Secrets from the FBI.
A couple of days ago, my friend Philippe tried to pull off a barefaced lie on me with such stunning conviction that, had I not been in possession of an impeccable memory, I’d have been duped.
“Wow,” I dryly observed, almost half impressed to be in the midst of such prodigious acting talent, “Robert de Niro must be taking notes.”
To his credit, Philippe was actually uttering an untruth in an attempt to ultimately do something quite nice. But, he did get me thinking about world-class liars – and even those of the garden-variety kind we all often encounter.
Each day we’re confronted by situations in which we have to determine whether someone is telling the absolute truth, maybe fudging the details a bit, or even out-and-out lying.
The grounded teenager who asks whether he can go to a friend’s place on a Friday night to work together on a joint class assignment (as he smugly texts his friend about the irony in his cover story.)
The dentist who declares that the only available solution to your dental woes would be a root canal, two porcelain crowns and re-doing some fillings for good measure, while glancing longingly at an image of the latest convertible model on his computer’s screensaver.
The client who tells you that he’s on a tight budget and the absolute maximum figure he’s willing to pay comes with no room for negotiation, while adjusting the newly purchased luxury Swiss timepiece on his wrist.
Who knows, they all may be telling the truth, even if they’re acting a bit sketchy. But, if they are skilled liars or even sociopaths, to them fooling you would be like taking candy from a baby.
Which is why you need the skills of a human lie detector. Being able to tell in some concrete way if someone is being shady for the wrong reasons will save you time, save you money, save you grief and sometimes, even save lives.
To learn such an arguably critical life skill, especially when dealing with those with a gift for subterfuge, only expert advice from one of the world’s most foremost authorities will do.
With a 25-year career history at the FBI as a special agent and supervisor in counter intelligence and counter terrorism, as a founding member of the FBI’s elite Behavioral Analysis Unit, and as the international best-selling author of “What Every Body is Saying,” I knew Joe Navarro was the man.
“I want to hear the real secrets – not the standard stuff about touching the nose or shifty eyes, which everyone knows are signs that someone is fibbing,” I briefed him.
“Those are myths of deception,” he replied. “They have nothing to do with deception. People under stress may touch their nose more but that is only because of the situation. Also liars we now know make greater eye contact than truthful people. They want to make sure you believe them so they look [at you] more.”
Right. Okay. Copy that.
So, this truth finding mission wasn’t going to be straightforward, especially when he added, “There is not one single behavior indicative of deception – there is no Pinocchio effect. There are behaviors that are indicative of psychological discomfort, anxiety, or distress but those can be because of the setting (testifying before congress) or because of the interviewer (dislike for authority) or perhaps the questions are intrusive. It can also be because the person is lying or has guilty knowledge. In any case the best we can do is look for behaviors that shout something is bothering this person when I ask a question. The minute I sense discomfort I wonder why.”
Given Navarro’s response, I realized that this would then require a secondary element to the exercise: quite apart from figuring out whether an individual exhibits some level of discomfort to a particular question through real time clues in their body language, we would then also need to work out what line of questioning to pursue in order to nail the individual with their lie – and that’s where it gets interesting.
More on that later in this piece, but first Navarro breaks down the six key behaviors to look out for.
1. Lip compression
“The instant our lips compress there is usually something negative going on. We often see this with people testifying – Jack Abramoff is a good example,” he offers. View the image example here. * Images open in a new window.
2. Ventilating behaviors
“You ask a question and the person ventilates as they hear the question or as they answer the question. It’s a good indicator of psychological discomfort.” This is an example of Lance Armstrong doing it.
3. Neck touching
“Touching of the neck especially the supra sternal notch (neck dimple) -something we do when we are anxious or nervous or scared. Men mask this by touching their tie.”
4. Turning their body away
“Ventral denial – a term I coined,” explains Navarro, “is often used when a topic becomes difficult to talk about or is contentious. It is a distancing behavior. People will do this subtly, looking like they are merely shifting in their seat but what they end up doing is turning so their bellies are away, even crossing a leg over so it acts like a barrier, while still making eye contact. It is very accurate of issues when the person does the behavior immediately after being asked a difficult question.”
5. Eye touching
“Often times we touch the eyes when something asked of us bothers us. It is very accurate in communicating there are issues here – again the problem is why is there an issue – but you often see it in board rooms where someone disagrees with something that is said or when they say something that is intentionally inaccurate. As I said earlier, there is no Pinocchio effect but this is a behavior often seen when we are bothered by something. Incidentally it is so accurate – when I studied children born blind, and who have never seen, they cover their eyes when they hear things they don’t like.” This is an image example here.
6. Lowering or hiding the thumbs
“One that people never look for, but very accurate, is when someone empathically says something is true or accurate or is very detailed but we don’t see the thumbs. Lowering the thumbs or even hiding the thumbs communicates insecurities or lack of commitment – again it tells us there is an issue because on the one hand we are verbally emphatic but on the other hand our body is saying not so much.” This is what it looks like.
Adds Navarro, “We want to see the thumbs up when someone is emphasizing. Or even straight up thumbs further apart – the more territorial the more emphatic and thus more accurate.”
Apart from body language behaviors, there’s also certain speech patterns worthy of further analysis.
Typically, you would have an idea about the personality and style of the person you’re dealing with, so gauging whether there’s sudden shift in behaviours or speech patterns wouldn’t be too much of challenge. But, if you’re encountering a stranger or someone you aren’t too familiar with, you need to work out a baseline, like the FBI does.
“We calm people down at first to get a baseline of behaviors so we can see what they are like with as little stress as possible. This way, by benchmarking them, we can see when they change their behaviors in relation to a question,” says Navarro.
Some may start talking faster, their voices may become more high-pitched, or they start to make more speech errors, such as um, ah, cough etc.
“Also, liars want to convince rather than just convey as most honest people do. So sometimes they will repeat things multiple times to make sure they are believed. Their spoken words become weak in the beginning of a statement or at the end.”
I’ve personally never watched the show, but if you would like to view an example of the latter, I’m told Julie Dreyfus does this beautifully on her TV show Veep.
Side note: As for the point about repetition, personally I feel this requires a caveat. As someone with an accent that many may be unused to hearing on a regular basis, coupled with consistently dismal cell phone coverage, and all too frequent interactions with individuals with far from stellar memories or attention spans – I tend to be unsure whether someone’s understood me, heard me properly or even remembered what I’ve previously said. I’ve therefore gotten into the habit of repeating myself, especially under pressure.
Given Navarro’s assessment, I may well be the anomaly here but once again, it’s all about context and understanding the normal speech habits of the individual in question.
Or even the cultural context, particularly when studying the length of pauses before a question is answered.
“On the American reservations you see greater pauses (they deliberate before answering) than in other places say, New York City where people answer very quickly,” explains Navarro.
What you want to look out for are the delay strategies used when someone answers a question such as starting with something like, “That is a good question.”
“That is often used to ‘wordsmith’ the answer,” says Navarro, but then he adds, “Incidentally both honest people and the dishonest use this tactic so in and of itself it is not indicative of deception. Some people are very cautious with their answers, so an attorney like Bill Clinton will parse his statements or be very careful what words he chooses – that is wordsmithing.”
Uncovering the truth – or nailing a liar
I asked Navarro about what line of questioning to use to best catch out a liar. “Ask questions that are emotion-based such as, ‘When you found the body how did you feel?’ The liar knows how to lie about finding the body but not the emotions attached so they sound mechanical. They will say, after thinking about if for a while, ‘I felt terrible, I guess.’ The innocent will throw the emotion into the equation voluntarily while the liar who just killed someone is pleased the person is dead so there is a conflict.”
This all sounds rather grim, so I asked him for an example specific to a business context. “You might ask, ‘When you found out there was mold in the building, how did you feel?’”
I also wondered whether, once it was determined that a line of questioning was causing the person of interest some level of discomfort, at what point would it be appropriate to turn up the dial and let them know you’re on to them by asking something along the lines of, “Is there something that’s bothering you?”
It’s a rookie error.
Even though I’m sure I picked that up from watching law enforcement officials on some TV drama. Or was it that episode ofFriends, when Phoebe’s cop boyfriend questions her in the interrogation room about not finding available rentals in Brooklyn Heights. (“You okay? You feeling alright?” he asks her.)
“You never tell people what you observe. You merely go on to other topics and you come back to that very question that caused stress and you ask it in a different way and if it causes stress again then it begins to narrow down that is not the environment or the [person asking the question] but rather the question that causes stress,” says Navarro.
The best way to uncover a lie, he advises, is by asking more questions and drilling down to specifics. “If you are asking someone if there are any tax liabilities and they ventilate, well, that has to be resolved and the only way to do that is to ask more precise questions. I would ask, “For the first quarter of 2012 were there any tax issues or liabilities? Were there any tax issues in the second quarter of 2012?’ and so forth.”
For some, this technique may be a bit much to use on their teenager, dentist or client. And I personally think if you use it on the same people too often, they may start becoming conditioned to act like an android and not let anything slip in future, especially when answering questions of a sensitive nature – thereby hampering your lie detection efforts.
On the flip side, in my (non-expert) view, if you’re an honest sort but find yourself at the receiving end of interrogating questions, the safest bet is to just be yourself. Especially when Navarro shares this with me, “I was once stopped at the airport by a policeman and my wife told me I started touching my nose a lot. He just wanted to thank me for the books I had written but merely being stopped suddenly by someone in uniform caused me – a former FBI agent – stress.”
Actually, that’s rather oddly comforting to know – that even highly trained FBI agents also have their moments. If I were a betting woman, I’d say the world-class liars don’t stand a chance …
This article originally appeared in Forbes magazine: