10 little known ways to spot a high-level liar, according to psychology

Some liars are easy to spot:

They’re nervous, fidgety, stumble over their words, and frequently contradict themselves. 

But what about high-level liars who can spin a tall tale that almost everybody falls for?

What about those silver-tongued seductresses and sly backstabbers who slip white lies and deception into every second sentence and can pull the wool over most people’s eyes?

Here’s how psychology can help you spot even the smartest liars. 

1) Mismatch between microexpressions and words 

The first key to spotting a skilled liar is watching microexpressions

A microexpression is a “very brief expression, usually about a 25th of a second, that is always a concealed emotion,” explains Psychology Professor Emeritus Paul Ekman, PhD.

High-level liars might control their facial expressions very well, but microexpressions are much harder to restrain. 

Look for mismatches between what they say and that slight flicker that happens before they “settle” on their official expression. 

“Everything’s fine, I’ll pay you next week,” the liar says with a reassuring smile and nods. But just before that smile, you saw a flicker of anxiety as their eyes crinkled and nostrils flared slightly.

2) Subtle signs of triumph after duping someone 

Even the most skilled liar gets a little buzz when they pull one over on somebody. 

This is when you watch for any subtle sign of “duper’s delight.”

Typical signs can be a slight smirk at the edges of their lips, a glint of extra merriness in their eyes, or a brief and pleasurable sigh of satisfaction as if they’ve just accomplished something.

If they seem just a little too happy that you’re believing them, red flags should be going up. 

Those who are telling the truth just do so and get on with it. Skilled liars weave a crafty tale and then enjoy the success of their deception. 

3) Overemphasizing sincerity and too many affirmative statements

Liars tend to repeat themselves. 

Even when they are extremely gifted, dishonest people have a tendency to emphasize their honesty and for others not to worry. 

Unlike a street hustler or low-level liar who tends to use phrases like “to be honest,” “believe me,” or “I swear” in a very pushy way, the higher-level liar is subtler and lets their calmness and ease linger in a comforting way.  

They will give a charming, wry smile and intone that “everything is going to be just dandy, I’ve got you covered my dear…”

Or they will use ambiguous and vague comforting language that doesn’t really mean anything like “there’s a lot to work out, but there’s no doubt it will come together.”

What does that actually mean? It could mean anything. The intention is for you to stop asking questions and acquiesce.

On the flip side of being vague and comforting, the high-level liar may become highly granular:

4) Micromanagement of tiny details in a statement

Even very deft liars will often trip up in going into too much detail. 

This is a case of being too good at lying for their own good. 

They run their mouth about every tiny detail when trying to convince somebody into an elaborate scheme, for example, and end up tying themselves into a pretzel of slight contradictions and odd specificity. 

By simply listening closely and paying attention, you can start to pick out many small details that seem over-the-top and irrelevant. The liar is trying too hard.

As former federal agent J.J. Newberry points out, around “4% of people are accomplished liars and they can do it well.”

He advises to “watch them carefully” and “when they don’t expect it, ask them one question that they are not prepared to answer to trip them up.”

This ties into the next point:

5) Inconsistency in timing and details when recounting narratives 

As the high-level liar goes into detail about something, watch for inconsistencies in the timing of their story

High-level liars might have rehearsed parts of their narrative but may struggle with the spontaneous recounting of events.

“The trick, as it turns out, is to listen and pay attention,” explains Psychology Professor Christian Hart PhD.

“Lying is nothing more than communicating false information. Listen to that information. Does it make sense? Does it align with other information we already have?” 

By going into way too much detail about some parts of what they’re saying and having no real information about other parts, they can often be spotted. 

A typical example would be a fraudulent financial advisor who has a brilliant sales pitch about a fund you should invest in along with numerous details and compelling facts regarding its portfolio:

But when you ask for details about the maturity date and withdrawal instructions, the advisor begins clamming up and becoming quite vague, or offers you overly general answers like “Uh you can withdraw anytime, really” or “It depends.”

6) Slight alterations in pitch, tone, vocabulary, and speed

youre dealing with a cunning person 10 little known ways to spot a high-level liar, according to psychology

Even the most brilliant liar has slight slip-ups from time to time. 

It could just be a hoarse throat that comes up now and then when they’re tripping over part of what they’re saying. 

It could be them slowing down a bit at one point or putting in a lot of “uhs” and “wells” at odd times in what they’re saying. 

Psychologist Gregory Jantz, PhD. puts it well, noting:

“Often when a person is lying, they will slightly change the tone and cadence of their speech. They might start speaking more quickly or slowly and with either a higher or lower tone.”

Pay attention to changes in speech patterns, such as sudden shifts in pitch, speed, or volume, as liars may unconsciously alter their speech.

Pay particular attention to any of these changes during their “ask,” or the part of what they’re saying where they are wanting something from you (attention, money, sex, time, commitment, contractual obligation).

Are they changing their speed, tone, or volume around this time in a way that seems just a bit fishy and in line with a con man?

7) Subtle self-soothing gestures and micro-anxiety

Extremely talented liars tend to have very good control of themselves when fibbing. 

But even the best of them occasionally slip up in small but telling ways.

Look for minor self-soothing behaviors, like touching the face, neck, or hair.

Look for little tics like straightening their glasses on their nose when they don’t need straightening, or shifting in their seat and clearing their throat reflexively and during a tense part of an interaction or negotiation. 

Is it just nerves? 

That’s certainly possible. But they may also be trying to intentionally deceive you, and that possibility should now be firmly on your radar. 

8) Unusual patterns of making or avoiding eye contact 

Gifted liars still tend to fall into one of two camps:

They make too much-sustained eye contact or not enough. 

They’re either looking at you with so much eye contact and direct gaze that you begin to feel a bit overwhelmed, or they’re shifting their eyes around and going back and forth a bit. 

In particular, look for their eye contact when they deny or say no to something.

As retired FBI counterintelligence agent LaRae Quy explains, how somebody says no often reveals whether they’re being honest or not.

They may look away right at the moment of saying no, or make eye contact in a way that seems designed to convince you. They may tap their fingers for a moment when saying no or exhibit one of the subtle self-soothing behaviors noted earlier. 

9) Quickly covered up Freudian slips 

Pay attention to unintentional slips of the tongue that may reveal the truth.

Freudian slips are very much a real thing and even the brightest liar isn’t always able to dodge them, especially if he or she is a fast-talker. 

“Not to worry, this contract is absolutely loot-I mean foolproof, and you have nothing to worry about.”

These Freudian slips often come at a time of tension or the “moment of truth” as it were. 

As Jantz notes:

“Once you move from neutral territory to the “lie zone,” you should be able to observe a change in body language, facial expressions, eye movement, and sentence structure.”

10) Qualifiers and modifiers slipped into statements 

Another thing to watch for is excessive use of qualifiers such as “sort of,” “kind of,” or “maybe.”

This can indicate a lack of actual certainty in what the liar is saying. 

“How can you really detect liars?” asks Hart.

“Like a detective, investigate those claims to see if they actually align with evidence in the world. Turn the screws.”

Many highly skilled liars will not lie in a direct, black-and-white way. They will simply pepper lots of what they say with half-truths, distortions, vague statements, and red herrings. They throw out so much chaff and nonsense to distract you from what they really are trying to convince you of, causing you to lose your focus and fall into their frame. 

Picture of Paul Brian

Paul Brian

Paul R. Brian is a freelance journalist and writer who has reported from around the world, focusing on religion, culture and geopolitics. Follow him on www.twitter.com/paulrbrian and visit his website at www.paulrbrian.com

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