If you’re trying to figure out if your friend was truly sick–or just fibbing–when she canceled dinner plans at the last minute, see if she answers your questions with questions. Responding that way is a tell, says Daniel Levitin, PhD, a professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at McGill University and the author of the book, A Field Guide to Lies. Think “Why are you asking me that?” or “Why would I lie?”–questions meant to make you second-guess yourself and, hopefully, back off.
If she gets worked up when you start digging a little bit deeper, cue the double alarm bells in your head. Reacting emotionally to innocuous questions is another sign that someone might be lying, says Levitin. The last, fairly no-duh giveaway: they’ve told you the same story a couple of times, but certain details have changed or something doesn’t quite hang together. It may look something like this: Your yogurt has gone missing from the office fridge. You know that Ted is also a yogurt fan, and you’re pretty sure you saw him eating some about an hour ago. You (politely) ask Ted if he took your yogurt, maybe by mistake. Instead of calmly telling you that no, he didn’t take it, as any innocent person would, he replies, “Why would I take your yogurt? I don’t even eat yogurt!” Inconsistent with that you know about Ted and overly dramatic? Check and check. All signs point to Ted being, ahem, a yogurt “borrower.”
“People think lying is all about shifting the eyes or fidgeting, but those aren’t the signs to look for,” says Levitin. (Some research actually suggests that people move around less when they’re lying, says Levitin, possibly because they’re so worried their body language will give them away that they overcompensate.)
Since Levitin studies lies for a living, we also wanted to know: Is he amazingly adept at spotting them? Not necessarily, he says, but he has gotten noticeably better at catching some fibs in certain situations. Case in point: students at exam time. “There’s research showing that the incidence of grandparents’ supposedly dying rises around finals at universities,” he says. (It’s true–a researcher from Eastern Connecticut State University found that grandmothers are 10 times more likely to “die” before their grandchild’s midterm and 19 times more likely before a final. Sorry, grannies.) When one student tried to use her grandmother’s demise to get out of a final, Levitin asked for the doctor’s contact information to confirm. Turns out, the doc said Granny was alive and well. Which brings up another good point: Often, the person who’s lying doesn’t expect you to actually follow up on what they’ve told you.
Of course, when the stakes are higher than a canceled dinner, a stolen snack or a missed exam, like a partner who’s not being truthful about how they spend their time or someone you’ve hired is possibly embezzling, you will need to approach the situation a little more delicately, making sure you have some evidence before you make accusations. But the signs are the same: Things don’t add up and the person doesn’t react calmly or rationally when you ask them questions. That’s your cue to investigate a little more. They could very well be telling the truth. (After all, most of us have fouled up expense reports and few of us are involved in grand larceny.) But if they’re not being honest, their story should start to unravel pretty quickly.