We would all like to have some power, like that of the expert poker player who can identify a person’s “tell”, or like that of an experienced police officer (I’ll be honest, I’m thinking of Bruce Willis from Die Hard 4) who can tell automatically whether someone is being truthful or not. It would be wonderful to have this seemingly supernatural ability to detect people’s lies; sadly, in the real world, outside the worlds of high stakes poker and of Hollywood movies, it is often impossible to be sure whether or not someone is lying to you. Even in situations where you suspect, even very strongly, that someone is lying to you, you still will not call them out on it for the sake of the tiny doubt in your mind that you might be wrong.
Still, is there no way to instill in ourselves even a tiny part of this poker power or Bruce Willis power to detect liars? Do people, outside of the world of poker, have a “tell” that reveals their lie? Or, can people, outside of the world of tough-guy cop movies, gain enough experience with liars that they can recognize one when they hear it right away? First, let’s try to tap into the wisdom of the poker player to see if we can learn which types of “tells” reveal a lie.
1.) Universal tells vs. Unique tells: In poker, there are universal tells or tells that apply to everyone, and there are unique tells, which are particular to the individual player. Since the only way to learn unique tells in poker is the careful and repeated observation of the same individual, the example of the universal tell is more appropriate for our purposes. Now, there are two different types of tells (either unique or universal) in poker; namely, tells that show the player is hiding a good hand and tells that show that the player is bluffing a bad hand. Since either type of telling is related to lying, there isn’t much need for us to distinguish between the two for our own purposes: we want to know how to recognize a lie, regardless of what type of lie it is.
2.) Know your universal poker tells: Here are some of the more well-recognized universal tells in poker: increased heartbeat, or rapid breathing (this comes with a good hand when the person is excited); exaggerated acting; confidence or nervousness; being unnaturally at ease or laid back in a crucial situation; staring others down (meant to exude strength; holding one’s breath. Although this is not an exhaustive list of universal poker tells, we can see certain characteristics that could help us to notice the behavior of a lying person (even outside of poker). One thing of interest to notice is that the poker player, whether bluffing or hiding a good hand, is acting.
3.) Excited or exaggerated behavior: The above is basically true of the lying person as well: they are acting; in our case, acting like a person who is telling the truth. Now, of course, some people are good actors, and some are bad, and anyone can point this out (just watch a made for T.V. movie or anything else with atrocious acting – you may not know why exactly the acting is so bad, but that doesn’t mean you can’t just tell anyway). First of all, the excitableness or nervousness is something that should be easy to pick out, as well as the exaggerated behavior, the over-confidence, or the staring to appear strong; these are all things that you might notice in the badly acted lie; the person knows they are lying, and is overdoing things or coming on too strong in order to cover it up.
4.) Under-doing it in a crucial situation: On the other hand, it is also possible to under-do it, as shown in the example from poker above like being unnaturally at ease or laid back in a crucial situation. I have a real-life example of this of my own: this young guy knocked on my door one day saying he was from the power company, and that he needed to see our power bill (to check out such-and-such with some power mumbo jumbo to confuse us). Although it was obvious that he was lying right from the get-go, one thing that struck me was how laid back he was: when I said I didn’t have a paper copy of my bill, he asked so casually, like it would be no trouble for me, to me to go and print a copy off for him. No one in that situation, had it not been a scam, could have been so easy-going or laid-back about it; anyone who was not lying about who they were would have been more attentive to the fact that this was an unusual and invasive request.
5.) Unique tells: That about sums it up for universal tells: keep an eye out for unnatural, excited, nervous, overconfident, or unnaturally easy-going behavior, especially if the lie is about something crucial, or if the liar has something to gain or lose based on whether or not you buy the lie. But if this isn’t enough for you, or if you continually deal with one ore more people over and over again who you suspect may be lying to you, then you may want to take the time to find our their unique tells, which can only be done by repeated observation of the same person. A unique tell in poker could be anything: whistling, covering the mouth while betting, twitching, joking or laughing – and in each case, the tell could mean either bluffing a bad hand or hiding a good one. The only way to tell is by watching the person closely, to figure out what they do when they have a good hand or a bad hand.
6.) Closely observe the suspected liar or liars: In poker, the only way you can learn a person’s tell is by knowing the result – you have to catch them either in their bluff or in their hiding a good hand, and then connect this event back to whatever telling thing they did beforehand. This is a painstaking process of careful observation, but in the world of poker, it pays off, and there’s no reason why this can’t be the case outside the poker table as well. Watch the potential liar; watch and remember everything they did, no matter how seemingly insignificant. Later, in cases where you have found out that you were lied to, go back to your memory and see what they did when they were telling the lie. Through repeated exercises, you should be able to figure out the liar’s tell: if they have one.
7.) Universal signs of lying outside the poker world: In case you aren’t comfortable coldly staring down and observing people in your life like some sort of heartless poker monster, there are also a number of universal “tells” used by police officers, forensic psychologists, or security professionals. Not surprisingly, there are some physical signs that are very similar to those you might see at a poker table, such as stiff movements (where the liar’s body kind of retreats into itself in an attempt to take up less space), avoiding making eye contact, touching the face, mouth, or throat, or scratching the nose or behind the ear.
8.) Delayed reactions: While there is no reason this can’t be a tell in poker as well, police and the other professionals mentioned above are attentive to the reaction times of people being questioned. If there is a delayed, or otherwise unusual reaction to a question, or if the timing between actions and statements is off, or any other form of unusual or unnatural communication, there is a good chance that the person is lying.
9.) Attempting to hide from you: A person telling a lie will also sometimes make an effort to put some obstacle between themselves and you or to turn away and not face you directly, as if they could physically hide their lie. Another thing to look out for is if a person gets defensive or offensive: a lying person tends to go on the defensive when accused, whereas someone telling the truth will take the offensive route.
10.) Verbal signs of a lie: A number of different ways of speaking can also help you to identify a lie, such as: avoiding direct statements, or simply implying the lie rather than stating it directly; mumbling or confused statements; talking too much, adding unnecessary detail, being uncomfortable with silence; leaving out a contraction where there would be one in ordinary conversation (“it was not me” instead of “it wasn’t me”).
The above mentioned tricks are, of course, meant specifically for poker or for police (or other related) interrogations, so following each and every point exactly may not be appropriate for an everyday situation involving catching a liar. Still, by experimenting with a tip here, a tip there, you may be able to figure out ways that work for you, so that you can catch a liar in the act: whether it be an occasional, random liar or a repeat offender.