deception epidemic — in short, what one author calls a post-truth society. It’s been very confusing for a long time now.

What do you do? Well there are steps we can take to navigate our way through the morass. Trained liespotters get to the truth 90% of the time. The rest of us, we’re only 54% accurate. Why is it so easy to learn? There are good liars and there are bad liars. There are no real original liars. We all make the same mistakes. We all use the same techniques. So what I’m going to do is I’m going to show you two patterns of deception. And then we’re going to look at the hot spots and see if we can find them ourselves. We’re going to start with speech.

[Video Clip]

“Bill Clinton: I want you to listen to me. I’m going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time, never. And these allegations are false. And I need to go back to work for the American people. Thank you”.

Okay, what were the telltale signs? Well, first we heard what’s known as a non-contracted denial. Studies show that people who are overdetermined in their denial will resort to formal rather than informal language. We also heard distancing language: “that woman.” We know that liars will unconsciously distance themselves from their subject using language as their tool.

Now if Bill Clinton had said, “Well, to tell you the truth … ” or Richard Nixon’s favorite, “In all candor … ” he would have been a dead giveaway for any liespotter than knows that qualifying language, as it’s called, qualifying language like that, further discredits the subject. Now if he had repeated the question in its entirety, or if he had peppered his account with a little too much detail — and we’re all really glad he didn’t do that — he would have further discredited himself.

Freud had it right. Freud said, look, there’s much more to it than speech: “No mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips.” And we all do it no matter how powerful you are. We all chatter with our fingertips. I’m going to show you Dominique Strauss-Kahn with Obama who’s chattering with his fingertips.

Body language

Now this brings us to our next pattern, which is body language. With body language, here’s what you’ve got to do. You’ve really got to just throw your assumptions out the door. Let the science temper your knowledge a little bit. Because we think liars fidget all the time. Well guess what, they’re known to freeze their upper bodies when they’re lying. We think liars won’t look you in the eyes. Well guess what, they look you in the eyes a little too much just to compensate for that myth. We think warmth and smiles convey honesty, sincerity. But a trained liespotter can spot a fake smile a mile away. Can you all spot the fake smile here? You can consciously contract the muscles in your cheeks. But the real smile’s in the eyes, the crow’s feet of the eyes. They cannot be consciously contracted, especially if you overdid the Botox. Don’t overdo the Botox; nobody will think you’re honest.

Now we’re going to look at the hot spots. Can you tell what’s happening in a conversation? Can you start to find the hot spots to see the discrepancies between someone’s words and someone’s actions? Now I know it seems really obvious, but when you’re having a conversation with someone you suspect of deception, attitude is by far the most overlooked but telling of indicators.

An honest person is going to be cooperative. They’re going to show they’re on your side. They’re going to be enthusiastic. They’re going to be willing and helpful to getting you to the truth. They’re going to be willing to brainstorm, name suspects, provide details. They’re going to say, “Hey, maybe it was those guys in payroll that forged those checks.” They’re going to be infuriated if they sense they’re wrongly accused throughout the entire course of the interview, not just in flashes; they’ll be infuriated throughout the entire course of the interview. And if you ask someone honest what should happen to whomever did forge those checks, an honest person is much more likely to recommend strict rather than lenient punishment.

Now let’s say you’re having that exact same conversation with someone deceptive. That person may be withdrawn, look down, lower their voice, pause, be kind of herky-jerky. Ask a deceptive person to tell their story, they’re going to pepper it with way too much detail in all kinds of irrelevant places. And then they’re going to tell their story in strict chronological order. And what a trained interrogator does is they come in and in very subtle ways over the course of several hours, they will ask that person to tell that story backwards, and then they’ll watch them squirm, and track which questions produce the highest volume of deceptive tells.

Why do they do that? Well we all do the same thing. We rehearse our words, but we rarely rehearse our gestures. We say “yes,” we shake our heads “no.” We tell very convincing stories, we slightly shrug our shoulders. We commit terrible crimes, and we smile at the delight in getting away with it. Now that smile is known in the trade as “duping delight.”

And we’re going to see that in several videos moving forward, but we’re going to start — for those of you who don’t know him, this is presidential candidate John Edwards who shocked America by fathering a child out of wedlock. We’re going to see him talk about getting a paternity test. See now if you can spot him saying, “yes” while shaking his head “no,” slightly shrugging his shoulders.

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