How to know when you’re being lied to

Story highlights

Researchers are mastering the art of questioning to reveal when people are lying

The new technique has improved lie detection rates from 58% to 72%

CNN  — 

What were you doing between 10 and 11 a.m. yesterday?

Once you recall this, could you describe it in reverse order starting midway through that hour?

How you’d go on to provide this information would reveal a lot about you. Not only would the details describe your life or your morning routine, the person listening to your response could use them to decipher how much of it is true.

Your response could easily let slip if you’re lying.

“[It’s about] outsmarting the liars,” said Aldert Vrij, professor of applied social psychology at the University of Portsmouth. “[We] ask questions, or give instructions, that are more difficult to answer or address by liars than truth tellers.”

For years, Vrij has been researching the best ways to establish when people are being deceptive – particularly during a police interrogation.

“Research shows that techniques aimed at outsmarting liars are successful,” he said.

Vrij long ago veered away from watching people sweat and using polygraphs to developing evidence-based means of interrogation. By training authorities across a range of countries, lie detection rates in his trials have risen to 72%, up from 58%. This has the potential to save billions of pounds worth of resources spent on investigating crimes; cybercrime alone is estimated to cost the global economy more than $400 billion.

The approach is known as “cognitive load interviewing” and involves asking questions, setting tasks within them and demanding more detail, which essentially means overloading someone’s brain as they provide information. As they respond, they inevitably drop verbal cues of any deception.

“Truth-tellers are often more detailed than liars,” said Vrij.

Whereas liars tend to say as little as possible.

When someone has something to hide, they will also be more likely to justify what they do say, be on the lookout for a reaction, and use fragmented sentences when they can, according to research conducted by R. Edward Geiselman, professor of psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Another strategy is to repeat the question and speak slowly to buy time and create a story. “[Once they have it], they will spew it out faster,” Geiselman said in a comment. “Truthful people will not dramatically alter their speech rate within a single sentence.”

This insight can help officials get the answers they need, through cognitive interviews.

The cognitive interview

Getting answers comes down to what you ask, how you ask it and listening carefully to the answers.

This includes setting challenges in addition to the questions, such as having someone tell their story backward while instructing them to be as detailed as they can.

“Increase the cognitive load to push them over the edge,” Geiselman said.

This is thought to leave people having to think heavily while sticking to their story and simultaneously watching you for your reaction, but this is just one part of the approach. Following swiftly is the need to encourage interviewees to say more and ask unexpected questions, according to Vrij.

“I like encouraging interviewees to say more, as it addresses two important issues at the same time: it makes interviewees provide more information … and results in cues to deceit,” Vrij said.

Another tactic is asking someone to describe an event that police can verify, to then obtain evidence for it occurring, such as asking their whereabouts and tracking down CCTV footage. “Truth-tellers give more verifiable detail than liars,” Vrij said. “[In addition], it focuses on evidence to demonstrate whether someone is telling the truth or lying.”

No truth in sweat and machines

When most people think of someone lying, they envision sweating, lack of eye contact and rapid heart rate, all detected by hooking the person up to a polygraph machine.

But Vrij and Geiselmen steer clear of these strategies.

“[They] are based on arousal and anxiety and the idea that liars are anxious,” Vrij said. “The problem is that truth-tellers can also be very anxious in interview settings due to the fear of not being believed.”

Vrij adds that there are also many myths around behavior and deception that are not diagnostic and are not supported by evidence for their accuracy. He argues this communicative approach, looking for verbal cues of deceit, is more reliable.

It has now been adopted by police, military and intelligence agencies worldwide, according to the Economic and Social Research Council, which funded Vrij to conduct his research.

“[Cognitive interviews] are pretty much all that works reliably,” Gieselman said. “All else you find out there is simply snake oil by folks trying to earn a living teaching something about detecting deception for a buck.”

If you find yourself caught in a lie – be it to a police officer or your partner – prepare for your brain to be tested more than you could ever expect.