4 Former Spies Divulge How To Spot A Liar

Keep these tips in mind if you want to root out deception.

Imagine if you had the power to tell who was lying to you. Cheating partners, sexting politicians, platinum-haired Olympic swimmers — all of them would have to think twice, or risk seeing their deceptions and half-truths exposed in spectacular fashion. 

We may not be able to turn you into a foolproof lie detector, but we can get you a few steps closer. In partnership with EPIX’s “Berlin Station,” we asked former members of the CIA — who have criss-crossed the globe in the line of duty — about the most, and the least, effective ways of ferreting out dishonesty. Test your knowledge of trickery tactics with the scenarios we’ve created and see if you’d be able to keep up the charade.

Nervous Tics Are Not Always What They Appear

SCENARIO: Your birthday’s next week, and you’re certain your girlfriend’s been sneaking around to plan a surprise bash for you. When you coolly ask what she’s got planned for the big day, she seems to dodge the question, sweating and breathing hard. Gotcha! Right?

“Well, she just got back from a run, dude, chill,” says Douglas Laux, a former CIA case officer and field operative who worked in Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East. Putting too much stock in seemingly obvious indicators of deceitful behavior like sweating can lead a person in search of the truth astray. “You can’t put someone in jail just because they were biting their nails or playing with their hair,” he adds.

Make Sure You’re Not Asking Basic Questions

Unless you ask good questions, you’re not going to be able to detect deceptions.

SCENARIO: You haven’t seen your favorite denim jacket in weeks. Your shady roommate swears up and down she’s not behind the disappearance, but you’re not buying it. How do you get her to drop the innocent act?

The trick to effectively spotting lies begins with what you say. “Unless you ask good questions, you’re not going to be able to detect deceptions,” says Michael Floyd, a former CIA officer. A liar is poised to deploy their falsehoods. Instead, ask presumptive or leading questions to elicit a reply that may be less rehearsed ― “what did you do with the jacket?” rather than “did you take it?” could trip up your roommate enough to elicit a confession.

Beware Of Lengthy, Evasive Statements

SCENARIO: Your long night at work is about to get even longer. According to the cash register, a significant chunk of change is unaccounted for. You question your two employees. One offers an incredibly detailed defense while the other issues a simple denial. Who do you believe?

Watch out for the first employee. A liar hoping to avoid detection would “go beyond the denial, say ‘no, I would never take that deposit. I wasn’t raised that way, why would I risk my job over a small amount of money?’” Floyd explains. “It’s designed to convince me, to sell me on the fact of why you’d never do that. Truthful people by and large just say they didn’t do it.” So if you hear someone parsing the meaning of “is” in the style of a certain former president, make sure your skepticism is locked and loaded.

Making Threats Won’t Force A Confession

If I crack you in the ribs, how reliable are you going to be?

SCENARIO: Your previously happy-go-lucky teenager has suddenly transformed into Mr. Hyde and you suspect drugs may be the culprit. Asking directly isn’t getting you anywhere. So if you hold something he really values ― like his shiny new PS4 ― hostage until he comes clean, your answer may present itself much sooner.

However, threats aren’t likely to get you closer to the truth, per se. It’s the same flawed reasoning behind “enhanced interrogation,” says Glenn Carle, a former CIA case officer who worked in the agency for 23 years. “If I crack you in the ribs, how reliable are you going to be?” Carle asks. “You never trust anything anybody says in any circumstance, ever.” Take the high road instead. Use the Scharff technique, named for a prolific, surprisingly friendly Nazi interrogator, to establish a rapport with your son and tease out his secrets.

Eye Contact Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Does

SCENARIO: You’re floored. After over a year of hunting, you’ve found your dream 3BR, 3-bath home. Except it’s almost a little too perfect. A top-notch school district and $10,000 under your budget? You size up your real estate agent carefully ― “there’s no catch!” she says sunnily ― and wonder if you should believe her. She is making excellent eye contact with you, after all.

Tread carefully. Liars can use these “behavioral misconceptions,” as Floyd calls them, to hide their deceit. “Research now shows that people who are lying have better eye contact than people who are telling the truth,” Floyd says. A recent University of Michigan study analyzing courtroom video found that liars look their questioners in the eye more often than those who are telling the truth.

They May Not Be Lying— It Could Just Be Their Culture

SCENARIO: You’re at the mall with a new friend, trying on cute fall outfits. You love one dress in particular, but when you ask your friend her opinion, she can’t seem to hold your gaze.

Based on the previous tip about eye contact, you know it doesn’t necessarily mean she’s lying. But in fact, it actually goes deeper than you think. She’s from Japan, where making direct eye contact is much less common than it is in the U.S.

To gauge how honest a person is in a given situation, you need to get to know her, which means establishing a baseline and controlling for cultural differences. “If you know their baseline,” says Jason Hanson, a former CIA officer and founder of Spy Escape And Evasion, “you can go from there.”

Overanalyzing Expressions Won’t Get You Anywhere

SCENARIO: It’s your parents’ wedding anniversary, and you’ve searched high and low for the perfect gift to celebrate their 40 years together. But do Mom and Dad actually mean it when they tear off the wrapping paper and say “honey, it’s what we’ve always wanted!” You’ve heard a lot about micro-expressions ― brief, involuntary facial expressions tied to one’s emotional state — from your favorite crime dramas. So what better way to reveal the truth than through these blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em tics?

Although it may seem worthwhile to invest time in this tactic, the experts don’t recommend it. “That would be a category we would say is impractical,” Floyd advises, referring to a class of indicators that can be too cumbersome to quickly parse in a real-life situation. “It’s like trying to get a drink of water from a firehose — you’re just inundated by data.”

Make Sure To Get ‘Receipts’

Be real wary of calling someone a liar unless you can prove it, because you're effectively terminating that relationship.

SCENARIO: You’ve noticed the telltale signs of infidelity: emotional distance, last-minute business trips. And when you confront your spouse directly, he gives you oddly evasive answers, pouring on the persuasion you now know is a major sign of deception.

But until you wring a confession out of his lover or catch him in the act — accumulating the “receipts,” as the Twitterverse would put it — you don’t have anything but guesswork.

“I’m a trained officer, and there are times when you pick up on, ‘Hey, this guy wasn’t truthful,’ but at the end of the day I need to prove it,” Laux says. Unless you have evidence, “be real wary of calling someone a liar ... You’re effectively terminating that relationship.”

So if, say, a certain tall, blonde songstress claims to tell you the truth and you still can’t shake it off, perhaps the real issue goes deeper than potential bad blood. You just might have to turn the harsh spotlight of interrogation on yourself.


Think you have what it takes to separate truth from lies? Tune into the series premiere of “Berlin Station” on Sunday, October 16 at 10/9C and see if you can keep up with CIA spy Daniel Miller as he tries to stay a step ahead of his enemies. Stream the entire first episode now below and sign up for a free EPIX trial here.