How can you tell if someone is lying?

A Summary and Review of: Spy the Lie

by Philip Houston, Michael Floyd, Susan Carnicero and Don Tennant
Published by  (

Spy the Lie is a book written by a team of CIA officers who have developed a method to help you spot the tell-tale signs that someone is lying to you and help you ask the right questions to uncover the truth.

Their method was developed over decades immersed in the world of crime and espionage dealing with accomplished liars, which makes it particularly effective for the work place or the home or even observing your election candidates on TV. Do you suspect your office has a thief? Is your boss lying to you? Are your teenagers deceiving you about their sex, drug or alcohol experiences.
Spy the Lie describes the warning signs of deceptive behaviour hidden in people’s words, body language and demeanour. The book won’t give you an instant magic in-built lie detector like a TV detective because success is never that simple. The book is quite clear that many honest people demonstrate some of these suspicious behaviours anyway, simply because they are nervous, uncomfortable or it’s just who they are. So it takes a lot of practice, careful observation and the ability to ignore all irrelevant information to get what you want: the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
As well as helping you to notice deceptive behaviours, Spy the Lie suggests some questions and subtle questioning techniques that could help you prise out the truth from whoever- your MP, your employees, a salesman, your teenagers, your kids or your spouse. However, the book is quite clear that these techniques should not be deployed lightly on family members because once something has been said it can’t be unsaid… and you all still have to live together.
Incidentally, if you are worried about a younger child telling too many lies, there are many reasons younger children tell ‘lies’ and not all of them have deceptive intent. So check out these articles by child psychologists:

How to spot a Liar
Fundamentally, you are looking to spot ‘clusters’ of deceptive behaviour (listed below) occurring at key moments. Timing is everything. You need to be able to Look AND listen at these key moments- within five seconds of you asking a question.  (People think much faster than they speak- so after five seconds they’re almost already thinking of something else- probably anticipating your next question).
Obviously during the course of a long conversation you will be bombarded with a lot of information- and actually most of it will be completely true because even liars will offer you plenty of true information. So to prevent your brain overloading- you will need to train yourself to ignore truthful behaviour and just keep an eye and ear out for verbal and non-verbal (body language) deceptive behaviours.

Verbal behaviours that might indicate deception.
All lies ever told in the world take one of three forms:  Lies of commission are straightforward bald faced, flat out lies. Most people, even skilled liars, tend not to tell bald faced lies that often- because they don’t want to get caught out. Lies of omission are the things are person doesn’t say, whereas lies of persuasion are self-flattering things are person says to you to convince you they would never ever lie.  It’s these lies of persuasion that are probably the most deadly- because they cover up the other two so successfully. This book will help you spot all types of lies.

Convincing Statements
Convincing statements are particular lies of persuasion that are told by people who want to convince you they are an honest, upright citizens who could never possibly lie. They are trying to create a Halo around themselves. Famous child molesters like Jimmy Saville and Jerry Sandusky did a lot of charity work so were able to tell a lot of convincing statements. In fact, they told so many convincing statements they created ‘Halos’ around themselves that completely obscured their criminal behaviour for decades. Convincing statements are such powerful deceptive behaviours because most of us tend to think the best of people and so we are vulnerable to believing the positive things people tell us and so ignoring the negative things we might subsequently hear. This is how they do it:
Q. “Did you touch that child?”
A.  “I gave a million dollars to children’s charities last year!”

Q. “Did you take that £50 from petty cash?”
A. “I go to church every Sunday!”

Teenagers also use this technique a lot…
Q. “Have you ever taken drugs?”
A. “I’ve never given you any reason to think that!”
A. “I can’t believe you would think that of me!”

Failure to Answer
Or Reluctance to Answer. Or Refusal to Answer.  Someone just spoke a bunch of words at you but none of these words included an answer to the question you asked. Why not? Why would someone not answer a simple question? Because if the truth is not their friend, they’ll avoid going near it at all costs.

And by not answering the question, they also probably delivered a couple of convincing statements, in which case, ladies and gentlemen you now have yourself a ‘cluster’ of deceptive behaviours.

Failure to Deny
See above response. Honest or innocent people will simply deny- and offer you a straightforward explanation for their denial. “No. I didn’t kill my wife. I was in the pub all night.” “No way! I didn’t take any drugs last night because Jamie is a dick and I’m not like him” “No, I didn’t see Carla on Saturday, she went out with Jilly”

The Wrong Kind of Denial
OK. You ask a question, you hear a denial and before reading this book might have been satisfied with that denial. But not all denials are the same. What exactly did you hear?
Non specific denial.
Q. “Did you steal the biscuits?”
A. “I didn’t do anything.” Warning light!

Buried denial.
Think of Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard: “No! but yeah but no but yeah etc.” Warning lights should be flashing like mad now. The longer the explanation that follows a denial- the more your warning lights and alarm bells should be ringing.

Repeating the Question
They’re buying themselves more time to think… on its own this response can be perfectly normal, plenty of people do this. Remember- you’re looking for clusters of more than one deceptive behaviour…

Non-Answer Statements
They’re buying themselves time. Again, this is not a bad sign by itself as some people just like filling up the silence while they think.
“I’m glad you asked me that”
“That’s a good question”
“That’s a legitimate concern”

Attack Behaviour
“Why do you always pick on me?!”
“Why don’t you trust me?!”
You’ve definitely hit a nerve so put yourself on Red Alert. Defcon5

Inconsistent Statements
This is when what they tell you something that doesn’t match what they have said to you previously- and they can’t explain why there’s a discrepancy… Politicians do this a lot.

Overly Specific Answers
They answer a narrower question than you asked.
Q. “How were sales this quarter?”
A. “Internet sales were up 15%”
So what is he not telling you about other kinds of sales…?

“Have you seen Jenny recently?”
“No I didn’t see Jenny at the weekend”

Or they bombard you with a lot of truthful but irrelevant information
“Jenny was out celebrating with friends, at Starlights. She passed all her exams, got five A’s”

Inappropriate Questions
Responding to a question with a question is sometimes considered a deceptive behaviour in itself but not to the Spy the Lie team who believe it’s the type of question that is important.
Q. “Is there any reason the stolen laptop would have your fingerprints on it?”
A. “How much did it cost?”
This should set alarm bells off as an innocent person would probably respond with:
A. “Whose laptop was it?”
A. “Which room was it stolen from?”
Because, of course, they may have used the laptop legitimately recently.

Inappropriate Politeness
“That’s a great tie you’re wearing!”
Politicians and door to door salesmen would never do this of course. Ding ding.

Inappropriate Level of Concern
This is an attempt to minimise the importance of the issue being discussed- often by making jokes.
“Why is it such a big deal anyway?”
“Why is everybody so worried about this?”
“Jeesh, we were only messing around! Everyone messes around”

Procedural Complaints
“Why are you asking me?”
“How long will this take?”
These are not quite attacks, more like deflections, but still definitely worth watching out for and noting for future reference so you can frame some follow up questions.

Referral Statements
“As I said to your colleague already…”
”As we explained in our press release…”
“As I said in out last meeting…”

This is a clever psychological trick. Most people are more likely to believe something (good or bad) the more often they hear it. Think about it: the more insistent your child is the more likely you are to take note. The more newspapers you read about something in- the more likely you are to believe it must be true. The more often you hear an item repeated on the news, the more important you think it must be. Everyone else can’t ALL be wrong surely?

By using referral statements the liar is also subtly telling you that everyone else has already been told at least once, that everyone else believes them. Everyone except you.

Invoking Religion
The more someone invokes their god, the more you should pay attention to what they’re (not) saying.
“I swear to god…”
“As god is my witness…”

Selective Memory
“Not that I’m aware…”
“To the best of my knowledge…”
“As far as I know…”
But anyone can forget stuff… so again, don’t forget it’s clusters of deceptive behaviours you’re looking for.

Exclusion qualifiers
“For the most part…”

Perception Qualifiers
–    “Honestly…”
–    “Candidly…”
–    “To tell you the truth…”

Using these words repeatedly counts only once as a deceptive behaviour. ie. repeated use of these words don’t make a cluster. Some people just talk like this. You’d need something else as well to make these words suspicious.

Unintended Messages
These are trickier to notice but can be invaluable. This is the classic slip of the tongue, a Freudian slip, when someone accidentally reveals what they’re really thinking.

This is an excerpt from a real job interview undertaken by a company wary of hiring ‘job hoppers’:
Q. “how would you convince an employer you were the right person for the job?”
A. “I would tell him that I’m well qualified and I have the skills he’s looking for and he’ll miss me when I’m gone.”

Non-Verbal Deceptions
Non-verbal deceptions are not about the ‘secret’ tics, tells & micro expressions that you see on TV- that detectives and poker players are always looking for. (Micro expressions are involuntary muscle movements on the face that even a seasoned liar can’t prevent) Although micro expressions do exist, they are often far too fleeting for most people to use in a normal Q&A or conversation.
Pauses & Delays in Speech
-keep an eye on their usual speech patterns. It’s changes in the length of their pauses – after particular  questions- that you’re looking out for. Some just people pause a lot in conversation anyway.

Verbal/Non-verbal Disconnect
-Do they nod, while saying ‘No’? or shake their head  while saying yes. Try it yourself it’s not that easy. So it makes for a good indicator that someone is trying to deceive you.

Covering of Mouth or Eyes
-This is a classic sign of deceptive behaviour and very common with kids especially. Closing their eyes for an overly long time also counts…

Throat clearing, swallowing BEFORE speaking.
-Has anxiety caused their throat to dry?

Hand to Face movements/activity
-touching of lips, ears, nose etc.
-when people are anxious, blood flow to the heart and muscles increase (The Fight or Flight instinct kicks in) which decreases blood flow to extremities like ears and faces, which consequently become pale and itchy… Gotcha!

Anchor Point movements
-anchor points are the points if the body which anchor a person to the ground. Feet, bum, hands etc depending on how they’re sitting or standing. Again, the blood flows away these areas when they grow anxious- so it’s not surprising they get a wee bit fidgety.

Grooming gestures
-adjusting hair, ties, cuffs, glasses, straightening skirt… even tidying up surrounding area like their desk. Keep an eye on when they do this. If it only occurs in response to certain lines of questioning then you’re probably hunting down the right track…

So you’ve spotted a cluster of deceptive behaviours. A colleague, partner, boss, teen, tween, MP or salesman is definitely lying to you. What do you do next? How do you uncover the truth they’re trying to keep from you.

Continue reading part 2:

How do you get someone to tell you the truth?