Psychology Today: Here To Help



Stybel Peabody

President Bill Clinton admitted that he gave a “false impression” after spending seven months telling his family that a White House intern was spreading malicious lies about him.  Two days later, BOSTON GLOBE columnist Mike Barnicle resigned in the wake of allegations that he had fabricated a story about two children being treated for cancer at a Boston hospital.

The world is full of liars. And some of them want to work for your company.

Can you spot liars during job interviews? Are there people who are more gifted than you in spotting them?

“I Have a Gift.”

Most of us like to think of ourselves as having special abilities in spotting deceit. Twenty years of research reveals that few people in the general U.S. population ever get above a 60% accuracy rate.  Statistical chance alone makes the average person likely to achieve an accuracy rate of 50%.

In the September, 1991 issue of "American Psychologist," researchers Paul Ekmann and Maureen O'Sullivan reported on an experiment designed to identify ability to spot liars.  Observers saw a videotape of ten women, each describing positive feelings as she watched what she said were nature films.  Half of the women were indeed watching neutral nature films. The other half were watching gruesome scenes but stating that they were watching nature films.

After viewing each scene, observers were allowed 30 seconds to record their choice as to whether the woman was honest or deceptive.  Observers consisted of people whose professions might make them better than most of us in spotting deceit: (1) U.S. Secret Service Agents (2) professional operators of lie detector machines (3) Judges (4) Police officers (5) Psychiatrists (6) Central Intelligence Agency agents and (7) National Security Agency analysts.

Why Secret Service?

Observers were more optimistic about their abilities to spot deceit than their actual performance warranted. Most of the experts scored no better than the average U.S. citizen.  Secret Service Agents in the study, however, were better able to judge honesty than any other professional group.

In trying to explain the results, Ekmann and O'Sullivan point out that much of Secret Service work is designed to guard important government officials from attack. They spend much of their time scanning crowds. And scanning crowds for potential threats requires exquisite sensitivity to nonverbal cues.

Much of the Secret Service interrogation process involves interviewing suspects who might be threats to senior governmental officials.  Based on their experience, Secret Service officers believe that most suspects are indeed telling the truth when they claim that their threats were nothing more than harmless braggadocio. It is the rare individual who is lying. Most law enforcement frameworks, however, begin the interrogation with the premise that the individual is lying.

By using the operating assumption that individual tell the truth, they are sensitive for deviations from that assumptions.             

Verbal and Nonverbal Cues

In the study, successful observers used both verbal and nonverbal cues in helping to make their decisions. Indeed, Secret Service agents emphasized nonverbal cues over verbal cues. The less successful lie catchers tended to emphasize verbal cues.  While professional law enforcement officials all acknowledge the importance of being sensitive to nonverbal cues, the Secret Service was the most successful in actually using nonverbal cues to form opinions.

Implications for Job Interviews

Here are some suggestions for improving your hit rate in spotting liars during interviews:

Like the Secret Service, it might be best to assume that the other person is telling the truth. Be sensitive for cues that might suggest that your working assumption is wrong. Do not count on spotting subtle contradictions in verbal content.  Try to observe subtle changes in voice pitch, facial expressions, and body movement.

If you have any gut "feelings" after the interview, jot them down immediately after the interview.  If these uneasy "feelings" are tied to nonverbal cues you observed, be sure to make a note of the non-verbal behaviors as well.  Note what was said at the time these behavioral cues were observed.  These nonverbal cues may be your best sign that more due diligence is required on your part.

The vast majority of job interviews proceed honestly on both sides. But most of us know horror stories where honesty was lacking.  The best way to avoid being a victim is to observe carefully.


Dr. Laurence J. Stybel and Maryanne Peabody are co-founders of Stybel Peabody Lincolnshire.  Since 1979 the firm has assisted in helping manage critical leadership transitions.  Their website is  They can be contacted at 617-371-2990.