Wouldn’t it be great to know when you’re being lied to?  Humans are complex and even lie detectors are not 100% accurate.  However, science points to plenty of indicators to help us detect when we’re being told a lie.

David Larcker and Anastasia Zakolyukina of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business believe they have a few indicators to let you know when your boss is lying to you. After analyzing thousands of corporate earnings calls, Larker and Zakolyukina think they have come up with a way to tell when senior executives are fibbing.

“I think since the Garden of Eden we’ve been trying to figure this out — who’s lying and who’s not lying,” said David Larcker.

They drew on psychological studies showing how people speak differently when they are fibbing.  They published their findings in a paper called “Detecting Deceptive Discussions in Conference Calls.”

Words to Watch Out For: ‘We’ and ‘Our Team’

Larcker and Zakolyukina listened to and read through the transcripts of thousands of corporate earnings calls where CEOs and chief financial officers took questions from analysts. The researchers identified some key indicators of deception.

Zakolyukina found that lying executives tend to overuse words like “we” and “our team” when they talk about their company. They avoid saying “I.” She believes the reason for that is: “If I’m saying ‘I’ or ‘me’ or ‘mine,’ I’m showing my ownership of the statement, so psychologically I’m showing I’m responsible for what I’m saying.”

Accentuate the Positive

They also found that lying CEOs tended to use many words that express positive emotion — things are marvelous and magnificent and extraordinary.

Here’s what Enron CEO Kenneth Lay said when he addressed his employees at a time when the company was about to collapse:

“I think our core businesses are extremely strong. We have a very strong competitive advantage. Of course, we are transferring this very successful business model and approach to a lot of new, very large markets globally.”

We know how well things went. Words like that can be a form of overcompensation. “If all speech is ‘fantastic,’ ‘superb,’ ‘outstanding,’ ‘excellent’ and all speech sounds like a big hype — it probably is,” Larcker says.

In Other Research

Pamela Meyer, founder and CEO of Calibrate which is a leading deception detection company based in Washington DC, gave a TED talk in 2011 on spotting a liar.

In that talk, Meyers said that people can lie 10–200 times a day. She added that other studies showed that strangers lied three times within the first 10 minutes of meeting someone.

She says: Liars like to use qualifying language, like “To tell you the truth”… “Honestly”… “I swear to you.”
They also like to repeat the question before answering it. “Did I eat the last bowl of chocolate ice cream?”  Repeating questions buys time to help them come up with an answer.  Liars like to over-emphasize all of the details and be very specific on what they are saying. Often times, they pick some vague point and talk about it incessantly instead of focusing on the main issue.

Additionally in a book written in 2011, called “Spy the Lie,” three former CIA officers compiled decades of their experience in recognizing deceptive behavior into this book. Some of the possible ways to know that someone is not being truthful are:

  • Covering the mouth or eyes. There’s a natural inclination to try to cover a lie. Someone telling a lie may cover their mouth or eyes.  The same holds true when a person shuts their eyes while answering, indicating on a subconscious level that they don’t want to see the response to the lie.
  • Clearing the throat clearing or swallowing frequently
  • Adjusting clothes. A man might adjust his tie or a woman may straighten her skirt or move her hair when responding to a question.
  • Dodging a direct answer. This one is one of my personal irritants. I feel it every night when I watch the news and politicians are interviewed.  I’m the one screaming “Just answer the question!” If you ask someone, “Did you steal the car?” and they answer with “I didn’t do it,”  “It was not me,” or “I didn’t do anything,” instead of a simple “no,” consider that noteworthy.  Giving such answers are a way for the person to psychologically avoid a blatant lie.
  • Attacking the person asking the question such as “Don’t you have something better to do than to waste my time with this stuff?”
  • “Dressing up the lie” by bringing up religion. Look for phrases such as “I swear to God” or “As God is my witness,” which may indicate a falsehood is taking place.
  • Touching their face and rubbing the back of their neck.
  • Liars also like to “hedge their statements.” You’ll hear these often when you listen to court testimony, political hearings and TV interviews. You’ll hear:  “As far as I recall…” “If you really think about it…” “What I remember is…” Hedged statements aren’t an absolute indicator of deception, but an overuse of qualifying phrases certainly should raise suspicion and make you dig a little deeper.
  • Avoiding pronouns. If you question an invoice, a liar might say “You don’t bill hours that you didn’t work” instead of making the clear first- person statement such as, “I don’t bill hours I didn’t work.”
  • Switching anchor points.  Anchor points are defined as the areas that keep someone in a particular spot or position. A person standing uses their feet as anchor points, while a person in a chair is using their butt as an anchor point. When you start to see the anchor points shift, it can be a sign of deceptive behavior.

Disclaimer: It’s important to note that just because someone exhibits some of these signs doesn’t make them a liar. These behaviors should be compared to a person’s normal behavior whenever possible.  Most experts agree that a combination of body language and other verbal and non-verbal cues should be used to make an educated guess on whether someone is telling the truth or a lie.

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