Telling When Someone is Telling a Lie

I’ve spent a lot of hours trying to figure out when people are lying to me. As a litigator, one of the real challenges is leading a witness into a lie and then exposing it in front of a jury with other evidence or, preferably, the witness’s own prior conflicting testimony on video. Under the pressure of testifying in open court, some witnesses exaggerate to support their case. Most outright lie. In poker, one of my favorite pastimes, success depends on one’s ability to lie convincingly and to detect when others are lying.

We’ve been focusing this week on interviewing techniques and fraud detection.

While playing poker, I try to avoid playing any meaningful hands for the first hour, particularly when I don’t know how the others at the table play. I spend that time watching and establishing a baseline of behavior for each opponent. People have different body language when they have a big hand, when they are bluffing, and when they are not sure where they stand. I don’t just focus on the face. Good poker players are very good at not giving anything away from their facial expressions and it is too easy to get false tells. Instead, I get more useful information by watching other details: how they move their chips when they bet, body position, hand shakes, gum chewing patterns, foot tapping, etc.

I’ve heard about micro-expressions, mostly from watching the TV show ‘Like to Me‘ a few times. I have never given it much thought, but it turns out to be a very useful tool. Not dispositive in the way it appears on the show, but definitely worth developing as a skill. Aside from my fundamental skepticism about lie detection, I initially assumed that the myriad of cultural differences I will encounter in the foreign service makes the practice useless. Paul Ekman, one of the principal researchers in the field (and the scientific advisor for the TV show) did an amazing study of the isolated Fore tribesman in Papua New Guinea. What emerged was a common set of universal facial expressions: Anger, Disgust, Fear, Happiness, Sadness, and Surprise.

You don’t need to be a Fore tribesman to interpret what emotions that person is feeling. We all unconsciously make these faces, sometimes blatantly, but most of the time in a flash of a second. With practice, however, you can start to see those flashes. Everywhere. Now there’s no facial expression for “I’m lying,” but those that are skilled in reading micro-expressions can quickly spot when they don’t match the words being spoken.

After the public admission last month, the New York Times ran a piece in which Dr. Ekman analyzed a 2007 Alex Rodriguez interview during which he denied using steroids, what we now know to be a blatant lie. We used the video in class, first listening to it without watching the video (ARod’s voice was strong and he sounded genuine, albeit coached). We then watched the video and had a very different reaction.

I’m not sure it’ll make me a better poker player or a better foreign service officer, but I’m going to put in some practice time.


2 thoughts on “Telling When Someone is Telling a Lie

  1. Daniel, this is a fascinating area of study and would benefit us all if we practiced it more frequently. I know that I’ll be putting in some practice time just so I can interpret what’s really being said by the politicians on health care.

  2. If you are interested, I just recently completed a seminar that taught the Reid Technique for interviews and interrogations. It focuses on behavior symptom analysis and has been extremely beneficial.

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