Downtime

Telltale Tics

Why I waste time by spotting liars in clips on YouTube.

GIF: Perceived liars against the rabbit holes backdrop
Photo illustration by Slate.  Photos by Vincent Amalvy/AFP/Getty Images, Alexander Krivitskiy/Unsplash, and Miller Center of Public Affairs.

Rabbit Holes is a recurring series in which writers pay homage to the diversity and ingenuity of the ways we procrastinate now. To pitch your personal rabbit hole, email humaninterest@slate.com.

It all started with a click on a YouTube talk by former CIA Officer Susan Carnicero. As I watched, riveted, Carnicero went over how to tell whether someone is lying. When asked a question, she explained, a person’s behavior will betray their dishonesty within five seconds. They shake their heads no when making a positive statement or nod yes when denying something. They get angry or display inappropriate levels of concern. They repeat questions or avoid direct answers. They smirk or avert their gaze. Taken alone, these behaviors may indicate other emotions, like anxiety or shyness, but if two or more appear—a cluster, Carnicero called it—then you may have a liar on your hands.

“When you finish this 45 minutes with me, you’re going to know just enough to be dangerous,” Carnicero said. She was right. I gleefully applied my newfound knowledge to dozens of online clips of politicians, murder suspects, and celebrities. Lo and behold, like an invisible code overlaying the screen, the lying behavior emerged. After Bill Clinton claimed he “did not have sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky, a small smile flitted across his face. When Tonya Harding said she didn’t know anything about Nancy Kerrigan’s attack in an interview, she shifted her eyes and smiled. Angelina Jolie may have said “of course” when Good Morning America asked her if she still thought Brad Pitt was a wonderful father, but she also stiffened and shook her head no, suggesting her opinion may have changed after all.

Since then, scrutinizing whether someone is lying has become my favorite way to procrastinate. All I have to do is wonder about a lie, and I’ll drop everything to look it up. Was Lindsay Lohan really sober when she had that reality show with Oprah in 2014? What did Michael Jackson look like when he denied the sexual abuse allegations? What about Woody Allen and his allegations? How did various killers act when claiming their innocence—Scott Peterson, OJ Simpson, Lacey Spears? How did Jodie Foster deal with questions about “boyfriends” before coming out as gay? (Considering the times, Foster was pretty straightforward about her sexuality, plus that smirk when asked what she wants in a boyfriend is priceless.)

I always plan to take a quick look at these clips and get right back to business, but it never works out that way. One interview will lead to another, as I must see and contrast all the possible wordings and facials tics available. Then I must see interviews with witnesses and detractors, and before I know it, I’ve wasted three hours. But I’ve also thoroughly investigated and identified all lying behavior, which is deeply satisfying.

Oddly, it doesn’t matter to me what the lie is about. It could be as frivolous as a celebrity romance or as serious as murder, I just like recognizing the behavior. Every time I spot a lie, I feel like I have a superpower. I’ve seen through the veils. I can tell what’s really going on—or I like to think I can. Because of this, reality TV is one of my favorite places to look for lies. The shows are often telling stories that are different from what’s happening behind the scenes, and the participants sometimes choose to lie to go along with it. Since most of these people aren’t good actors, reality TV is fertile ground for armchair lie-spotting.

My favorite is Arie from The Bachelor, who side-eyed and shook his head every time he said how much he liked Becca, the woman he picked to marry. I’m not a huge fan of The Bachelor, but I watched that season (often during the day, when I was supposed to be working) because I found this behavior so fascinating. What was going on? I wondered. Didn’t anyone else notice this man’s obvious reticence about this relationship? To make sure I wasn’t imagining it, I spent way too long checking clips online, and yes, his body language contradicted most of his verbal declarations. It even happened when he proposed: “I choose you today but I choose you every day from here on out,” he said, shaking his head vigorously. “I love you so much.” His immediate breakup with her was the first thing he did that made any sense.

It may seem silly, but I’m proud of myself for recognizing Arie’s deception because it shows that I’m getting better at seeing lies. All this procrastinating and wasting time playing amateur detective may have a purpose after all. In this age of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” when common sense is up for debate and politicians double down on provable falsehoods, recognizing lies is tantamount to self-soothing. By his 730th day in office, Donald Trump had made over 8,000 false or misleading claims, often with a glib “believe me,” his hands flat in front of his body as if to push the listener away. And it’s not just him. From the Summer of Scam to sexual abuse scandals to fake campaign ads on social media, lying has become a cultural disease.

So it’s nice to know that the truth can still come out. No matter how we try to obscure it, truth seeps through our microexpressions and contradicts our words with nonverbal cues. A person may be a great liar, but there are so many tells it’s impossible to hide them all. Of course, everyone lies—myself included. And when I’m pretending to remember someone I don’t recognize, or saying something nice that I don’t mean, I’ve become aware of my own tics. I can feel my eyes shifting away or my toes tapping nervously. These behaviors create a map pointing to what’s real, but instead of hiding them in myself, I want to get good at reading them in others.
The more I look at liars, the more I recognize what lies look like. It’s powerful information, because if you can recognize lies, you can recognize the truth as well. These days, I find that comforting.