Spy the Lie Book Summary

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Spy the Lie Book Cover

Spy the Lie by Philip Houston, Michael Floyd, and Susan Carnicero
Former CIA Officers Teach You How to Detect Deception

My Thoughts

A friend recommended this book for improving interviewing techniques and for learning how to ask better questions. It is written by former CIA officers, contains good information on detecting deception, what questions to ask, and how to ask them. All of the examples in the book are from real-world situations and are relevant and entertaining.

My Favorite Quotes

  • Advances are made by answering questions. Discoveries are made by questioning answers. -Bernard Haisch

Key Questions

  • How can you train yourself to spot the truth in the lie, or unintended messaging?
  • The punishment question: “What do you think should happen to the person who did this?”
  • What haven’t I asked you, that you think I should know about?


Obstacles that get in the way of successfully detecting deception are:

  • The belief that people will not lie to you.
  • Reliance on behavioral myths.
  • The complexities of communication.
  • Our inescapable biases
  • The “global” influence.

The Methodology

Advances are made by answering questions. Discoveries are made by questioning answers. -Bernard Haisch

Two guidelines for detecting deception:

  • Timing
  • Clusters

Timing: look for the first deceptive behavior to occur within the first five seconds after a stimulus is delivered (a question, for example).
Clusters: any combination of two or more deceptive behaviors (verbal or nonverbal).
If there is just a single deceptive behavior, ignore it.

Ignore the truth in order to find the truth.
The idea is, if you want to know if someone is lying, you need to ignore truthful behavior so that it is not processed.
Truthful responses tend to be direct and spontaneous.

Deceptive verbal behaviors that people use when the facts aren’t their ally:

  • Failure to answer.
  • Denial problems. The absence of an explicit denial.
    • Nonspecific denial. (A generalized no)
    • Isolated delivery of denial. (A no buried in a long-winded answer)
  • Reluctance or refusal to answer.
  • Repeating the question.
  • Non-answer statements.
    • That’s a good question.
    • I’m glad you asked that.
    • I knew you were going to ask me that.
    • That’s a legitimate concern.
  • Inconsistent statements.
  • Going into attack mode.
  • Inappropriate questions. (Asking a question unrelated to the original question)
  • Overly specific answers.
  • Inappropriate level of politeness.
  • Inappropriate level of concern.
  • Process, or procedural, complaints.
  • Failure to understand a simple question
  • Referral statements.
    • I would refer you to my earlier statement when I said…
    • As I said during our last meeting…
    • As we explained in our report…
    • Like I told the last guy who asked that question…
  • Invoking religion.
  • Selective memory.
    • Not that I recall…
    • To the best of my knowledge…
    • Not that I’m aware of…
    • As far as I know…
  • Qualifiers.
    • Exclusion Qualifiers
      • Not really…
      • Fundamentally…
      • Basically…
      • For the most part…
      • Probably…
      • Usually…
      • Possibly…
      • Most often…
    • Perception Qualifiers
      • Frankly…
      • To tell you the truth…
      • Honestly…
      • To be perfectly honest…
      • Candidly…
      • Truthfully…
  • Convincing statements.
    • I can’t believe you would think I would do that!
    • Why don’t you trust me?
    • I have a great reputation.
    • I’m an honest person.
    • I would never jeopardize my job by doing that.

What Deception Looks Like

Potentially deceptive behaviors when exhibited in direct, timely response to the stimulus.

  • Behavioral pause or delay.
  • Verbal/Nonverbal disconnect.
  • Hiding the mouth or eyes.
  • Throat-clearing or swallowing.
  • Hand-to-face activity.
  • Anchor-point movement.
  • Grooming gestures.

Truth in the lie: spying unintended messages.
How can you train yourself to spot the truth in the lie, or unintended messaging?
Understand that when you are dealing with a situation in which truth matters, literalness becomes very important.

One tactic to use is the “Punishment Question.”
Ask them: “What do you think should happen to the person who did this?”

You Don’t Ask, You Don’t Get

Focus on asking questions the person is less likely to be prepared for.
Example to OJ Simpson. Instead of asking “Did you do it?” for which he is prepared to say “no.” Start by asking “What happened at Nicole’s last night?”

Ask presumptive questions. A presumptive question presumes something about the matter at hand.
“What happened at Nicole’s last night?” presumes that there is a possibility Simpson was at Nicole’s home and that he has some information he hasn’t shared.

It is important to distinguish between a presumptive question and a leading question. A leading question is one that puts words in the person’s mouth and directs him to answer.
Example of a leading question. “You were at Nicole’s last night, weren’t you?”

Presumptive questions are powerful.
They are easy for an innocent person to answer. A guilty person has to take time to process, analyze what you might already know, and how their answer could impact their game plan of lying.
Next presumptive question (to Simpson). “Is there any reason that any of the neighbors will tell us that they saw you in the neighborhood last night?”
The second question is called a bait question.
A bait question is a hypothetical question that operates on a psychological principle called a “mind virus.”
With bait questions, it is better to be more general. Example, asking if any of the neighbors might have seen Simpson instead of the next door neighbor.
It is best to use a bait question rather than a bluff.
Example of a bluff, “We have somebody who says he saw you in Nicole’s neighborhood last night.” He may know you are bluffing and respond with “Who?”

What presumptive and bait questions have in common

  • Extremely powerful.
  • Both have a limited shelf life in the information collection process.
  • The person needs to feel that you have no preconceived notions about how he’s going to answer each question.

Presumptive and bait questions should each be used no more than two or three times in the course of an hour-long interaction.
All questions should be delivered as neutrally as possible.
Neutrality is conveyed by the words you use to frame the question, and the tone or demeanor you use to deliver it.
Deliver the question in a very matter-of-fact manner; with no additional emphasis whatsoever placed on the question.
You want to ensure that if there is a deceptive response to the question, the deceptive behavior is related to your question, and not to your delivery.
“Of all the missing drugs, how many did you take from the hospital?”

What Else?

One of the most important phrases in the information collection process is “What else?”
The ability to recognize when and how to follow up on a question can make or break an interview.
Key types of follow-up questions you should have in your arsenal:

Used to test the information the person has shared.

  • Why do you say that?
  • How do you know that to be true?
  • On what do you base that information?

Used to acquire additional information.

  • What else?
  • Tell me more.
  • I don’t understand.

Used to ensure that you’re absolutely clear about what the person has shared.

  • Which ‘Sam’ are you referring to?
  • Tell me again what time you left.
  • Is it possible you were there longer?

Present a Clear Stimulus

The model is only as good as the questions you ask.

Four tips to keep in mind as you formulate your question to ensure that it is as clear as you can make it.

  1. Keep it short.
  2. Keep it simple.
  3. Keep it singular in meaning.
  4. Keep it straight-forward.

The most helpful question types available:

Provides the basis for discussion or explores an issue.
“Tell me what you did yesterday after you arrived at the office.”

Probes specific case facts.
“Did you log on to Shelly’s computer yesterday?”

Presumes that something is understood to be the case.
“What computers on the network have you logged on to besides your own?”

Establishes a hypothetical situation to trigger a “mind virus.”
“If we were to ask your coworkers; is there any reason any of them would say they saw you sitting at Shelly’s computer yesterday?”

Helps to determine how a person feels about a particular issue.
“What do you think about the new internal controls the company has implemented?”

Uncovers lies of omission, serves as a safety net.
“What haven’t I asked you that you think I should know about?”

Questions to Avoid

Asking a negative question conveys to the person your willingness to accept “no,” and to perhaps even expect it.
“You don’t know Shelly’s password, do you?”

If your question has multiple parts, you often can’t be certain which part of the question is triggering the deceptive behavior.
Compound questions also give the person the opportunity to answer just one part.
“What time did you arrive yesterday, and how long were you there?”

A vague question allows for excessive latitude in the response.
“Can you give me some of your thoughts about what’s going on?”

Managing Deception to Gain the Advantage

Techniques for managing deception and to gain the advantage in your encounter.

  • Avoid asking negative questions.
  • Use prologues for key questions. A short narrative explanation that precedes a question.
  • Overcome psychological alibis.
    • Example alibi of “I don’t remember.” Ask, “Is there any reason anyone might tell us he saw the two of you together?”
  • Broaden your focus.
    • “Have you ever used any illegal drugs?”
    • If the response is yes and names a drug, follow with: “Okay, what other things have you tried?” or “When was the last time you experimented?”

Elements of a question prologue.

  • Legitimacy statement.
  • Rationalization.
  • Minimization.
  • Projection of blame.

Legitimacy statement: an explanation that asking the question is an important step in the accomplishment of a resolution.
Rationalization: give a socially acceptable reason for an action “Everyone makes mistakes.”
Minimization: “No one wants to blow this out of proportion.”

Let’s be Careful Out There

Micro-expressions are unreliable in real situations (as opposed to television dramas).

Behavioral Cautions (unreliable indicators of deception)

  • Eye contact.
  • Closed posture.
  • General nervous tension.
  • Preemptive responses.
  • Blushing or twitching.
  • Clenched hands.
  • Base-lining.

See my summary of Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell for more on the topic of unreliable indicators of deception.

Final Advice


  • Practice a lot. (watch television interviews, etc.)
  • Refrain from practicing on your significant other.
  • Use your new skills only for good.


  • Don’t do or say anything that makes the person aware that you’re reading him.
  • Don’t allow yourself to deviate from the cluster rule or from behaviors outlined in this book.
  • Don’t ask the question unless you’re sure you really want to know the answer.

Appendix I contains several lists of suggested questions for different situations.

Related Book Summaries

Hope you enjoyed this and got value from my notes.
This is the 26th book read in my 2019 reading list.
Here is a list of my book summaries.

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