The Science of a Lie

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Christine Coffey examines our misperceptions about what constitutes a ‘tell,’ and shows us what we need to look out for instead.

 

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To the relief of pathological liars and casual fibbers alike, the general population are surprisingly bad at recognising a lie. Visual cues are unreliable, they vary from person to person and across different situations, and they are often too subtle to be considered distinctive. With research showing that we tell dozens of lies daily, we live in a veritable minefield of misdirection. It appears that Shakespeare grossly underestimated the extent of things when he claimed, “To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand.”

“The consensus among social scientists is that our guess is little better than 50-55% accurate.”

Unless you’re willing to tote around a transdermal optical imaging scanner or an electroencephalogram as you go about your daily life, you will have a hard time distinguishing a lie from the truth based on physical cues alone. The consensus among social scientists is that our guess is little better than 50-55% accurate. This is largely down to misconceptions about common body language.

Fidgeting is often wrongly cited as an involuntary give-away, but in fact it is more likely for the upper body of a liar to become rigid during their transgression. People think avoidance of direct eye contact is symptomatic of a sloppy lie, but most reliable facial scanners operate on the premise that people consciously increase the level of eye contact in order avoid suspicion. Some liars drop their pitch, rather than raise it. Excessive movement, eye contact, and changes in pitch are actions that we can be aware of and can be controlled. Therefore, ‘leaks’ from the autonomic nervous system that we are oblivious to are a more accurate way of detecting deception. Increasing the stakes of the lie increases the chance of being caught, with pupil dilation being one of the involuntary reactions that the liar is unaware of.

“Research from the University of Granada in Spain suggests that the area around your nose increases in temperature when lying, a feature which has been suitably dubbed the ‘Pinocchio Effect.’”

Research from the University of Granada in Spain suggests that the area around your nose increases in temperature when lying, a feature which has been suitably dubbed the ‘Pinocchio Effect.’ This change is often easily detectable as it is usually accompanied with a increase of facial blood flow on the cheeks, creating a distinguishable contrast. Liars will unconsciously shift their blink rate and point their feet towards an exit. However, some of these actions are not unique to liars, and we are dependent on multiple tells to be certain that deception is taking place. An eyebrow twitch or flared nostrils may not automatically mean the person is lying.

Psychologist Pamela Meyer cites language and speech as far more useful mechanisms for the detection of lies. This is becoming increasingly important in an age when face-to-face encounters are not the only method of deceiving someone. Success is not about being able to spot everything from the bat of an eyelid to an uncomfortable shuffle in a chair. Nor is it reliant on blatantly fabricated sentences, such as “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Liars subconsciously distance themselves from the subject (“That woman”) and their speech will contain excessive use of the first-person pronouns “I” and “me” and formal language (“I did not” as opposed to “I didn’t”).

“Liars subconsciously distance themselves from the subject (“That woman”) and their speech will contain excessive use of the first-person pronouns “I” and “me” and formal language (“I did not” as opposed to “I didn’t”).”

Liars also tend to embellish their stories with excessive detail, repeat questions verbatim, and recount details in chronological order. Meyer claims that in the legal world, one trick of the trade is to ask the suspect questions in reverse order, starting with the most recent events and gradually carrying the conversation back to the incident. Another red flag is the use of language such as “Honestly,” “I swear,” or “It’s all lies.” These statements are often unprompted denials of wrongdoing that discredit the perpetrator. Furthermore, body language that contrasts with words can be used to catch the guilty party. The answer “yes” can be accompanied by an unconscious shake of the head “no.” We might shrug our shoulders while claiming emotional involvement in the subject at hand. Knowledge of involuntary ‘leaks’ and obvious indicators can be used to spot a bad lie in everyday language.

Lying is intrinsically linked to our development and that makes it of particular interest to social scientists. The larger the neo-cortex, the more complex the deception, according to Meyer. People will lie on average three times in their first encounter with a stranger, according to psychologist Robert Feldman. As children grow up, they become more accustomed to ‘mind-reading,’ a term used to describe the awareness of the difference between what you know and what those around you do not (which has nothing to do with telepathy).

The best liars know when they can get away with telling a lie. Our lies range from white lies to more serious offences, and despite our best efforts, we are just as likely to spot a lie as we are to miss one. One gesture might not be proof of a lie and we may have to wait for a combination of multiple indicators to be certain, and most of our preconceptions around the topic are misplaced. Some scientists swear by transdermal imaging and eye-motion sensors, but who knows? They might be lying too.