Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) after an effort to expel him from...

Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) after an effort to expel him from the House, at the Capitol in Washington, May 17. Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite

Even as George Santos’ troubles mount, his presence in Congress begs the question: How can people spot serial liars before they get into such influential positions?

I’m asked that all the time by auditors, fraud examiners, hiring managers, government officials, and more. Many know of my TED talk, "How to spot a liar," and they want to know how to avoid falling for a swindler — especially one adept and natural at telling lie after lie.

The onslaught of deception by prominent figures can feel overwhelming and exhausting. Recently, Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes reported to prison; former President Donald Trump was found liable for sexual abuse and defamation; Crypto chief executive Sam Bankman-Fried faced additional charges, including bank fraud; and Fox News admitted lying as part of its settlement with Dominion Voting Systems.

It's natural to wonder whether anyone is being honest. As someone who trains people in the art and science of deception detection, here’s what I tell them: You can learn to spot the warning signs that someone is lying. When you do, you’ll feel much more empowered — and much less likely to second-guess those who demonstrate trustworthiness.

When Santos presented himself as a Jewish descendant of Holocaust survivors, an openly gay man who lost employees in the Pulse nightclub shooting, and a self-made Latino American success story, many people took it at face value — especially voters who wanted to believe that someone with this back story could find their political home in today’s GOP. When we reflexively accept such stories, we offer the con artist a red carpet into our minds.

The same is true for these other liars, including Holmes. Investors wanted to believe that she was the next Steve Jobs, a woman whose work on blood testing would be even more significant by saving lives — making their investments not only financially rewarding but deeply meaningful. She fashioned herself into that archetype.

In my decades of work focused on “liespotting,” I’ve found that there are speech patterns and argumentative tactics fraudsters use frequently. For example, they hyper-emphasize their alleged truthfulness, starting sentences with “honestly” or “to tell you the truth.” See Santos’ use of “Let’s make it very clear,” when insisting that he was not amending his federal campaign finance filings, even as they kept changing.

Successful liars excel at deflecting quickly by changing topics to something people will be interested in — a favorite tactic of Trump. And they’re often capable of instantly minimizing their own lies. A perfect example: Santos shifting from repeated claims that he was Jewish to saying he had just joked that he was “Jew-ish,” in the blink of an eye.

Liars also repeat back hard questions to stall for time when confronted. I've seen Bankman-Fried do this regularly in interviews, before responding with a long-winded non-answer.

When sophisticated liars go on offense, they pack their delivery with emotion, deflecting the listener from facts while baiting them to ignore their more rational mind. This is what makes Tucker Carlson such a powerful liar. Very often, you’ll find that seasoned liars also project, accusing their critics of lying about them. It’s a form of gaslighting that diverts attention away from the truth.

Keeping our guards up to spot liars in action can be difficult. We naturally want to trust other people. But the more we all learn to spot liars, the more likely we are to stop scammers before it’s too late.

This guest essay reflects the views of Pamela Meyer, chief executive of Calibrate, a deception detection and inside threat mitigation consulting firm.

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