My ex-fiancé was a Navy Seal who sometimes worked with the CIA. He met his first wife when he rescued her when she was kidnapped in Iran. He had been held hostage in China. He often took off for far-flung locations, on “secret missions” that he would tell me about when there was “a secure line.” Whenever I questioned him about anything – which was often – he went on the offense, attacking my integrity and my inability to trust.
“You interrogate!” he’d bark. “You can’t have a relationship without trust.”
He was right. You can’t. And after a year of beating myself up for being suspicious and cynical, I broke up with him. I couldn’t live without knowing what was real and what wasn’t. Still, for almost a year and a half, I blamed myself for ruining the best thing that had ever happened to me
I got over that when he was convicted of writing fraudulent prescriptions for Vicodin, among other drugs. My name – along with family members, ex-colleagues, and fictitious people – were among the names he falsified.
I can’t tell you how elated I felt when he was sentenced to two years in jail. I’d been right all along! He was a liar!
Still, the question on everyone’s mind – including my own – was whether there had been signs, and if I’d missed them.
And the answer is yes.
A large part of the reason I wasn’t sure what was going on was because he mixed fact with fiction. He’d never been a Navy Seal, didn’t work for the CIA, had never been held hostage in China. His ex-wife had never set foot in Iran. (I also didn’t know about the wife before her – or that he was engaged to another woman when he was engaged to me).
On the other hand, he really was a doctor, was in the Navy, did work in the Pentagon, and was opening up a hospital for kids with cancer in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There was also this: we all see what we want to see, and we believe what we want to see – especially in love. (Hence the phrase, “blinded by love.”)
Most of us don’t live our lives anticipating exploitation. Even when there’s actual evidence to the contrary, we give the other person the benefit of the doubt. We’re wired to believe that people are inherently good, primarily because society couldn’t function without that default. If we all operated in isolation, we would achieve very little, as individuals and as a species.
Trust is de rigueur in society. Likewise in intimate relationships. It makes sense: if we don’t trust, we might not have sex. If we don’t have sex, the species doesn’t continue. And then where would we be?
Finally, the sad reality is that that our talent for detecting deception, with anyone – friend, foe, lover, family member, or stranger – is no better than a roll of the dice. In fact, the closer you are to someone, the more likely you are to believe them, because your blinders are in place and securely fastened. And unlike Pinocchio, there’s no quickly-growing protuberance to indicate we’re lying.
Still, there are some ways to tell if you’re being manipulated and lied to, which I learned when I was researching my book Duped: Double Lives, False Identities, and the Con Man I Almost Married.
1. They’re charming.
Dutch researcher Aldert Vrij compiled a list of 18 characteristics common among good liars. Good liars are manipulative, confident, eloquent, quick-witted, able to balance guilt and fear, and – yes – hot. The better looking you are, the more you can get away with.
Yes. We’re a shallow bunch.
2. You can’t verify anything they say.
You ask to see photos or receipts, you want to meet their friends and family, but something always gets in the way and it never materializes. Although they promise you will, something always gets in the way. You know why? Because they’re lying!
3. They go on the offense when you question them.
For years, Lance Armstrong was accused of doping. And any time someone challenged him, there was something wrong with them, not him. Ditto for Richard Nixon, Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, Bill O’Reilly, and Harvey Weinstein, all of whom, when faced with clear evidence that they were misbehaving, went after their accusers. They tell us the sky is purple and make us think there’s something wrong with us for believing it’s blue. When we dare to challenge them, we’re the ones with the problem.
4. They’re really good storytellers.
In an experiment, Stanford communications professor Jeff Hancock and his research team paid people to write fake reviews of a hotel in New York. Some of the reviewers had really stayed there; others had never set foot in the place.
The liars, they found, focused on narrative. “They make up a story: Who? And what happened? And that’s what happened here,” Hancock said in a 2012 Ted Talk. “Our fake reviewers talked about who they were with and what they were doing. They also used the first-person singular, ‘I,’ way more than the people that actually stayed there. They were inserting themselves into the hotel review, kind of trying to convince you they were there.”
Those who really had been at the hotel were more concerned with “spatial information”: the size of the bathroom, or how close the hotel was from a shopping center.
What Hancock deduced is that our language changes based on the type of lie we’re emitting and our motivations for telling it. When being questioned in person, for example, liars in Hancock’s study tended to use fewer first-person singular words, even though they opted for first-person singular more often in their fake reviews.
“Our argument is that it depends on what the liar is trying to accomplish, motivation, and how that affects them psychologically,” Hancock told me. “The fake reviewer is inserting the self into their story to make it sound more credible, while the liars in the interview may be distancing themselves from the event in question. This has different effects on first-person singular.”
5. They use phrases like “Not that I can remember” or “To the best of my knowledge.”
If someone is “swearing to god” emphatically, parroting your words, or telling you what a good question you’re asking, that usually means they’re stalling for time to come up with an acceptable response. They could also be trying to throw you off their scent, distract you, or curry favor by padding your ego.
That’s because non-answer statements give someone time to formulate a better answer or to search for wiggle room to squirm their way out of the question. “People don’t realize the distinction between ‘I wouldn’t do something’ versus ‘I didn’t do something,'” says Phil Houston, co-author of Spy the Lie. “It creates a real epiphany for them.”
6. They use qualifying words.
“Basically,” “frankly,” “honestly,” “fundamentally,” “usually,” and, of course, “believe me” – Donald Trump’s favorite – are red flags. So are qualifying statements like “Trust me,” “I’m a good person,” and “I’m an honest person.”
According to Houston, what you really want to look for are clusters of actions. On its own, for example, rubbing your eye means nothing; a speck of dust could have camped there. But combine that with crossing and uncrossing your arms, rolling your eyes to the heavens above, clearing your throat, shielding your mouth or eyes, adjusting your clothes or hair, inspecting your nails, or saying the word “yes” while shaking your head “no,” and there’s a pretty good chance someone’s not telling the truth. But the clusters must occur in the first five seconds of your interaction, when the liar in question hasn’t yet had time to prepare false statements.
Now, none of this is easy. That’s why liars get one over on so many of us. You have to look and listen at the same time, and most of us have difficulty doing either one of these things well.
Even experts have a hard time. In a meta-analysis of over two hundred studies, psychologist Charles F. Bond and lying researcher Bella DePaulo concluded that people could only spot a liar 47 percent of the time. Experienced job interviewers didn’t fare any better (52 percent) when trying to distinguish between candidates who lied about their career histories and those who didn’t.
Which brings us to number 7.
7. Whenever possible, get hard evidence.
The only reliable way to detect deception is to have tangible proof: Texts. Emails. Phone records. Bank accounts. Video footage. Your own eyeballs.
Let’s imagine that the leader of a major first-world power proclaims that more people showed up to his inauguration than to any other inauguration in the history of presidential elections. If there weren’t actual statistics proving otherwise, he could go unchallenged. And even so, he still might launch a full frontal attack. (See 3, above!) But at least you’ll have the goods.
Abby Ellin is a journalist and the the author of Duped: Double Lives, False Identities and the Con Man I Almost Married.