If lying is as old as language, then so is the challenge for the listener to figure out when you're being told the truth, and when you're not.
Many think they can recognize when someone is lying by watching the speaker's eyes or body language, or listening to their manner of speaking. But testing of college students has shown that, on average, they can pick out a lie only 53 percent of the time, according to R. Edward Geiselman, PhD, UCLA professor of psychology.
Browsing the Internet will yield countless how-to guides. But if there's a consensus among researchers in the field, it's that there is no one simple indicator that works in all cases. However, learning how to apply methods can improve your odds.
"There are things you can do, skills you can develop. But you have to ground them in good science," said Phillip Maltin, an attorney with the Los Angeles firm of Gordon & Rees, LLP.
Fascinated for decades by the challenge of figuring out when witnesses are not being truthful, Maltin has canvassed the research, tested different approaches and, ultimately, developed his own four-step process that he calls READ.
The starting point is having a baseline for your subject.
"You've got to be able to know how the person behaves when not stressed, or you run the risk of false positives," Maltin said.
Once you have a baseline, then you can look for deviations, which can indicate what Maltin calls "hotspots."
For example, Maltin pointed to an archive video of former presidential hopeful John Edwards denying the affair he later acknowledged. Maltin noted that while speaking, Edwards repeatedly blinked his eyes, something some find suspicious. But Maltin said if you look at other videos of Edwards, you see he often blinks his eyes more than typical, so that provides no insight.
What caught Maltin's attention in the video was the way Edwards shrugged his left shoulder repeatedly as he professed to loving only one woman.
"We know at baseline, he's not a shrugger. In that video, John Edwards was a very bad liar."
Maltin sees value in the research by noted psychologist Paul Ekman into facial expressions and, in particular, "micro-expressions " of emotion, which can burst onto the face and then be quelled in a fraction of a second. Ekman's research found such micro-expressions are accurate indicators of an emotion the speaker is trying to suppress and, therefore, can be a sign the speaker may be trying to be deceptive.
Looking at a video of then Rep. Andrew Weiner (D-NY) last May when Weiner was speaking to reporters and trying to quash his burgeoning Twitter scandal, Maltin spotted a half-smile flashing briefly across Weiner's face.
"That's 'duping delight,'" said Maltin. "He's delighting in thinking he's pulling a fast one on the people listening to him."
There's also a whole category of devices that liars use, such as repeating the question, so as to give themselves time to fabricate an answer. Liars also sometimes will get angry at the source of the question. Maltin said the research has found it's easier to lie to listeners when you're angry at them.
So how did Maltin come up with the name READ for his system? It's an acronym for a four step process: research, examination, analysis, and doubt. Maltin emphasizes the doubt, warning that you have to eliminate all other possible explanations for a speaker's "hotspot" before you can safely conclude it stems from lying.
Maltin referred to the Edwards video, when he was shrugging his left shoulder. As Maltin sees it: then and now, it's a clear indicator of a "hotspot." In retrospect, it stands out as a sign of deception. . But at the time, you could have safely concluded no more than that Edwards was extremely nervous or uncomfortable.
"At that point, you didn't know," Maltin said.
The legal system still relies on judges and juries to determine truth, and does not not recognize any system as a definitive means of truth testing. Even the results of polygraph tests by trained examiners cannot be admitted into evidence. But Maltin has ways to make use of his conclusions at trial.
"I will say to a jury, 'you know how a liar looks,' and then remind them."
In law enforcement, one technique to demonstrate lying is through questioning that elicits not merely inconsistencies, but complete changes of story, as was the case with Jeff Stenroos, the then-LAUSD school police officer prosecuted for making up a shooting attack last January. It came out at trial that as investigators questioned him, Stenroos changed his account. He was convicted of four felonies and a misdemeanor.
Geiselman, the UCLA psychology professor, has taught investigative interviewing techniques to detectives and intelligence officers in numerous agencies.
"People can learn to perform better at detecting deception," Geiselman told UCLA News in an article posted on UCLA's website.
But he added that detecting deception is difficult, and requires multiple days of training. In fact, Geiselman said abbreviated training can actually hurt lie detection skills.
"Quick, inadequate training sessions lead people to over-analyze and to do worse than if they go with their gut reactions."
Of course, at 53 percent, the average gut reaction yields only slightly more accurate conclusions than simply flipping a coin.