Smart Moves: How to spot the company liar

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The Independent Online
We all lie, even if it's only telling a friend they've lost weight. A recent Gallup poll found that only eight per cent of people claim never to have lied - and even they probably weren't telling the truth. Twenty- five per cent of the people interviewed admitted they lie daily.

But it's the compulsive liar that today's organisations are fighting hard to avoid employing. Indeed, tracing such individuals has become huge business as firms lose out to fraudsters.

The first point of detection takes place at interview stage. If the lies are factual - say, on a CV - research can usually uncover the truth quickly. But if the interviewee is a consummate liar he will know those areas where dishonesty is easily detected. Liars tell the truth about qualifications and experience and can then pass through a company quite easily. It is here, at the top, where the liars are still outstripping the sleuths and where companies risk being destroyed, as in the case of Nick Leeson.

So how can liars be detected early? The methods fall into two types: mechanical, for example the electronic lie detector and non-mechanical such as body language. Even the most honest of interviewees would not want to work for a company that strapped electrodes to them, so formal and informal psychological testing is used.

"But as lie detection is improved, liars will soon take measures to avoid detection,'' cautions Dr Richard Wiseman of Hertfordshire University. Lack of eye contact and fidgeting have, for example, traditionally been taken as indicators of lying. "But, in fact," says Dr Wiseman "experienced liars capitalise on these myths and may even hold eye-contact for longer than is normal and avoid moving around while speaking." More productive in the detection game, research at Hertfordshire University shows, is the observation of leg and arm movements which seem to be more exaggerated when someone is telling a lie. Another giveaway is the extent to which hands touch the body and face. "We tend to touch ourselves more when we are lying," says Dr Wiseman. "It's almost as if we are trying to appear sincere by pointing to ourselves more and asking `would I lie to you?' ''

The only sure-fire facial movement, he says, is fast blinking, which is a visual clue to how deeply the brain is concentrating on its subtle piece of subterfuge.

Words and sounds are among the most reliable indicators, as proved in experiments which show a higher rate of detection than average by blind people. Liars tend to use fewer words per sentence, their voices are pitched higher, they pause a lot - as if they are mentally clocking the validity of what they are saying - and they tend to take longer to start their answers.

Being trained to spot these giveaways has led to a 10 to 15 per cent increase in lie detection, which is hardly dramatic. In a bid to raise this figure, Hertfordshire University is conducting experiments using videos. A special video is made of someone telling lies. It takes a picture once every second, and is then played back at normal speed. Only then do odd little micro-expressions and movements reveal themselves.

The research also analyses the personality of the detector. Are some character types better at it than others? Could blind people make the best ones? Could old-fashioned intuition, unfairly sidelined by new technologies, be the most reliable method after all?

Dr Wiseman concludes "early indications encourage us to hope that we shall eventually be able to achieve our aim of increasing lie detection ability from chance levels to around the 80 per cent mark".