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Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” ― Noel Langley, the Wizard of Oz

Someone called my 90-year-old mother-in-law claiming to be her grandson.  He wanted her to wire him some money. The need for senior citizens to protect themselves against scammers is a concern.  Can you teach them how to detect deception? I would start by first learning about the latest scientific developments on deception. The latter is the subject of this essay.

Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book, Talking to Strangers, ignited my interest in deception. Gladwell applied Timothy Levine’s deception theory to understand some high-profile cases.  For example, how can some people like Amanda Knox appear deceitful when they were truthful, and others like Bernie Madoff appear truthful when they were deceitful? Levine discusses his theory in his recent book    Duped.

Defining Deception

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Conscious Deception

Any theory requires clear definitions. Levine defines deception as “intentionally, knowingly, or purposefully misleading another person.” With his definition, Levine gives us three ways that people can be deceitful. The first, intentionally, is conscious-intent (the usual definition). Levine defines intent as “implying conscious forethought.” He included the word knowingly to include situations where we do not intend to deceive, but find ourselves making misleading statements. Here is an example. There is a bar called “The Library” in a nearby town. A mother asked her son where he would meet his friends. He said “The Library” without thinking how she would interpret it. As he stepped out of his house, he realized that she probably thought he was going to the public library.

The first two pieces of the definition cover how to do deception. They rely on the subject knowing that he or she is deceiving someone.  Levine also wants to cover situations when people deceive without conscious awareness. This includes self-deception. Levine believes “actions can have function and purpose without conscious awareness.” He does “not want to rule out unconsciously motivated deception.” So he added the word purposely. Levine says the resulting messages “lead to the same outcome of deception without getting into the message source’s head regarding their intention states.”

Unconscious or Inadvertent Deception

Brazilian President Bolsonaro referred to the coronavirus as the “little flu.” He also said that “Brazilians never catch anything.”  Is he deceiving his audience?  He may believe he is telling the truth.   Or as Carmine Savastano said, “The problem with politicians is they tell people what they wish to hear instead of what they need to know.” By Levine’s definition, President Bolsonaro’s statements about the corona-virus were deceptive. Levine said, “… messages that are functionally deceptive mislead others regardless of the actual or perceived intent.”  This is consistent with the NLP presupposition: “the meaning of the communication is in the response it elicits.”

Telling Lies

Calibrating Behavior 

Levine defines a lie as “… deception that involves outright falsehood, which is consciously known to be false by the teller and is not signaled as false to the message recipient.” During an NLP training, we did an exercise to see if we could tell if someone was lying. We observed subjects when they were telling the truth, and again when they were lying. We calibrated differences in behavior. Then, we had to guess if they were lying when we did not know the answer. This experiment led to some success in detecting lies. How good is this calibration? Can we now follow the person around for a year and predict every lie he or she makes?

In this training exercise, participants made what Levine calls “bald-faced lies.” Most lies are not so straightforward but come packaged in other statements. An adage in crime movies is “stick to the truth when possible when sneaking in a lie.” So, when someone is lying we may see the mixed cues, those when the person was lying and those cues when they were not.

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A bigger issue is with the cues themselves. Are there universal non-verbal or verbal cues that can tell us if he is lying or telling the truth?  Do people move their eyes in specific places when lying? Or tug on their ear? Or bite their lower lip?  Levine’s theory is a non-cue theory. His research shows that cues are not reliable.

Can eye movements be cues? Pete Casale describes how you might tell someone is lying by calibrating eye patterns.  In contrast, Wiseman and his colleagues disagree. They wrote the paper “The Eyes Don’t Have It: Lie Detection and Neuro-Linguistic Programming.”  Eye movements can show if someone is accessing a constructed image, or a remembered one. Do people access “constructed images” when lying and “remembered ones” when not lying? Wiseman’s experiments show eye-movements do not provide a reliable indicator of lying. Here is a confirming example. If you ask me what I had for breakfast yesterday, I say “eggs and toast.” It is a lie since I had cereal and milk. I had eggs and toast two days ago and recall that meal in my response. When I do, I am using a remembered image instead of a constructed one. My eye movements were consistent with a remembered image.

​Being Accurate

Better than Average

Suppose you have twenty people in your training. Ask each person to relate an experience they had the day before. Secretly ask half of them to tell the truth and the other half to lie. Each person observes the speaker and notes if they think the speaker is telling a lie or the truth. After everyone relates an experience, count the number of correct answers. You probably find that the accuracy is a little better-than-average. Levine finds the average accuracy over many studies to be around 54% for correct answers. Any theory of deception needs to explain this “better-than-average” result. Levine says it arises because there are “some small percent of the population are really bad liars who usually give themselves away. The reason accuracy is not higher is that most people are pretty good liars.”

Veracity Effect

Now count how accurate people are in identifying truth-telling. And compare it with how accurate they are when identifying lying. You will find the former greater than the latter. Levine calls this the veracity effect. (Averaging the truth-accuracy and lie-accuracy scores yields the better-than-average result mentioned earlier.) The veracity effect arises from a truth-bias. Truth bias is “the tendency to believe another person is honest independent of actual honesty.” The truth-default is a cognitive state that involves a “passive presumption of honesty due to the failure to actively consider the possibility of deceit at all…”  It takes a lot of effort to kick a person out of that state. Many people are stunned when they discover a loved one has betrayed them. Only after the fact do they see the evidence they missed.

Detecting Lies

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​According to Levine’s theory “… people detect most lies when information is later discovered that reveals deception for what it is.” Does Levine suggest ways to improve accuracy in detecting lies? He lists five methods and suggests using more than one.  One involves establishing ground truth, i.e., fact-checking. The next two methods involve being familiar with the context to assess plausibility or motives.  The fourth method involves strategic questioning. And the last one is to “persuade liars to be honest and tell the truth.” As you may have guessed, unraveling the mystery of deception is complex.  In the words of Walter Scott “Oh, what a tangled web we weave… when first we practice to deceive.”  Yet, “detecting deception” would make a great topic for an NLP or Neuro-Semantics training. And that is no lie.


Levine’s book, Duped, was the first book we explored in our new family Zoom book club, born from the corona virus crisis. The second and current book is Hypnotic Thinking, by Michael Hall. There may be connections between the two books.

Here is my brief list of books and articles mentioned in the current essay, and a few more.

Casale, Pete. How to Tell if Someone is Lying.

Gladwell, Malcolm.  Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know (2019).

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow (2013). Kahneman defined system one thinking as “fast, automatic and subconscious.” And system two thinking as “conscious, deliberate and calculating.” Levine’s terms “intentionally” and “knowingly” align with system two.  The term “purposely” aligns with system one.

Levine, Timothy. Duped: Truth-Default Theory [TDT] and the Social Science of Lying and Deception (2020)

Levitin, Daniel J.  Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age (2016). How to spot the problems with the facts you encounter.

Van Horne, Patrick, and Jason Riley. Left of Bang (2014). How to detect problems before (left) a bad thing (bang) happens.

Wiseman, Richard, Caroline Watt, Leanne ten Brinke, Stephen Porter, Sara-Louise Couper, and Calum Ranki. (2012). The Eyes Don’t Have It: Lie Detection and Neuro-Linguistic Programming. PLOS ONE 7(7): e40259.


I would like to thank Claire Kurs for her editorial comments. She helped me unravel the random thoughts in my mind to better communicate them to others. And she keeps me honest.

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