How to Catch a Liar: Dr. Phil

Dr. Phil was on “The Early Show” late April, giving viewers tips on how to “catch a liar”. In the video, which can be seen below, he gives specific tips and advice on how to detect deception.

Just how accurate was he? Were the tips he gave factual and informative? Give us your opinion and we’ll weigh in on the comments section of the blog.

6 responses to “How to Catch a Liar: Dr. Phil”

  1. Jeff Yoak says:

    I thought it was decent for a four-minute general audience media blurb. The thing I liked least was the emphasis on stressed and relaxed body language. If I asked my kid if he was now, or had ever had, smoked pot and he denied it truthfully, there is still stress associated with that, and switching to the Fox fall lineup is going to relax him. As with micros and other things, it is always important to watch for multiple clues and he heavily stressed that one to be worth more than it is on its own. There are always multiple reasons for possible strain.

    His points about language are probably better. Liars rehearse stories. Hearing that precision and the repeating can be useful. One technique I like is getting people to reverse chronologies. Liars rehearse stories in chronological order. It’s much easier to reverse a true memory than a constructed one.

    I’ve found the personal pronoun thing useful. Another thing that I’ve found useful related to that is tense-shifting. Most lies come with as much truth as can serve the liar. So you get a story living in the first person past tense, as the truth often does. And all of sudden part of the story jumps to present tense and the personal pronouns disappear or become collective. It’s at least a pointer to look at that part of the story.

    Another thing he said, that while probably strictly true, will probably lead the audience astray. He says that someone being truthful will meet your gaze, look away, naturally, etc. That’s true, but there is a broad misconception that liars have a hard time meeting your gaze and truth tellers don’t. Actually lie-tellers are more likely than truth-tellers to lock eyes with you the whole time, unnaturally, probably because of this misconception. Maybe in part because they have to so closely monitor whether you’re believing them, where truth-tellers expect to be believed. Anyway… his saying that it is natural and easy is true, but it would have been nice if he distinguished his point from the similar-sounding and completely false position that liars don’t make eye contact.

    One final point, more humorous than anything else. The thing about eye movement, though he reversed the direction, is actually pretty true when accessing visual memory. I’ve turned this into a party / bar stunt I’ll perform from time to time. I ask the person to decide in advance whether they’re going to lie or tell the truth with the question I’m about to ask them. (I admit that after studying Ekman and taking classes at his site and this one I sometimes have a pretty strong indication even before the question as duping delight and other things start to leak, but this worked even before I did that work. I knew about this early on.) I then ask a question that, if answered truthfully, will require visualization. “What color was the first car you owned?” “How many windows are there on the first floor of your home?” There answer, if untruthful, isn’t a “lie” as Ekman defines it. It’s a game and lying is OK. It’s one of the options. Most of the normal stuff doesn’t show. But the eye movement thing does and I’m pretty reliable. When I’m actually trying to detect real lies, it isn’t a big part of the arsenal. At least it has never been useful for me personally.

    Oh, and pupil dilation? Really? I can never see it in practical situations, Lie to Me notwithstanding. 🙂

  2. Markus says:

    The things i agree with was:

    -Liers tend to make fewer movments(“stiffen up”) than truth tellers.
    -Use more distancing language.
    -Less use of personal pronoun.
    -Liers are often rehearsed.

    It was good that he mentioned the importance of establish a baseline. And dissregard the NLP eyemovment patterns

    Not sure i agree with the overemphasis part. He used, as many others have, the Clinton statement. Im not sure that is useful in a nonpolitical context. Scince Clinton, most likely, had had rhetorical advisors before he went public.

    His “specific question” advice was not so good either (to ask ones kid if (s)he was now, or had ever had, smoked pot.) That is a yes or no question. Wich makes it harder for the parent/lie cathcher to catch the lie and easier for the lier/kid to get away with the lie.
    As Ekman says “never ask yes or no questions, make them talk as much as possible”

    I dont agree with liers tend to breathe through thier mouth and purse thier lips. I doubt that would be considered a reliable sign of deception.

    I get the impression that he connects arousal with deception. To me it seems that might cause trouble to make that connection.

  3. He mentioned that someone who lies could be emphatic. While that may be true, it is not a sign of a liar. I know people that become emphatic when they get angry. Doesn’t mean they are lying.

    The baseline of the breathing made sense to me, but his assertion that if your respiratory rate increases they are lying is not necessarily true. Maybe the direct question you asked them is stressful to them because it reminds them a past experience that was stressful, such as a bad childhood experience a previous partner that cheated on them for example.

  4. Keith D. says:

    I think what’s important to note about what Dr. Phil said here is that he’s coming from a therapeutic background. Detecting lies in that arena is a different ballgame than detecting lies from potential criminals that police deal with as one example. Dr. Phil would naturally be looking more for emotional cues for hot topics to probe more deeply. That’s all well and good when you’re dealing with someone who has a psychological problem that they need addressed (such as becoming aroused when talking about Uncle Dave, maybe Uncle Dave was that “weird uncle” in the family and that could be a potential source of the patient’s problems) but it’s not always the best approach when confronting an employee who may have stolen something from his or her employer.

    The things he listed, taken on their own and with no other knowledge, leave one vulnerable to committing an Othello Error, but these kinds of errors are less critical in a therapeutic setting than in many real life settings.

    He should’ve used a better example of asking direct questions. For example, if you suspect your spouse is lying about where they were, saying that they went to the mall when you suspect they were out with a mistress, ask them where they parked. A liar will be taken off guard and have to quickly think up an answer, which can also lead to other non-verbal leakage whereas someone who actually was a the mall would immediately know that they’d parked by the Sears entrance or wherever. That type of question is far more useful to a lie catcher than “are you now or have you ever smoked marijuana?” Dr. Phil’s question is great, if you’re looking for a possible confession. But it’s almost useless if you’re trying to figure out whether you’re being lied to or not.

  5. Ramon Garcia says:

    I would’t take he’s advice, he trusts too much in the autonomic nervous system clues, and in the logic of the phrases, he isn’t actually looking what really is there. He also bases in the “if i wouldnt do that, that should be a lie”

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