Can Training Help People Detect Lying and Deception?

Is it possible to become a human lie detector?

Many people claim that they can teach someone how to detect deception. But, the evidence does not back up these claims.

Detecting deception is very difficult and with a few exceptions training does not seem to help. In a very few instances, training may improve detection accuracy, but the change is very small—a few percentage points at most (e.g., going from a 50% accuracy rate to a 60% accuracy rate).

More importantly, the training effects obtained are limited to very specific situations—situations where the researchers know exactly what nonverbal cues are important to focus on.

When a researcher has a tape of 5 people being honest and 5 people being dishonest, it is possible to train people to spot liars better than they did prior to training (again, a small change at best).

But, these training effects are limited to the specific materials used. Using different people, in a different context, with different types of lies, the training effects disappear. For the most part, the training effects found do not generalize or apply to different situations.

Training does not help because the nonverbal cues associated with deception vary widely from situation-to-situation, person-to-person, the nature of the lie involved, and so on (see nonverbal signs).

In fact, recent research suggests that lie detectors are born, not made.

Testing thousands of people, only 46 out of 15,000 tested were able to detect deception much better than chance across a variety of situations (research by Maureen O’Sullivan at the University of San Francisco).

These people, called "wizards" come from different walks of life and none of them were 100% accurate. Moreover, these "wizards" appeared to focus on different cues in different situations—they were simply able to read people well (take a look at a real Truth Wizard).

Unfortunately, most of us do not have this gift. Most of us (99.8%) are not able to spot liars and training does not do much good.

Long story short—do not fall for websites, books, or training programs promising to teach you how to detect deception by watching another person’s nonverbal behavior. It is not as easy to do as people would like to have you believe (see Detecting Deception – FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin).

There are much better ways of finding out the truth.