Emergency preparedness from a Counterintelligence Agent

How to read people

Reading people is a survival skill

Knowing how to read people to tell if someone is lying is a very important skill for preppers. This skill can not only help you with bartering for goods or making relationships, it can also help detect when someone’s being deceptive or is intending to double-cross you, even if their words don’t sound deceitful. Being able to read their body language may even save your life. It could be especially helpful when trying to vet people when they are trying to be a part of your group or in getting better deals while bartering for goods. Be warned though, using this stuff on your spouse or significant other could have undesired results. You may not want to know what you want to know.

If you’ve decided to build or join a team in the aftermath of an emergency like Katrina or others – or even after SHTF, you need to know if you can trust people. You can’t just take them on their word.

I’ve had to learn a lot about how to tell a lie over the years. Investigations, interrogations, HUMINT and plain-old liaison all require the ability to know when someone is lying and when they’re telling the truth. After a while you become some kind of human lie detector. Great for work. Not so great for relationships as it turns out. But how do you know when someone is lying?

First, let’s go through a bit of science. I love science because science made beer. That’s why they call it science.

The physiology of telling lies

Paul Ekman’s book

Paul Ekman is undoubtedly the king of human lie detectors. He’s the guy they modeled the “Lie To Me” show after. I love that show. He went to New Guinea years ago because there was a huge debate amongst scientific face-reader types whether reading people was a natural thing or a learned thing. He found a tribe that had never seen TV or what-not and showed them some pics of people in various stages of moods. They were able to read them just like anyone who’d not grown up under a rock. He’s written several books that are very interesting, including: Unmasking the Face: A Guide to Recognizing Emotions From Facial Expressions by Paul Ekman and Wallace V. Friesen (Sep 30, 2003) in case you’re interested in his theories. It is fascinating stuff how he can read people’s faces (which is body language) and tell not only moods but underlying thoughts.

One of the key methods he teaches to government agencies and others on how to read people is how to read micro-expressions. According to this theory (and practice), people can’t hide their feelings completely because even when they do, it shows up on their face in little mini-mood twitches that you can be trained to read. Awesome.

Our body is tied to the brain, and the specific part of the brain we’re concerned with here is called the Limbic Mammalian brain. This is the part of your brain that kicks in when you hear a noise in the night and the hair on the back of your neck stands up, your body freezes, your nose clears, and your eyes dilate. It’s an automatic reaction that controls/affects the fight / flight / freeze response. This response is involuntary. It also kicks in when there are positive feelings such as sexual attraction (stop giggling, I’m trying to type here), hunger and pain. This part of your brain pretty much never sleeps.

Whatever feelings your limbic system is experiencing comes out (or leaks) into and affects your body language, anywhere from the frequency of blinking to peeing yourself.

When we lie, that base part of our brain reacts because another part of your brain explains to it that there’s a threat. This reaction manifests itself subconsciously as a discomfort and even further as outright displays of avoidance. Basically, that means that your brain doesn’t like lying so it makes you do things that you don’t realize. It’s these displays that we’re interested in.

These expressions are difficult to control. The more discomfort your mammalian brain feels, the more expressive it will be on your body language. Also, the more engaged the rest of your brain is on something, the more difficult it is to control these expressions. This is why you start tapping your foot or pacing the room when you get nervous. This is also why interrogators put on the pressure to read people. Your conscious mind can only hold so many thoughts at once so trying to suppress your body language when someone is trying to know if you’re lying can be quite difficult.

Now the problem is that it’s really easy to look at someone and see that they looked away when you ask a question. Does this mean they lied? Knowing how to read people is not all that simple. If they were, I wouldn’t be taking all the time to write this for you.

There are certain commonalities in people’s body language; enough that you can look for certain clues to see if there are any related actions. The specific actions that a guy might exhibit will depend on that guy, his feelings at that moment, your conversation, the situation he’s in, the environment, and any of a hundred other things that change with each person and situation. So how do you figure out if someone’s lying to you? Much like piecing together OPSEC Indicators to find out what’s going on in your enemy’s camp, you have to do the same thing, treating each body movement as a possible indicator. A change in indicators tied to something is a clue. Several clues together make a pattern. The patterns that are different from what we assume happen when he’s not lying are what we’re concerned with.

Establishing a baseline

So how where do we start? The first thing you need to do when trying to figure out if someone is lying to you is to know what they’re like when they’re not lying to you. How do we do this? We do this by having conversations with them, or at least having a neutral conversation with them. In this conversation, we take note of their body language. As we do this, we establish a baseline of how they move, how they act, and how they talk in a supposedly neutral situation. Once you do this, it’s easier to know if there’s a change in behavior.

If you’re trying to get a leg up on someone for negotiating, for example, it can pay off big-time to hang out with the dude even more than just the rapport you’ll build. If you can’t do this and you find yourself having to make a quick judgement of if they’re being deceitful, you’ll have to make certain assumptions based on what you think his upbringing, culture and personality is and make some quick judgments. To do it properly though, you should ask questions that you already know the answer to and use their reactions as a starting point.

So what things should we be looking for? Since your expressive body language response is tied to the most basic part of your brain, it makes sense that the movements and changes will have deeply subconscious roots. These changes can be thought of as like archetypal symbols of movements. So WTF does that mean? Read on, my friend; read on.

An archetype is something that is believed to be tied to the collective consciousness. I’m not going to go into what that is because it’s a big topic. Just google Carl Jung the next time you’re sitting around and get lost in the mystery that is symbolism. For the purposes of this article, think of it as like a movement that you see is mimicking a movement that the brain is thinking about. For example, if you said something to a guy and he folds himself up and turns away from you, it’s like he’s avoiding something that’s threatening him. Almost like you’re actually physically attacking him. His limbic brain can’t tell the difference so it reacts. This reaction to a perceived threat is what we’re looking for.

Common body language reactions to lying

As I mentioned, each person acts differently and even each of those will act differently depending on the exact situation they’re in, but there are some common things to look for. Some of these examples are used in interrogations so they may not be pertinent examples for a SHTF scenario but they still give examples of changes in body language that indicate deception, and as such, can still be useful for a prepper to know. Let’s go through some of those so you have an idea of some of the things to pay attention to.

Major body movements

Book by former CIA agent

Protection movements and blocking. A lot of the movements that we’re concerned about with someone who’s lying pertain to protecting themselves. This is the basic idea of the symbolism we’re talking about. If you look into pretty much all of the body language indicators below, you’ll see that they are a kind of reflection of something someone would do to protect himself. If you see the guy doing something that seems like they’re blocking something, hiding behind something, or avoiding something, it’s something you should be paying attention to.

Watch guys in a bar the next time you’re out. The nervous ones (90% of the guys out there) will be holding their beer up and in front of themselves as if to block a potential attack. If you see a guy with his arms down by his side, feet about shoulder length apart and chest out, you know right away he’s comfortable with himself and sees no threat. He’s also most likely busy with some girl talking to him while he’s trying to enjoy his Guinness.

As with all the other body language deception indicators, there are a lot of things that could also influence their behavior so  you have to take everything in together. If that guy in the bar above sat down at a table with a girl and started talking to her and later in the conversation she  put her purse down between the two of them, you might think that she was protecting herself from him by hiding behind the purse. It goes deeper than that. The purse is a prized and protected item to her in most cases. Putting her purse down between them is actually what they call an Indicator of Interest (IOI), meaning that she is subconsciously displaying that she trusts him. Maybe.

Leaning. A person will tend to lean into something they like and away from something they don’t. If you notice that through several topics of discussion that the guy keeps leaning away from you every time you talk about a topic, that’s an indicator that he may feel some kind of discomfort with that topic. People normally move around after sitting for a while so again – look for repeated patterns associated with a particular topic and not associated with a known truth.

Facing. If you’re standing with someone and they are facing you, they are probably very comfortable with you. Culture and sex plays a big part in this one though so again, you have to look at the baseline. In the US from what I’ve seen, guys will tend to have long conversations facing in the same direction or in neutral directions whereas girls will tend to face each other. This is probably because facing off with another guy is somewhat confrontational. Look for the changes in where he’s facing as you’re talking.

Shrugging. Typically, a person who’s telling the truth will shrug with both shoulders when expressing that they don’t know something. Sometimes people will half-shrug and lift one shoulder higher than the other if they’re lying.

Gesturing. This one is a key one to look at and one that I’ve seen give away liars on several occasions. Watch not only how much a person moves their hands when they talk, but also the pattern of movements. Some people will move their hands in sweeping, rolling movements when talking about comfortable topics or topics that they’re describing from memory but then tend to move their hands in choppy, jagged, or straight-line movements when making things up. I don’t know what the symbolism is here for this one but I’ve seen it in action on many occasions, so look for it.

Open vs closed. A very typical response that someone displays when talking about something they’re comfortable about to someone they’re comfortable with is open body language. This means hands could be palm up when gesturing, arms unfolded, legs uncrossed, etc. They are displaying that they perceive no threat so they are not protecting themselves. Explaining something with their palms showing is a good indication they’re telling the truth.

Protecting the face. A lot of deceptive movements pertain to the face, just as would happen in a fight. Putting your hand in front of your mouth, rubbing your jaw, wiping your eyes, and many other movements could be indicators that they are uncomfortable with what they’re saying or hearing.

Back of the neck. This one is mainly for the ladies but could be seen with guys too. A fairly common reaction for a girl to show when she’s uncomfortable is to protect the back of their neck by rubbing their hand or holding their hand there (this is also something you girls should pay attention to when you’re out BTW as a subconscious indicator that maybe there’s some danger you haven’t consciously observed yet).

Watch the eyes for signs of deception

Blinking. One response that is fairly common is for a person to blink more or with longer blinks when they’re lying. It’s almost like their eyelids are trying to block the view of what’s causing their discomfort.

Direction. Ok, let’s get this one over with right now. NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) studies starting from the 70’s indicate (or assume) that looking to the right when telling a story meant a person was lying because they were accessing the part of the brain that makes stuff up (construct) and the left when they were remembering what they did (recall).


In order to use eye direction as an indication of deception, you have to compare their eye movements when they’re speaking to some kind of control (called a baseline) that you know when they’re telling the truth or absolutely know when they’re lying. Even with this, eye movement is not a completely reliable indicator in itself.

The difficulty is setting up the conditions for a reliable indication without you affecting the response and that you really have to know at what points a person is really telling you the truth and when they’re lying. And that sometimes they just look around at stuff.

Contact. You would think that a person who’s lying to you would avoid eye contact with you when they’re lying. This could be the case but in  my experience, I’ve frequently seen the opposite. It’s almost like they’re either trying very hard not to look away or they’re trying to judge your reaction to what they’re saying.

Pupil Constriction. Ever wonder why professional poker players wear sunglasses? Whether you realize it or not, you can notice the subtle change in someone’s pupil size when their body is reacting to something. If they’re seeing or experiencing something they don’t like, the body reacts and their eyes constrict as if they’re trying to protect you from seeing it. If they’re experiencing something they like, the pupils open up, as if to take it all in.

If someone has a good poker hand, their eyes will seem to subtly darken due to the larger pupil size and they’ll seem to brighten a little if their hand isn’t so good. Pay attention to everyone’s eyes the next time you’re playing poker. Maybe you won’t lose your pants so quickly.

How people talk when they’re lying

Voice. Voice is actually one of the best things to use to know when someone is lying. It’s rather difficult to control, especially when you’re worried about not tapping your feet or blinking too much. Here are a few things to look for:

Tone and pitch. When a person is under stress, their voicebox tends to tighten a little. This makes the frequency of their voice go up. Look for changes on certain words or topics and then recovery back to normal during the rest of the conversation.

Pace. When someone is trying to make a story up, it takes brainpower away from speaking so they may slow down when lying. On the other hand, if they are going from a memorized script, they may speed up during those times. Watch for a change in their behavior, especially a pattern of that change.

Qualifying statements. This is a big one for lies. When someone says, “to tell you the truth,” or “Honest to God,” it’s an indicator of deception. Pay attention to when they use these phrases. Some people have them as part of their normal vocabulary though (makes you wonder just how often they’re lying).

Third person. This is another example of distancing. If a person is describing something they did or did not to (according to their story) and they don’t use “I” or “my” etc, they may be trying to distance themselves from the act. Watch out for an increase in the use of “we”, “us”, and non-specific pronouns such as “someone” or “a person”. They’re trying not to implicate themselves into the lie.

Present vs past.  People who’ve committed crimes have sometimes been caught from this one. If a person is describing an event that happened, such as, “So then John walked into the room and then he’s punching me.” ‘Walked’ is a past-tense word he may be describing what actually happened but ‘punching’ is a present-tense word that he may be pulling from his current thoughts as he’s making the story up. In this case, he could actually be just skipping over a few details leading up to what led to the punching, such as the fact that he described in intimate detail, the amorous inclinations of John’s dear mother.

Delaying tactics. Stammering, asking you to repeat the question, and answering a question with a question. A lot of people do these naturally though because they are just nervous talking with other people so again, compare to the baseline. They may not be lying to you.

Indirect statements. “So, if we go check in our weapons here at the checkpoint, how do we know you aren’t gonna just shoot us? “How could I shoot somebody I just met?” is an example. He never said he wasn’t going to shoot you, just asked how he could shoot someone he just met.

“Did you take the grain from my barn?” “Umm, Did I take the grain from your barn? Why would I do that?” is an example of answering a question with a question, a delaying tactic and an indirect statement.

Vague vs specific detail. When a person is explaining something to you, there should be a consistent amount of detail in their story. If they tell a story in intimate detail with what they saw, what they heard and what they were thinking and feeling at the time (which is a good indication of them telling the truth) and then at one part get pretty vague and gloss over the specifics, it’s an indication that they are lying.

Mean Length of Utterance (MLU). This one’s kind of hard to do unless you’re recording the conversation or reading something they wrote but you can catch it if you pay attention to it. When someone is explaining something that happened, typically they’ll have about a 25%-50%-25% balance of how many words there are in the sentences of each section. If you find that the words in each sentence are out of balance, this is an indication of deception.

Offensive vs defensive. Typically, a guilty person will be very defensive when you talk to them and an innocent person will be offensive. That’s why certain agencies use the addage, “admit nothing, deny everything, and make counter accusations.” To sell the lie, agents will go on the attack and accuse  you of things. This both hides the fact they’re lying and distracts you to another topic.

Stress-relieving actions. As we’ve learned, a normal person will be uncomfortable with lying and this discomfort will display itself in a number of ways. The mind of the liar will feel a kind of mental pressure that it needs to relieve. Doing certain actions will relieve this pressure so you should look out for them.

  • Cleansing or grooming. Some people will pick at imaginary lint on their sleeve, comb their hair back, or wipe or scratch their arm when they’re talking about something that makes them uncomfortable. As with everything else, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re lying, but it’s an indicator. They could just be uncomfortable with the situation they’re in. They could also just be dirty.
  • Moving their feet or legs. This includes tapping, sliding, crossing and uncrossing their legs, repeatedly opening and closing their legs, etc. It’s a way to bleed off some of the mental pressure they’re feeling. Or they could just have restless leg syndrome.
  • Sighing, stretching or yawning. If you’re grilling a guy for a while, at some point they’ll start doing this anyway so it’s not an indicator of them lying by itself. You have to tie it to certain topics.

Incongruence with body language and words.

  • Timing. When someone is stressed, and they’re trying to manipulate their body language to seem like they are telling the truth, sometimes their body language will be out of sync with their words. Usually someone will make grand movements such as slaming their fist on the table just as they hit the most stressed word in the sentence. Liars sometimes miss this.
  • Nodding. It’s funny that you can tell if someone’s lying to you this way but if you asked someone a question and the answer is yes while they’re shaking their head no, they could be lying to you. It happens more than  you think, you just probably never noticed it.

Body language phrases

As I mentioned, the things you might see above when trying to figure out how to find out if someone is lying are just indicators. You can’t take them as if someone is lying if they do one of these things. You have to look at patterns of when they do those things and compare that pattern with their baseline of when they don’t do those things. Also, you should be looking for what I call body language phrases.

When someone is talking to you, so is their body. Just as in a verbal sentence, their body will be speaking to you in sentences. When someone is angry, you’ll see a combination of things such as narrowed eyebrows, a louder voice, more sweeping action, punching you in the face, etc. A combination of these together caused by a particular thought is called a body language phrase. When someone is lying to you, you should see more than one thing change in their body language.

How to put this all together to read people with their body language

To put this stuff all into practice so you can tell when someone is lying, you should sit down with someone for a while and get a good read for how they act normally. Pay attention to all the things mentioned above like their tone, their body language, how they gesture when they’re speaking, etc. It helps if you already know some things that you could pepper into the conversation to know if they’re lying or telling the truth at any point but keep in mind that truth is subjective and what you know may not be what they know.

Once you get a good baseline, you can start the conversation that will include the topic(s) you’re concerned about. Make sure you float in and out of topics as much as you can so you can start to see a pattern. Once you notice a pattern, test it by increasing the stress on the individual and then hitthit them with those topics, neutral ones, and ones that you know they’re telling the truth on. If you’ve caught their tells, you should be able to see them pop up when they’re lying.

 Obviously, if you’re trying to barter for food after SHTF, you won’t be putting someone under a bright light and interrogating them for the best price. As with any good negotiator, you should spend some time building rapport with them (so they’re more likely to give you a better deal) and pay particular attention to their body language. When you hit a price that their body language changes, it could be that they’re lying about the fact that they can’t go any lower.

If you get to the point where the guy changes his story and his body relaxes all of a sudden, it’s a good indication that you’ve broken him. Take that opportunity to work with him at that point but realize he may gain his composure back and then you’ll have to rebreak him. If you’re in a survival situation, you can’t afford to not know if someone’s telling you the truth.

So now you should all be human lie detectors and you should be able to better know when someone is lying. Just be careful with how you use your new-found powers because like I said, you might not want to know what you want to know.

About graywolfsurvival.com

I am a former federal agent and military veteran who has deployed to combat theaters in Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan and have almost three decades of military and military contracting experience.

My goal is to help families to understand how to intelligently protect their family and their way of life against real threats, without all the end-of-the-world doomsday crap.


  1. Prepper Website says

    Very interesting! Good article!


  2. Fascinating article. In a past life I was a professional poker player, and became quite adept and reading tells (physical clues that the person had a strong hand or was bluffing).

    The general principal behind reading tells is that people feel the need to deceive, so will tend to act the opposite of what they want you to do. If someone is leaning into you and looking you right in the eye, they are probably bluffing. If someone is slouched, looking away disinterested, watch out.

    This can sometimes be applied to situations away from the table- people will tend to “sell” a lie more (“me thinks you doth protest too much…”) and will be more relaxed when telling the truth.

    You’re right about it being a curse with the people in your life, though. People tell little white lies all the time to make things easier, and it’s a crappy position to be in when you know someone is lying but you don’t know WHY….


  3. P.S: I’m going to be posting a link to this article on Monday.

  4. Thank you for sharing your expertize Graywolf. Many of us out here need the guidance. Thank you for your service to the country. I can’t imagine what the military men and women go through and endure. We would not live in freedom if not for people like you. Not everyone appreciates what you do, yet you also do it for them. I only hope the people get smart and get that POS out of the White House. To many of our Military men and women are losing their lives and being injured because he does not protect them. They are not cared for properly when they come home. They should shove his rules of engagement up his where the sun doesn’t shine. Thank you again.

  5. Nicely put together article, this gives a good ‘starting point’ for this art (cause it really is, married with science of course). I have 25 plus years in Law Enf, primarily dealing in u/c investigations, and I still call some wrong. This takes time, practice and persisitence. My advice, a great learning tool is to remember all the lies politicians / media types have made over the years, then do a web search for their interviews. Hindsight’s 20/20, so KNOWING the lie, then watching them play it out, is a great tool to get a leg up on this. Just some thoughts. Great website, wish you luck with it.

  6. So, what does it mean, for example, when they say, why would I tell you about it, if I was doing something wrong?

    • Not knowing anything else (which makes it pretty difficult), it sounds like that’s a deflection. They are avoiding the topic and going for a side discussion. Same as, “why would I do something like that?” It’s an indicator of guilt. As with any one single thing though, it could just be that it just popped into his head, but I’d revisit the current topic later and start looking for consistent indicator triggers.

  7. Interesting, but also full of doodoo.
    I say we all the time because I don’t like to take credit or pretend I am doing something alone, especially in business. I say honestly sometimes, usually because the other person or persons will have some opposing preconception and I want them to feel that although what I say opposes their ideas, it’s the wholehearted truth.

    • So you discount everything just because you find one part that you say a word that means something else? Perhaps you missed the part about looking at things as a whole and not just any one piece like you just insinuated.

  8. Very interesting as I am studying psychology and hope it would be more helpful. Thank you

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