Even If It's Not as Plain as the Nose on Your Face, Paul Ekman Says He Knows When You're Lying
"Most liars can fool most people most of the time," says psychologist Paul Ekman, less optimistic in this regard than Abe Lincoln, "but we can learn to detect liars with surprising accuracy." The key, he says, is to be found not in what a liar says, but in how he behaves while he says it. "Most people don't know what to look for," he explains, "but reliable clues can be spotted in facial expressions and body gestures. It isn't a perfect system, but with my methods I can be 90 to 95 percent accurate." Ekman, 51, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco, began researching his theories 18 years ago by examining in slow motion films of interviews with mental patients, criminals and colleagues. His findings and the results of subsequent experiments are reported in Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics and Marriage (Norton, $17.95). Although his work was first intended to aid psychotherapists in evaluating their patients, Ekman now conducts workshops for judges and actors and has helped train U.S. Secret Service agents to identify potential assassins. At his home in Berkeley, Calif., he discussed the act and detection of lying with Senior Writer Kristin McMurran.
Why do people lie?
We lie for good and bad reasons: to gain advantage, to avoid hurting others, to protect our privacy or because we're cowards. Parents lie to children about sex to spare them knowledge or to spare themselves embarrassment. Adolescents conceal their sexual adventures because their parents wouldn't understand. Teachers lie to students because they don't want to appear stupid. Doctors lie to patients because they don't want to upset them. Lying isn't all bad, but it's a dangerous habit and an easy one to fall into.
Was George Washington the only person who could not tell a lie?
About 5 percent of the population is unable to lie. I don't believe it's because of religious training or a stern upbringing. These people are tactless and socially awkward. They often hurt people's feelings. It's a handicap not to be able to engage in a little flattery or exaggeration. At the other end of the spectrum are the 5 percent who can control their facial expressions and gestures flawlessly. It's a gift, like having perfect pitch. These people are not necessarily liars, but if they want to lie, you can't catch them.
What distinguishes pathological liars?
They lie uncontrollably, compulsively and sometimes fantastically. Most people who deal with them know they are lying, and pathological liars know that, yet they continue to make things up. I'm not sure they can be helped.
Is there any surefire sign that reveals when a person is lying?
There is no gesture, expression or muscle twitch that only happens when someone lies. There are clues to lying, but they can be misleading. If a person's presentation of facts is inconsistent or contradictory, he may be lying, but truthful people often have poor memories. Sometimes you can pick up signs of emotions like fear or guilt that don't fit what a person is saying. But not everyone who lies is afraid of being caught or feels guilty about it.
Is it easy to get away with a serious lie?
Take the case of Cathleen Webb, who first accused Gary Dotson of raping her, then recanted. There were some beautiful micro-expressions of fury on her face during Dotson's clemency hearing last spring. That didn't tell me she was lying, only that she was concealing anger. She could have been lying about not being raped and been angry that the clemency board wasn't convinced. Or she could have been telling the truth and been angry that she wasn't believed. In any case you have to face the fact that our ability to be certain that someone is lying is so tenuous that this person—without any dramatic training—was at one time or other able to confound the entire criminal justice system.
What is a micro-expression?
It is one that provides a full picture of a concealed emotion, but it flashes on and off the face in less than a second. My colleagues and I studied films of a psychiatric patient who concealed a plan to commit suicide from her therapist by telling him she no longer felt depressed and wanted a weekend pass. By using a slow-motion replay we saw a micro-expression of complete anguish. It was there for an instant, then covered with a smile. Micro-expressions can be conscious or unconscious, but they cannot be faked.
What common facial expression do we use to deceive?
Although we smile with pleasure when we feel good, we often put on false smiles to express politeness, amiability or agreement, or to appear that we are enjoying ourselves when we aren't. If a smile is genuine, the inner corners of the eyebrows are pulled down a little bit. In a false smile the eyebrows don't move down. That is because the muscle that orbits the eye is very hard to control voluntarily.
What gestures sometimes betray a liar?
There is a gestural slip, like a slip of the tongue, that can leak information a person is trying to conceal. The best example of this is some partial version of the shrug. An employee who is pretending confidence may reveal his insecurity by lifting one shoulder or one eyebrow slightly, or he may rotate one hand. The person who is lying doesn't usually remember to control his body movements.
What are the least reliable clues in detecting lies?
Fidgeting and poor eye contact. People often do both those things when they are not lying but merely uncomfortable. And many liars have learned to look the person they are lying to straight in the eye and stay calm.
What other behavior can mislead someone who is trying to catch a liar?
Tom Brokaw once said he sensed a person was being untruthful if he offered convoluted or indirect answers. Some people, however, are too smart to be evasive. And others just talk that way whether they are lying or not. Another problem is what I call the Othello error. Shakespeare's Moor made the mistake of killing his wife, Desdemona, because he thought her obvious fear was an indication she had been caught lying about an infidelity. He didn't realize she was simply afraid of being disbelieved by a jealous husband.
Are lie detector tests reliable?
The polygraph does not detect lies; it only detects signs of emotion. We can pick up the same signs in facial expressions, gestures and voice. The polygraph gives us better than a 50-50 chance of determining if a criminal suspect is lying, but nobody knows how well it works in preemployment screening. The tragic thing is that our government has not done the research to find out whether we could more accurately detect spies by combining all we know about the polygraph with what we have learned about the visible clues to deceit.
Why are many people so easily duped by liars?
Most of us don't lie very well. The main reason liars get away with their lies is because their victims don't really want to know the truth. By overlooking the fact that his kid looks a little dazed, a parent doesn't have to deal with the fact that he might be selling dope. By overlooking his wife's affairs, a husband postpones humiliation and the possibility of a divorce.
Why do children lie?
At an early age they lie for play or for fantasy. As they get older they lie to discover what kind of power they have, and in early adolescence they lie to obtain privacy As a child matures, a parent loses his right to know everything about his child. A parent should say, "You can close the door, I'm not going to read your mail or eavesdrop. You have a right to keep some things to yourself."
How should a parent deal with a child who lies?
A parent might say, "Hey, don't go any further. Maybe you're not saying what really happened. I can understand why you wouldn't." You really want to get the child to be forthright on his own. You're not a policeman; you have to live with the kid. If you trap a child to catch him in a lie, it's a very harsh experience for the child. He has learned what gave him away, and you have increased the likelihood that he's going to try again.
What would life be like if we were unable to lie?
There would be no tact, no privacy and a great deal of unnecessary suffering. People would know everything we felt and thought. If we could lie perfectly, life would also be terrible. We would never know for certain how anyone feels. No one could be trusted, and everyone would be a perfect liar. So it is probably best to be as we are—imperfect liars.
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