Do you think you know how to tell when someone is lying? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t.

Was Lance Armstrong lying when he said he didn’t take performance-enhancing drugs? How do you know when a politician is lying to you? (There’s more to the answer than the old joke, “When he opens his mouth.”)

Maine resident Don Tennant, a former National Security Agency analyst and journalist, has co-written a book with three former CIA employees that will show you practical ways to discern whether someone is being truthful.

“Spy the Lie: Former CIA Officers Teach You How to Detect Deception” by Philip Houston, Michael Floyd and Susan Carnicero, with Tennant (St. Martin’s Press, $24.99), will have you watching the news through new eyes. You may also find yourself perusing every word and gesture of your family and friends, searching for signs of deception when, for example, your teenager tells you there will be adult supervision at the party he’s going to.

The book includes analyses of interviews with famous deceivers such as Anthony Weiner, Bill Clinton, Jerry Sandusky and O.J. Simpson. It also includes helpful lists of questions you should ask when you are hiring a caregiver for your children, talking to your children about drug and alcohol use, or sniffing out infidelity in your spouse.

The authors are partners in a private company called QVerity that offers training and consulting on these tried-and-true techniques. The CIA is still one of their top clients.


Tennant lives in Eliot on the campus of the Green Acres Baha’i School, where his wife is program coordinator. 

Q: When people think of catching someone in a lie, they tend to think about things like someone crossing their arms or not making eye contact. But there’s more to it than that, isn’t there?

A: There’s a lot more to it than that. What you’re describing are what we call global behaviors. They’re general behaviors that someone might be expressing. In other words, I could be sitting here with my arms folded in front of me. We often hear that that’s a deceptive behavior because the person’s “closing himself off,” or something like that. But the fact is that we don’t know why the person is doing that. Maybe he’s cold. Maybe he’s just comfortable sitting that way. We just don’t know, so we need a methodology to take the guesswork out of that equation. 

Q: So is a collection of verbal responses more indicative of deception than one of these visual cues?

A: Don’t get me wrong. Visual cues are very important — we call those nonverbal deceptive behaviors — and so are the verbal behaviors. The methodology has its roots in the polygraph experience, and what’s involved there is not really detecting a lie, it’s detecting a physiological response to a stimulus, the stimulus being a question. If there’s a physiological response to a question, we know there’s a spike of anxiety and it’s up to the polygraph examiner to determine what’s causing that spike.

An example of a nonverbal deceptive behavior would be any kind of a hand-to-the-mouth movement, or hand-to-the-face. The reason for that is, if a question is sparking some sort of anxiety, the body naturally tries to dissipate that anxiety through motion. In this case, with a hand-to-the-face response, what’s happening is the fight-or-flight response kicks in because of the anxiety. What happens is, the blood leaves the blood-rich regions of the body, irritates the capillaries, and there’s this natural touching of those areas in response to that.


Another nonverbal deceptive behavior is the closing of the eyes. It’s almost like “I can’t bear to see the reaction to the whopper I’m about to tell.” Sometimes the person will actually shield his eyes with his hand or close his eyes while responding to a question, and that’s an indicator of deception.

It really needs to be understood that if there’s only one of these behaviors exhibited, we ignore it because there could be any reason for it. We look for a cluster of behaviors in response to the stimulus in order for us to feel that there’s some reason that the person is feeling anxious about the response. 

Q: Are deceptive responses given on a conscious or subconscious level? I would think the physical responses as you’ve just described them would be something you’d do subconsciously, but what about the verbal responses?

A: They’re very subconscious. You don’t even think about it. We talk (in the book) about invoking religion as a verbal deceptive indicator: “I swear to God.” “I swear on a stack of Bibles.”

We found that this is a case of sort of dressing up the lie in its Sunday best. You want to present the lie as believably as you can, and what’s stronger than having God on your side when responding to a question? 

Q: A lot of the deceptive phrasing does appear to be common in politics. Can we deduce from that that politicians lie more than the rest of us, or is it just that their lies are more public?


A: Who’s to say? But the thing is, we all lie a lot. The research shows we all lie, on average, about 10 times a day. And that includes the white lies, the so-called social lies that we tell that sort of smooth our way through the day: “Do these jeans make me look fat?”

“Absolutely not. You look like dynamite in those jeans.”

That’s a social lie that we tell to make our lives easier.

Politicians, they’re in the public eye. They’re in situations where they have to present a particular front. We try not to pick too much on politicians. That said, we were able to use several examples of politicians in the book, Herman Cain being a particularly interesting one. 

Q: Yes, once you’ve read what some of the cues are, it’s very telling reading that transcript of his interview.

A: We talk about him in a chapter that we wrote about unintended messages. Without even thinking about it, a deceptive person will tell us something without even realizing what he’s saying. It’s the truth, but it’s an indicator of deception.


An example that we gave involving Herman Cain is when he was talking with Wolf Blitzer on CNN after Ginger White surfaced — the woman who alleged to have the 13-year affair with him. This came on the heels of the allegations of the two women he had worked with who had accused him of actual sexual harassment. And Herman Cain said to Wolf Blitzer, “Those charges were baseless. Do you know why they were baseless? Because they weren’t able to prove them. There was no evidence.”

Now think about that. He’s not saying they’re baseless because he didn’t do it. He’s saying they’re baseless because they weren’t able to prove it. That’s two entirely different things. So the unintended message there was sure he did it, but they weren’t able to prove it, so he can claim he didn’t do it. 

Q: I was kind of shocked by how accurate the assessments of the Anthony Weiner and Jerry Sandusky interviews were, especially so in the Sandusky case, since he hadn’t been found guilty at the time the book went to press. Do you always find yourself watching these interviews with politicians and criminals through your practiced eye for deception?

A: Absolutely you do. One thing to keep in mind is, for somebody like Anthony Weiner or Jerry Sandusky, you don’t have to be a genius to figure out that these people are being deceptive, right? But what the methodology does enable you to do is, it gives you a much better idea of the scope of deception. In the case of Anthony Weiner, we know this guy’s lying through his teeth. There’s something there. We’re not sure exactly what, but you can just tell by his evasiveness there’s something there.

In really analyzing transcripts of interviews, what you’re able to do is catalog the frequency of the deceptive behaviors, so it gives you a much more accurate perspective of the extent, or the seriousness, of the deception. In other words, was it this a one-off thing, an error in judgment … or was there a lot more to it than that? Is this something he’s been doing fairly consistently with a number of women?

It turns out, before he finally confessed, our analysis indicated that it’s very likely that other women will come out and report this same sort of behavior, and there are a lot more photos involved here. And it turns out that’s exactly what happened. 


Q: Do you find people wary of talking with you at cocktail parties because they’re afraid you’re going to analyze what they say?

A: (Laughs.) Not really, because you have to be in what we call this L-squared mode — L-squared meaning look and listen. You have to be concentrating very, very closely on a person’s behavior to really implement the model. 

Q: How well can ordinary people learn how to do this?

A: The answer to that question is very well. It takes discipline and practice, like anything else. There’s really two pieces to it. One is observing these deceptive behaviors, and the other piece is understanding what questions to ask.

Q: One question that really struck me that I’ve seen on cop shows before is, instead of confronting someone with, “You took that money didn’t you?” say something like, “Is there any reason that one of your colleagues might say you took that money?”

A: Isn’t that powerful? That’s called a bait question, and it’s hugely powerful because it invokes what is called a mind virus. Your mind starts whirling: “What do they know, and how am I going to get out of this?”


Q: Do you guys have any concern that writing a book like this will teach people how to lie, or is it just something that is human nature, and when people are under stress, they’re going to do it anyway?

A: That’s a really good question. What we have found is that this book will make you very, very good at detecting deception, but it doesn’t help anyone at all in executing deception. And the reason for that is, it really goes back to the subconscious nature of the verbal and nonverbal responses. There’s simply so much going on in your head, so much that you would have to keep track of, it’s impossible to do all of that all at the same time.

Phil, Mike and Susan are the first ones to tell you they’re no better at lying than anybody else is. Susan will say she’s stricken “I swear to God” from her vocabulary because it’s such a blatant deceptive behavior.

But there’s going to be something else that creeps in. There’s too much coming at you that your brain has to deal with, and your brain just does what it does, and you end up following along.

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:


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