(Don’t) Lie To Me – ’cause I can’t tell

As someone who tries to stay on top of new and exciting academic development, (or, in other words, someone who reads twitter feeds on an hourly basis), I usually get really excited when I see the name “UBC” popping up. Although I have no idea who those researchers are (and they probably don’t teach anyway), I can still enjoy that sense of pride. I enjoy reading that article even if it’s about something utterly unrelated to my acadamic interest.

However, when this morning I stumbled upon this article, it gave me pause.

It’s a really short article for anyone who cares to click on it, but it’s about the good old lie detection. This forensic psychology student, Leanne ten Brink, claims to be “able to tell who is being dishonest”. She even offers insight for you to keep in mind next time when you… watch a TV show and guess the plot?

Ten Brinke said there are some facial muscles a person cannot easily control and when they try to look sad, they often end up looking surprised

It is also common for the deceiver to use phrases such as ‘If you hear this,’ or ‘If you are out there’ implying the missing person might not still be alive.

Any thoughts so far? Well, since this is serious acadamic research (and apparently took 6 years), it’s probably not fair to ask people to judge it with common sense. And as also a psychology major myself, I know how unfair it is to make claims about knowing everything through common sense. (Personally, I would probably use the phrase “if you hear this”, because I highly doubt a missing person has time to watch TV all day.)

Even lay people can figure out that things like <Lie To Me> are too cool to be true. But as someone who reads science megazines and watches Mythbusters – all of which less reliable than an academic journal, but more so than soup opera – I think I’m educated enough to make educated evaluations.

First of all, all the lie detection techniques known to humans (and that excludes shamans) are based on the assumption that people get anxious when they lie. It takes up more mental load to make up stories than to tell the truth, which is why they sweat, cough, blink, touch their noses, touch the back of their necks, mess up with the timelines, look elsewhere, or show strange facial expressions. It’s really simple, right? Of course, even if psychopaths and people taking anti-anxiety pills are no better at beating the machine than others, it is still a rather weak assumption on which such a huge discipline build.

That said, most people do get anxious when they lie, and even the mythbusters weren’t able to beat the test, so I’ll just let the philosopher-skeptic side of me take a rest, and assume that that’s good enough.

What about lie detection through body language, then, like the cool stuff you see on <Lie To Me> (which is based on the American psychologist Paul Ekman)? On a more general scale, statistics show that men are better at detecting lies than women, but all of us are, for the most part, not much better than chance. Yes, there are extraordinary people who can just “tell” whether someone’s lying or not, and there are also trainings that can make people better at this skill, for those of you who care enough to find them. Sounds pretty cool, huh? I think so too. I even tried to download one of those microexpression practice programs (and failed miserably at it).

What’s my problem then? Well, my problem is when the public gets carried away and apply these so called techniques to situations other than the “you weren’t at your family dinner last night, were you?” scenario.

For one thing, most of the “cues” probably don’t apply to everyone equally. I haven’t read the paper myself (can’t find on the internet; if anyone finds it please let me know), but I’m really curious as to exactly how accurate her judgments were. If it’s not 100% accurate, I’m not convinced. It’s one thing to falsely accuse your boyfriend of cheating; it’s quite another to falsely accuse someone to have kidnapped and murdered their spouse and children. Also, even if the accuracy is 100% with her and her lab members, if the procedure can’t be replicated with your average down-the-street lay people, I’m not convinced. I mean, they study lie detection for a living. It’s only natural to question the applicability of the tools they use to other regular, normal people, who will be the ones actually judging these forensic cases.

The "Angel of Grief" - true grief probably doesn't look like this, though. - Photo by Konrad Summers

A book called <The Other Side of Sadness> by George A. Bonanno touches on some similar issues – he points out that although our traditional view of grief and bereavement involves dysthymia (i.e. inability to feel joy) and constant sadness, it is not the actual case. In real life, most bereaved people are able to smile and respond to humors and enjoyable acitivities days after the tragedy. The problem is however that these people, who are fighting through their sadness and are lucky enough to show resilience, are sometimes seen as abnormal by others. Other people may think, for example, that if you don’t lay in bed all day crying your heart out, you do not sincerely care for this loss. And that’s, of course, not true.

So I guess my problem with this “able to tell who is being dishonest” thing is similar – I worry primarily about the sense of certainty and confidence in their display. I worry that, with this much certainty in their voice, it can mislead the general public. Our current science in imperfect, and I don’t see any harm in letting people know before it proves itself to be so.

Related Topics