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How to spot a lie

By Pamela Meyer, Special to CNN
updated 3:37 PM EST, Mon November 14, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Charges of lying are a regular feature of the headlines
  • Pamela Meyer: People may be lied to as many as 200 times a day
  • She says there are ways to spot liars
  • Meyer: Studying posture, body language and verbal clues can help to detect lying

Editor's note: Pamela Meyer is the author of the book "Liespotting". She is a Certified Fraud Examiner and Harvard MBA. Meyer spoke at the TED Global conference in Edinburgh, U.K., in July. TED is a nonprofit organization dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading," which it distributes through talks posted on its website. Program note: Tonight at 8 ET on "AC360ยบ," Anderson Cooper talks to Jerry Sandusky's attorney Joe Amendola in his first TV interview regarding the child sex abuse accusations against his client.

(CNN) -- A glance at recent headlines indicates just how serious and pervasive deceit and lying are in daily life.

Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain is busy trading allegations of sexual harassment with several women; each side accuses the other of lying. Administrators at Penn State have been charged with perjury for allegedly covering up reports that a retired football coach was sexually assaulting boys.

Last week French president Nicolas Sarkozy was caught on an open microphone asserting to U.S. President Barack Obama that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a liar.

Interview: Pamela Meyer on lying

Lying has destroyed careers and convulsed countries. New York congressman and Internet flasher Anthony Weiner made a fool of himself issuing denials quickly contradicted by incontrovertible evidence. Former presidential candidate John Edwards has been charged with campaign finance violations connected to the cover-up of an extramarital affair. And then again, no one who lived through it will ever forget the media circus President Bill Clinton unleashed by lying during his second term in office about his sexual involvement with Monica Lewinsky.

Tales of cheating on school and college tests are rife. There have been instances where teachers have given students test answers in order to make themselves look good on their performance reviews. Mentors who should be teaching the opposite are sending a message that lying and cheating are acceptable.

How much deceit do we encounter? On a given day, studies show, you may be lied to anywhere from 10 to 200 times. Now granted, many of those are white lies. Another study showed that strangers lied three times within the first 10 minutes of meeting each other.

Detecting lies, or "lie spotting," is an essential skill for everyone to acquire, for both personal and professional reasons.

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Far from being a parlor game similar to, say, charades, where the object is to exclaim, "Gotcha," deception detection is a serious branch of knowledge based on scientific data collected over the last six decades at prestigious universities conducting in-depth research projects, especially in psychology and physiology.

One result of the research is that most old myths about lying have been debunked. Liars do look you in the eye. They do not always stutter, stammer, blush or fidget.

Don't conclude from this that liars are hard to spot and difficult to unmask. A trained lie spotter can get to the truth by learning about statement structure, facial micro-expressions, question formation and timing. I spent several years surveying the scientific findings in the vast and ever emerging body of knowledge on deception, and it is clear that deception detection is a modern skill that is easy to learn and helpful in navigating our complex world -- especially if your professional responsibilities include hiring, interviewing, negotiating or managing.

Good liars are skilled at reading others well, putting them at ease, managing their own emotions and intuitively sensing how others perceive them.

We know from research that extroverts lie more than introverts, that men tell more "self-oriented" lies while women tell more "other-oriented" lies -- usually to protect someone's feelings -- that married people lie less frequently to their partners than unmarried people do (but the lies they do tell tend to be "whoppers"). We also know that if you are perceived as a wrongdoer, others will feel less guilt in lying to you.

How do you tell if someone is lying? First, observe your subject's normal behavior. This is called "baselining." It helps provide a reference point for measuring changes later. Observe your subject's posture, laugh, vocal quality. You'd better know if someone normally taps their foot all the time so you don't make unjust accusations when you see foot-tapping in the middle of the meeting.

Then look for clusters of deceptive verbal and nonverbal behaviors. Consider these clusters red flags, not proof of deception.

Deceptive people might freeze their upper body when trying to remember their story, they might point their feet toward the door, lean toward an exit, shift their posture in significant ways or exhibit "post-interview relief" -- that exaggerated exhale of relief and shift in posture when all the hard questions are over. Interrogators often falsely signal that an interview is over just to look for that post-interview relief.

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Also, pay attention to your subject's language. Scott Peterson famously slipped and used the past tense while claiming his murdered wife was alive, launching a nationwide search for her.

Deceptive individuals might also use distancing language: " I did not have sexual relations with that woman ... Miss Lewinsky" or repeat a hard question in its entirety. The most common verbal indicators are subtle. Someone might use lots of "qualifying language" when answering a hard question: " Well ... to tell you the truth ... as far as I know ... to the best of my knowledge." This renders the answer perceptual rather than factual and is often a red flag.

There's no magic bullet for detecting lies, but developing skills to ferret out deception is possible.

These skills will enhance anyone's chances of avoiding victimization by scam artists in their professional and personal lives.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Pamela Meyer.

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