Propaganda 105: How to Spot a Liar


“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.

This 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. Professor Jonathan Turley at his blog Res Ispa Loquitur 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, see this 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

Note: This column was originally published at Res Ispa Loquitur ( on November 11, 2012.  It has been re-edited for presentation here.

About Gene Howington

I write and do other stuff.
This entry was posted in Propaganda. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Propaganda 105: How to Spot a Liar

  1. Anonymously Yours says:


  2. michael beaton says:

    Continuing the references in the post – Ie P.Meyers book, this article takes the same tact of examining the Christie press conference in terms of the principles of spotting lying…

    — Excerpt of the first point in the article:
    1. Too much detail regarding unimportant issues. According to Meyer, a subject will often offer specific details that have nothing to do with the question of his guilt as a way of validating his claim of innocence. It’s as if the specificity will add credibility to what he’s about to tell you. However, when you listen closely, you’ll observe that the abundance of details does not lead to relevant information.

    When explaining how he learned of the breach in his office regarding the bridge lane closures, Christie said that he finished his workout at 8:50 and received a call from his director of communication at 8:55. Then he said, “I found this out at 8:50 yesterday morning. By 9:00 this morning, Bridget Kelly was fired. By 7:00 yesterday evening, Bill Stepien was asked to leave my organization.”

    This may sound credible, but it begs the follow-up question, where’s the inquiry? Why fire your deputy chief of staff without talking to her further to find out who else might have been involved and what her motive might have been. As a former attorney, Christie knows that establishing motive is critical to securing a conviction of guilt, and if she’s the linchpin, why isn’t he speaking to her to find the others involved? Instead, when asked why Kelly lied to him, he said, “I have not had any conversation with Bridget Kelly since the email came out. And so she was not given the opportunity to explain to me why she lied because it was so obvious that she had. And I’m, quite frankly, not interested in the explanation at the moment.”

    Notably, Christie indicated nine separate times throughout the conference that he was interviewing his staff and would continue to interview them. He details conversations with people he said are not involved. But why spend so much time talking to innocent people? If you want to find the guilty, talk to those you know are guilty. At one point, he said,

    And so now, having been proven wrong, of course we’ll work cooperatively with the investigations. And you know, I’m going through an examination, as I mentioned to you, right now. That’s what I’m doing. I’m going through an examination and talking to the individual people who work for me, not only to discover if there’s any other information we need find, but also to ask them: How did this happen? How did, you know, how did this, you know, occur to us?

    Here again, he’s giving the appearance of being cooperative by offering details, but those details lead to no real information except to tell us how serious he is about interviewing. In fact, though the conference lasted almost two hours, Christie said very little.

  3. My granddaughter likes Lt. Joe Kenda, a retired detective from the Colorado Springs Police Department. Some of his more notable cases are featured on the Discovery ID channel, as Homicide Hunter

    The producers have had Lt. Kenda sit down in what appears to be the old jail, and just talk about his experiences. My granddaughter saw this one and said, “Pawpaw, that is spooky. He sounds just like you when you talk about old cases.”

  4. wordcloud9 says:

    Gene – I believe there’s a compliment intended for you mistakenly posted at my ON THIS DAY for April 7th.

  5. Lenny says:

    i was at a dinner with a saintly rabbi. He said “Always speak the truth.” Someone asked “what if it interferes with the peace of the household? For example, you wife asks your opinion about how she looks.” The rabbi said “People stopped asking me for my opinion a long time ago.”

Comments are closed.