Catch Liars By Redirecting Their Misdirection

Catch Liars By Redirecting Their Misdirection

Lies often come in the form of misdirection, or more specifically, a long-worded answer to a yes or no question that’s meant to direct you away from the truth. Here’s how it works and how to beat it.

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Dr John R. Schafer, over at Psychology Today, is back with another tip for detecting and countering liars. (Last week he shared what Well… tends to reveal.) This time around, we’re off to the Land of Is:

Yes or No questions deserve “Yes” or “No” answers. When people choose not to answer “Yes” or “No,” they go to the Land of Is. The Land of Is occupies the space between truth and deception. This murky area contains a labyrinth of half-truths, excuses, and suppositions.

The way one enters that “murky area” is by answering a “yes” or “no” question with a roundabout answer that’s meant to misdirect. Here’s an example:

You: Adam, does this hard drive full of circus clown pornography belong to you?

Me: Why would I save all that circus clown pornography on a hard drive when I can just get it online?

The idea of the misdirection is to create doubt in the person asking the question. The idea is to get the asker to assume they were silly for asking in the first place, because obviously is was a poor assumption to make. In these situations, however, the doubt the asker should have is whether or not the responder is being truthful. Schafer suggests redirecting the misdirection to get things back on track. In our example, you might say something like this:

You: I don’t know why you would or would not save all those unsettling photos and videos of circus clowns in unusually compromising yet strangely erotic positions. That’s not what I asked. I asked if the hard drive containing the pornography belongs to you.

Me: Yes it does.

You: Can I, uh… borrow it?

Me: Sure.

In the end, it works out for everyone. But seriously, there are two big takeaways here. First, if you want to detect a liar you should ask them a yes or no question. Second, if the person answering the question doesn’t respond with a yes or no answer and instead tries to misdirect, remind them of what you asked. Whether they choose to lie or not, you’ll probably know either way.

Poor Man’s Polygraph: Part 2 [Psychology Today]


  • Thanks for reminding me of circus clown pornography. Ive come across it once, and yes, id rather not come across it again.

    The funny thing is, that my friend has always had an interest in psychology and tries to read me like this to see if i’m lying or not. To counter this i have spent quite a good deal of time purposely answering his questions in an obfuscated and sarcastic way. Because of this he has the hardest time trying to distinguish if I’m lying or telling the truth when he wants a good answer to a worthwhile question.

    Its fun to be a jerk 😛

    • “Ive come across it once, and yes, id rather not come across it again.”

      More information than what was required. I hope you at least wiped the screen afterwards.

  • Unfortunately, a simple yes or no can often be totally misleading and a longer answer required to actually provide a true picture. Simple example:
    YOU – Were you at the scene of the crime.
    ME – Yes, but not at the time the crime was committed.

  • You need to keep the questions very simple for yes or no answers to be effective, otherwise there is no choice but to answer with a longer answer..

    You: Adam, does this hard drive full of circus clown pornography belong to you?

    Me: Yes, but the pornography doesn’t. I leant it to your dad last week and it came back like that.

    What you need to do is ask the simplest question to have a yes or no answer be definative.

    You: does this hard drive belong to you?
    Me: Yes.
    You: does the clown porn belong to you?
    Me: No.
    You: Can I borrow it?
    Me: eeeew.

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