Archive for the ‘Trust’ Category

How to Spot a Liar … Maybe

Monday, January 10th, 2011

I’m deeply mistrustful of mind-reading systems for detecting liars, such the pseudo science offered up in the wrong-on-so-many-counts movie, “The Negotiator”. (“If your eyes go up and right, you’re accessing the brain’s creative centers and we know you’re full of shit.”) Ah, if only it were so easy we wouldn’t be buried in the stuff these days.

That said, NPR yesterday reported on some interesting research led by Stanford Business School Professor David Larcker on the verbal patterns of liars ( These could all be helpful in negotiating, with a major caveat. Here are the three warning signs Larcker’s team detected:

  • When asked a direct question, the liar tends to answer indirectly or change the topic (e.g. asked whether he thought it was wrong to dress up as a Nazi, candidate Richard Iott replied, “I don’t see anything wrong about educating the public about events that happened.”)
  • Liars tend to use more strongly positive words, perhaps to compensate for negative feelings. (”If all my speech is ‘fantastic,’ ’superb,’ ‘outstanding,’ ‘excellent’ and sounds like a big hype — it probably is,” Larcker says.)
  • People seeking to hide the truth will hide behind general pronouns such as “we” or “our team” rather than saying “I.”

Here’s the caveat:  I’d never assume someone is lying merely because he’s an indirect speaker or she tends to get carried away by superlatives. Both speech patterns and cultural differences are just as likely to be the cause. Asians rarely speak with the same directness as Westerners; and Americans are famous for their unusual fondness for strongly positive adjectives (“Have a GREAT day!”). Gender also plays a significant role. The subjects of Larckner’s study were CEOs, a disproportionately male group. In fact, women have a strong preference for saying “we” rather than “I”—it’s just the way we speak.

The best way of spotting deception is having enough of a relationship with the other party to know when something sounds off-key. If all at once your very direct counterpart starts speaking circuitously or, when asked about concerns, launches into a riff about what a fabulous and exciting opportunity this is, your lie-detecting antennae should start quivering. However, it has to begin by knowing the other party well enough to detect change.

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