top of page

Deception & Deceivers (P1)

Discerners filled with wisdom,
    At least five New Testament scriptures tell us directly, Do not be deceived. Many more say it in other ways. This tells us the Lord expects us to grow in practical discernment to such levels that we are able to detect dishonesty (and other things). Learning this Biblical truth many years ago inspired me to create a Spirit-nudged proverb: Fool me once, shame on me.
We would be absolutely baffled, and a bit depressed, at how profusely people lie. This probably includes you, if you are not yet maturely self-aware in Christ and careful about honesty. Here is a piece of the most current research:
    We hear 20-100 lies a day, depending on how much exposure you have to people. Within ten minutes of a conversation strangers have already told three lies, and 60% of all adults tell at least one lie in any ten minute chat. Americans tell an average of eleven lies a week. The average married couple lies in one out of every ten interactions with their spouse. And we thought only men, presidents, cheaters, and criminals lie.
    The following is a multidimensional package of what God's Word says on the subject, practical discernment techniques the Spirit has taught me over the years across diverse situations, and lie detection techniques researched by the behavioral sciences and used by law enforcement, FBI, and CIA. We will begin by nullifying common myths.

Common Myths of Lie Detection

Many people believe glib truisms and half-truths about this subject. Ironically, these logic errors can lead to condemning those telling the truth and exculpating those lying. We need to get this right. Proverbs 17:15 says (NIV): Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent--the LORD detests them both.

"They are lying if they avoid eye contact, or hold eye contact too long."
    The weakness with this so-called liespotting technique is, what if that person is uncomfortable with eye contact anyway? What if shifty, restless eyes are that person's baseline? What if they are simply intimidated by you, the questioner, or the situation? What if the person has a stare-n-glare habit anyway? What if they are truly innocent and feel they must look you in the eye firmly to make that point?

"They are lying if they give you excessive detail, or too few details."
    What if that person is a "too many details" person anyway? What if that person is a few-details-like-pulling-teeth communicator anyway? Other variables, too, are relevant. For example, right after ministry trips or long meetings I am too exhausted to share many details when asked, "How did it go?" On the other hand, I share plenty of details when I feel more energetic and can talk in-depth.

"They are lying if they defend themselves too aggressively, or not aggressively enough."
    What if that person is oversensitive and defensive anyway? What if they are truly innocent and simply panicking at the consequences if they are not believed? What if they do not defend themselves ferociously because they tend to suppress strong emotions anyway? What if they are cynical or distrusting of the questioner, or stoically assume they will not be believed?

Do you see the picture? These weaknesses of logic apply to many liespotting truisms.

Foundational Premises

Recognizing deception is built on at least three foundational premises: (1) personality baseline, (2) situational and background variables, (3) holistic analysis.

A Person's Personality Baseline
A person's behavior might not be a telltale sign of guilt, but their actual personality baseline. As I said above, some people already have a tendency to shifty eyes, or, to stare-n-glare. Some people already have a tendency to share too many details, or, not share enough details. Some people already have a tendency to be aggressively defensive, or, stoically cynical and dismissive. In interpersonal dynamics we have to consider personality baseline before we rush to assume certain behaviors are deception-prompted.

Situational & Background Variables
    A person's question-mark behavior may not mean they are deceiving; other variables in the situation or in the background may be prompting that behavior. For example, a pastor friend of mine drew sharp suspicion from his wife for not answering her texts or calls for long periods of time while he was away ministering in neighboring churches. She could not fathom he was still in a meeting or doing ministry until 1am, because she came from a church experience that was highly predictable and always stuck to the clock. Sure enough, though, God was using him in a remarkably powerful way in his itinerant ministry, which was mainly to Pentecostal and Charismatic groups. He continued praying for and counseling individuals who lingered long after the meeting was officially over. It wasn't until his wife was able to witness these powerful meetings (they had a disabled child who could not travel), and witness the ministerial aftermath stretching deep into the night, did she finally back down and humbly acknowledge she misread the situation. Consider situational and background variables when trying to interpret someone's behavior.

Holistic Analysis (Clusters, Crossdimensional Patterns)
    We can avoid mislogic if we consistently try to analyze interpersonal dynamics holistically. We cannot interpret a person's behavior in a silo (a single moment), but in a multidomain system that includes their personality baseline, any and all possible variables, and anything else relevant to a more precise insight. We do not look for silos, we do not put all our judgments onto a single moment, rather, we look for clusters and crossdimensional patterns. If a person is truly deceiving or truly a deceiver, it will show up as a cluster in more than one dimension.

Fight-or-Flight Manifestations


The easiest dimension to start in is the physiological. Lying is stressful to the physiology of the overwhelming majority of people, though there are exceptions. This is why lie detector tests can work in most cases. Once the soul commits to a lie and has to defend that lie, the body gearshifts into fight-or-flight mode and manifests commensurate symptoms. Still, remember to keep holistic analysis in view; a person may go into fight-or-flight simply because the questioner or the situation has made them nervous. This is why clusters and crossdimensional patterns are crucial. One or two tells alone is not a reliable verdict.

The Body Changes, The Behavior Changes
When the body has shifted into fight-or-flight, it dispenses cortisol and adrenaline. Together these hormones cause a powerful surge of reactive readiness in the person. Heart rate increases, sometimes
 to the point of racing; mental focus is narrowed into tunnel-vision and frenetic brainstorming begins; blood surges into muscles, spiking energy and physical strength, sometimes also causing shaking; breathing becomes shallower and faster; the body's pain perception decreases; the face flushes; pupils dilate; skin sweats; cotton-mouth happens; the bladder relaxes; a lightheaded sensation may happen because of the sharp change in blood and oxygen activity; a sensation that the temperature has suddenly changed (cold or hot all of a sudden); etc.
    Because fight-or-flight mode is like a rocket engine, a person will display the following behaviors to "burn off" that energy surge. If they lean towards the fight side of the equation, they might have aggressive or explosive outbursts; talk loud and angrily; try to bully or belittle those in the situation; behave violently or try to; pace menacingly; generally display survive-at-all-costs
 behavior or what I call "last stand behavior". Peter tried to protect his lie with this kind of belligerent behavior. He said in Matthew 26:74 (NKJV), Then he began to curse and swear, saying, "I do not know the Man!"
If they lean towards flight, they might display obsessive microbehaviors (nail-biting, nonstop hair preening, picking, twitching, shaking, etc.); the inability to sit still or relax; pacing panickingly; panic/anxiety attacks; try
ing to craft perfect answers or words; etc.


Lying? Nervous? Insecure?
    Lying is stressful to the physiology of the overwhelming majority of people. Once the soul commits to a lie and has to defend that lie, the body gearshifts into fight-or-flight mode and dispenses powerful hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones energize the aforementioned behaviors, which translate as the person trying to "burn off" all that uncomfortable rocket fuel pumping in
to their system. A person who gearshifts into flight-or-flight mode, when confronted or innocently questioned, may be lying. Or...
    ...they might just be nervous. They might hate being put on the spot. They might be deeply insecure and do not like answering questions anyway, at all, from anyone, as their personality baseline. This is why clusters and crossdimensional patterns are so crucial, why avoiding silos is so crucial.


Example: Jodi Arias
    During Jodi Arias' interrogation about the murder of her ex-boyfriend, Travis Alexander, she told lie after lie after lie. As her system went into fight-or-flight mode, notice all the bizarre hyperactivity (in the interrogation room) as she tried to burn off the uncomfortable rocket fuel surging in her system. You can see plenty of photos online.

Cognitive Complexity / Narrative Depth


The previous section looks at a person's physiology in the moment of a potential deception. This section looks at their linguistics--their story, explanation, word structures--regarding the subject matter in question. This dimension is referred to in the FBI as cognitive complexity. I prefer a more user-friendly term, I call it narrative depth.

Cognitive Complexity / Narrative Depth
    In general, I do not endorse the American Psychological Association (APA). However, some of secular psychology's concepts and constructs do parallel certain truths in God's Word. For those of us in spiritual leadership, it is wise to know where the two overlap and agree versus where the APA is non-Biblical or anti-Biblical.
    According to the APA, cognitive complexity is "the state or quality of a thought process that involves numerous constructs, with many interrelationships 
among them. Such processing is often experienced as difficult or effortful". The overwhelming majority of people who lie want to keep their lie simple, memorable, and repetitive. (This was Adolf Hitler's stated technique.) They do not use, do not want to use, and often cannot use cognitive complexity. There is no or very little narrative depth to their lie.


Narrative Depth: A Harmonious Who-What-When-Where-Why-How Structure
    When a friend or family asks you about your day, if you are telling the truth and you like to chitchat, your answer has narrative depth, like an IMAX movie. You talk about a conversation with your coworker and the colorful or interesting or painfully boring aspects of it. You share how the day was long--and the other person can hear tiredness in your voice. You share how the Spirit illuminated something helpful or freeing or riveting, and you gush with emotion or a dynamic backstory. These examples all have at least some narrative depth. Each storyline has multiple layers that interrelate, like relevant details, plot and climax, gut reaction, real emotion, implied meanings, etc. Every layer harmonizes into a 3D structure.

A deceptive story or lie is different.

Narrative Simplicity: Simple Lines & Linearity
    All narratives exist on a Simplicity-Complexity axis. The further a story stretches onto the complexity axis, the more likely the person is telling the truth or most of the truth. The closer a story sticks to the simplicity axis, the faster our discernment radar should start beeping. This does not automatically mean the person is lying; remember, other variables may be operating
. The person may not be talkative or detailed anyway. The person may be emotionally suppressed anyway. And so on.
    Nonetheless, when a high-voltage subject is on the table, we need to listen through a Complexity-Simplicity axis. Does their answer or explanation have at least some depth and multidimensionality? Is there interrelatedness and harmony to all the parts of their narrative? When you ask for 3D details, do they tense up or become irritated or merely repeat simple lines with strict linearity? Think of
the childhood fables and myths we learned in grade school or children's books. They are simplistic and extremely linear, getting to the point quickly with very little depth.


    When Cain lied to the Lord, notice
how these very concepts were at work. Cain said in Genesis 4:9, "I do not know where Abel is, am I my brother's keeper?"
    The lie was a curiously short, one-dimensional statement ("I do not know"). The explanation was a shallow, evasive, non-3D statement that he was not responsible for a grown man's whereabouts. Do you see the simple lines and linearity?
    Isaiah prophesied that Israel would make a lie their refuge and hiding place (Isa 28:15). He
 declared that a hailstorm or flood would destroy that refuge (v17). The imagery Isaiah is using is that of a flimsy and simple structure built as a temporary shelter by someone on a long journey, or, as a temporary army encampment. The metaphor and its message are incredibly, incredibly rich. These kinds of ancient world temporary shelters were flimsy and simple; a hailstorm or hard rain could collapse it. A lie is the same: it is a flimsy and simple shelter, that with enough interrogative hail and rain, will collapse.


Jodi Arias
    Jodi Arias' alibis collapsed for this very reason. Her explanations prompted a hailstorm of What about...? questions. If her alibis were true, they would sound like one friend telling another friend all about the
 day in question. All the who-what-when-where-why-how parts of her story would form a harmonious 3D complex, not a simple and flimsy structure.


Maybe, Maybe Not
Cognitive simplicity/narrative simplicity does not automatically mean the person is lying. Remember, other variables may be operating. The person may not be talkative, verbally deep, emotionally articulate, etc. anyway as their personality baseline. The book of Proverbs, pejoratively, says some people are "simple", which means elementary spiritually, morally, or cognitively. Or, the person may be truly exhausted, mentally or physically, and has no interest in exerting energy on detail or complexity or free-association chitchat.

Perception Management / Deep Acting


The previous sections look at the physiological and the verbal. This section looks at the sociobehavioral, and more specifically, perception management or deep acting. The kitchen table definition: a person trying to control how they are viewed to influence the responses of others. Nowhere is this more urgent than in the mind of one who is deceiving. A perception manager/deep actor who is deceiving juggles multiple things to mimic honesty, requiring more calculations (and arguably, more psychopathy) than those who quickly exhibit fight-or-flight symptoms.

The Mimicry of Honesty & Innocence
When a deceiving person goes into perception management mode, they become "deep actors". They try to craft a believable 3D narrative, going a bit deeper and wider than the typical false narrative, which is usually simple and linear. They will try to preen the edges of their behavior, making it seem innocent and keeping red flags down. Some deceiving deep actors will become overjoyed and oh-so-helpful in answering all your questions. As the television show Criminal Minds often points out, some will try to insert themselves into the investigation somehow. There are more externals we could list, but you get the idea. They are deep actors in the truest sense of the term.


Mimicry & Deep Acting, or Genuine Innocence?
    Once again
, we must be circumspect and analyze holistically. We must always discern fairly. A person may be deep-acting their externals to conceal the truth, or, they may be genuinely innocent and merely come across as actors. They might be an insecure person who is more preoccupied about their image than is healthy or sensible. They might be someone who does not feel free to truly be themselves as an integrated, authentic, confident person. Acting like a politician or being reputation-hypersensitive does not automatically mean a person is proactively, maliciously deceiving. They may just need to heal emotionally and mature as a person.


    Several scriptures mention the externals management or "deep acting" of higher-level deception. In 1Kings 14:1-3, Jeroboam coached his wife in a deceptive act that depended on the right externals. He told her to dress in disguise and take gifts of bread, cakes, and honey. She was literally deep-acting as if she were a paid actress.
    Proverbs 27:14 says (NIV), If anyone loudly blesses their neighbor early in the morning, it will be taken as a curse. This so-called blessing is early in the morning (the timing is odd) and loud (the manner is odd). This so-called blessing is actually a curse, Solomon said. It is a fake, deep-acted blessing concealing an agenda. Psalm 62:4 parallels this insight (NKJV): ...They delight in lies; they bless with their mouth, but they curse inwardly.
    The Psalms, too, mention the relationship between deception and perception management. Psalm 12:2 (AMP): They speak deceitful and worthless words to one another; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak. Sometimes this deep acting is directed even at God! 78:36 says (NIV): But then they would flatter him with their mouths, lying to him with their tongues. Church, do not try to deep-act with an omniscient God. Be raw and blunt and nude before Him about anything and everything in your soul and life, and do this first thing every day. He can handle your icky honesty, but He will issue judgments and consequences on your acting.


Example: Stephen McDaniel
    During Stephen McDaniel's interrogation about the murder of his neighbor, Lauren Giddings, Stephen went into extreme perception management. He tried to appear unreadable and innocent by sitting unusually still during his interrogation--he knew restlessness and the need to burn off fight-or-flight energy was a tell. He sat in the same position, and spoke calmly, throughout the questioning. Also, he searched for Lauren with her friends in the immediate aftermath of his crime.
    His deep-acting collapsed under discovered evidence and the scrutiny of other liespotting techniques, some of which we will look at in Part 2. Before his arrest and formal interrogation, while he sat in the police trailer as they searched his apartment, he drank ten (yes, ten) bottles of water. Why? Fight-or-flight cotton mouth.

Recap, Tying It All Together

Many people believe myths, glib truisms, and half-truths about how to recognize deception. Sadly, these logic errors sometimes lead to condemning the honest and exculpating the deceiver. We need to get this right. Proverbs 17:15 (NIV): Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent--the LORD detests them both.

Holistic Analysis (Clusters, Crossdimensional Patterns)
    Discernment mislogic can be avoided if we analyze interpersonal dynamics holistically. We never interpret a person's behavior in a silo (an isolated moment), but in a multidomain system comprised of their personality baseline, situational and background variables, and anything else relevant to a more precise insight. We do not look for silos or think in silos, we look for clusters and crossdimensional patterns. If a person is truly deceiving, it will show up in a cluster, in more than one dimension.

Part 1
    In Part 1 we looked at three domains of deception inquiry: the physiological (fight-or-flight tells), the verbal (cognitive complexity/narrative depth; usually the lack of), and the sociobehavioral (perception management/deep acting; the extreme preening of externals). A person's personality baseline or other variables may be insinuating deception when deception is not actually happening. This is why we must interpret a person's physiological, verbal, and sociobehavioral presentations as an interrelated system.

bottom of page