If you think you know when people are being dishonest with you, you’re probably wrong. People are generally very bad lie detectors, no matter how many episodes of Law & Order they’ve seen. There are so many variables when it comes to deception that even the pros find it difficult.
“People are notoriously bad at assessing how well they detect deception,” Steven Keyl, a behavioral expert who has worked for several U.S. Intelligence agencies, told Fatherly. “Almost everyone rates themselves as above average, which is statistically impossible.”
As a rule, it’s easier to detect lying—outright falsehoods—that more subtle deception, research shows. A review of more than 200 studies on the topic found that the average person is about as accurate at detecting deception as if he or she had guessed at random. And it’s not that the average person doesn’t know the telltale signs of a liar (breaking eye contact, refusing questions, pausing)—it’s that those cues could mean many other things as well, studies suggest. For instance, uncooperative behavior may indicate deception, but it could also indicate exhaustion or irritability. And despite how important emotional intelligence is, some data indicates that people who are less emotionally intelligent might be, if anything, better at spotting dishonestly.
So it’s not merely a matter of knowing the subtle cues of deceptive behavior, and it’s not about emotional intelligence. So what qualities make great bullshit detectors? In a word, Keyl says, the sort of person who can read a lie on your face is also the sort of person who notices mismatched socks and instantly knows the decor of a room when he or she walks in. The kind of person who notices everything tends to also notice a lie. It’s not necessarily a skill that can be taught.
At the same time, there are ways to get an advantage. The better you know someone, the more likely you are to detect their lies according to Dmitri Oster, a clinical social worker and criminal profiler. “The more you know about the speaker and their particular ways of expressing and behaving, the more you are able to spot when the person acts within their normal frame of reference and when they do not,” he told Fatherly.
If you don’t have a history with the person in question, you can still get an edge by asking a series of benign questions that are known truths, such as the date, the president, and the weather, according to private investigator and certified polygrapher Lisa Ribacoff. Much in the way that lie detector tests function, this would allow you to establish a baseline so you can tell when the subject’s voice, body position, or breathing deviates from the norm. From there, detecting dishonesty is really about getting a person to answer as many specific questions as possible. “Make sure you’re asking the right questions. Don’t ask open-ended ones, because it gives them the opportunity to pick and choose what they want to say and withhold,” Ribacoff recommends.
Ultimately, if you want to get sharper about detecting deception, Keyl, Oster, and Ribacoff all agree that practice makes perfect. However, that means routinely challenging people to work this muscle out, which may not be fun for you, not to mention the people you’re around. For Ribacoff whose father and brother are also private investigators, having an innate sense for truth and falsehood is both a blessing and a curse. So be careful what you wish for.
“It’s just like a light switch you want to be able to turn on and off,” she says. “But after knowing how to read speech patterns and body language and really see and hear what’s going on, how do you not bluntly tell a person at the store saying you look good in a dress that they’re full of shit?”