Propaganda 105: How to Spot a Liar

by Gene Howington, Guest Blogger

“If any man is able to convince me and show me that I do not think or act right, I will gladly change; for I seek the truth by which no man was ever injured. But he is injured who abides in his error and ignorance.” – Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, VI, 21.

Anyone who has read my work here or known me for any length of time has heard me use this quote before. It is more than just a pithy quote from one of the great Stoic minds of antiquity, it is a summation of one of my personal ethics. Earlier this week, Professor Turley posted an item about former President Bill Clinton entitled “Clinton: We Don’t Need A President Who Will Not Tell You The Truth“. The gist of the article was that a President who lied under oath as Clinton did most certainly didn’t need to be critical of other politicians lying as it was simple hypocrisy even if the point former President Clinton made was valid. This brings us to a prime and necessary component of the propaganda scenario, the liar.  Lying is a commonality in our species.  Everyone lies about something some time.  “No, that dress doesn’t make you look fat, honey.”  “I was ambushed by baboons on the way to work this morning.”  “I can’t go out tonight because I have to stay home and wax my dog.” Or the classic . . .

These are not the lies that are of primary importance in propaganda. White lies, while not necessarily ethically the best thing in the world, are a social lubricant that helps keep society cohesive. If everyone told the truth about everything all the time, the homicide and suicide rates would probably sky-rocket. We are going to focus on the truly bad actors. The liars in propaganda who are looking to get you to do something they want that is usually not in your best interests and/or harmful to others. Since many dangerous liars are sociopaths or psychopaths, the question becomes how do you spot a liar, a sociopath or a psychopath?  First we start with how to spot a generic liar before considering how to spot socio- and psychopaths at a later date.

We have discussed previously the language behind lies extensively in discussing the use of logical fallacies in speech to give untruths the veneer of truth. This is a great skill set for detecting lies in written materials and to a degree in the spoken word but the tool set is not all inclusive for dealing with the spoken.  What about in person or through visual media where you can see the speaker?  You need a different skill set to supplement the other so to that end, I bring you a TED presentation by Pamela Meyer.  Some background on Mrs. Meyer:

Pamela Meyer is founder and CEO of Calibrate, a leading deception detection training company based in Washington DC. Before writing the bestselling book , Liespotting, she spent years with a team of researchers surveying all of the research findings on deception, and underwent extensive training in facial micro-expression identification, interrogation skills and statement analysis. Prior to that she was an Internet and media executive, as founder of Simpatico Networks, a leading social media company. She is a Certified Fraud Examiner, has an MBA from Harvard, a Masters in Public Policy.” (Huffington Post).

The talk she presented at TED only glanced off the topic of verbal lies, but what she offered on body language is very important as are many of the ancillary points she makes about the value of detecting lies in the search for the truth – a thread underlying the Propaganda Series (pardon the pun).

Meyer’s list of tells in this speech is probably not as comprehensive as what is offered in her book Liespotting. The following list is a bit more inclusive than that in the speech.

Verbal cues:

  • Verbal cues such as changing to a noticeably higher or lower pitch, rambling, selective wording, avoidance of answering questions or attempting to change the subject, stammering, distancing language, loaded words, and the use of qualifiers (although much like Freud’s advice about cigars, sometimes a qualifier is just a qualifier).  Studies have also shown that liars use less contractions.
  • Unusual response time – shorter or longer. Planned (and rehearsed) lies and the liars who tell them tend to start their answers more quickly than truth-tellers. If taken by surprise, however, a liar takes longer to respond as on the fly fabrication takes time.

Physical cues:

  • A fake smile. Real smiles crinkle the corners of the eyes and change the entire face while faked smiles involve the mouth only.
  • Under or over production of saliva.
  • Pupil dilation. This nonverbal signal is almost impossible to fake. Larger pupil size that most people experience when telling a lie can be attributed to an increased amount of tension and concentration although some drugs or medical conditions can cause pupil irregularity.
  • Change in blink rate – A liar’s blink rate decreases before and during the lie and then it increases rapidly after the lie.
  • Fidgeting foot movements. ‘Nuff said.
  • Face touching. A person’s nose may not grow when he tells a lie, but watch closely and you’ll notice that when someone is about to lie or make an outrageous statement, he’ll often unconsciously rub his nose. (This is most likely because a rush of adrenaline opens the capillaries and makes his nose itch.) Mouth covering is another common gesture of people who are being untruthful, as is covering the eyes.
  • Unusual changes in gestures – Either unusual stillness or an increase in placatory gestures.
  • Microexpressions can be difficult to catch, but if you ever spot a fleeting expression that contradicts a verbal statement, believe what you see and not what you hear. Psychology Today has an excellent article on distinguishing microexpressions from other body language.
  • The quick-check glance – the classic of liars immediately looking down and away and then back at you again in a brief glimpse to see if you bought the lie.

Blended cues:

  • Incongruence not only in words but in gestures – Using logic and evidence as a guide you can spot both explicit and implicit incongruous statements. That is not the only kind of incongruous behavior though.  When a speaker believes what they say, gestures and expressions are in alignment with her words, e.g. you nod up and down when you say “yes”. When gestures contradict words – such as a side-to-side head shake while saying “yes’, it’s a sign of deceit or at least an inner conflict between what that person is thinking and saying.

All of these skills, detection of false logics and loaded language, the art of reading body language and tone of voice, all of these skills have something in common.  They are all a sort of pattern recognition. Just so when we later consider a more holistic application of pattern recognition in recognizing both sociopathic and psychopathic speakers. these are guidelines. People are people and one or two this these behaviors may be caused by different things such as medical conditions, medications and/or other stressors.  For example, I once had to take a lie detector test and do an interview where I worked because a bunch of hard drives had been stolen.  I didn’t take them.  I wasn’t worried about that. I was, however, very tense because of an ongoing fight with my then girlfriend over something totally unrelated to work.  The examiner told me at the end of the interview, “You’re obviously under some kind of stress, but I don’t think you’re our hard drive thief.” So keep in mind that unless you have a preponderance of pattern evidence, your suspected liar may not always be one. Another important thing to keep in mind is all of this pattern recognition goes right out the window when dealing with a pathological liar, but we’ll address that topic with socio- and psychopaths.

Armed with these skills, how many liars do you think you can spot in the next week?  Either at work or in the news?

Remember the Stoic’s advice, seek the truth.  That is always a key in combating propaganda.  It also doesn’t harm the Aristotelian effort to lead an examined life and it is a civic duty to keep government honest and operating off of the real instead of the illusory.


Source(s): TED, Huffington Post, Psychology Today

~submitted by Gene Howington, Guest Blogger

The Propaganda Series;

Propaganda 104 Supplemental: The Streisand Effect and the Political Question

Propaganda 104 Supplemental: The Sound of Silence

Propaganda 104: Magica Verba Est Scientia Et Ars Es

Propaganda 103: The Word Changes, The Word Remains The Same

Propaganda 102 Supplemental: Holly Would “Zero Dark Thirty”

Propaganda 102: Holly Would and the Power of Images

Propaganda 101 Supplemental: Child’s Play

Propaganda 101 Supplemental: Build It And They Will Come (Around)

Propaganda 101: What You Need to Know and Why or . . .

Related articles of interest;

Mythology and the New Feudalism by Mike Spindell

How about Some Government Propaganda for the People Paid for by the People Being Propagandized? by Elaine Magliaro


105 thoughts on “Propaganda 105: How to Spot a Liar”

Comments are closed.