More Lying

The subject of lying has come up here recently, with some tips on how to detect liars. But you’d expect that those whose job involves ferreting out liars, such as police officers or immigration judges, would be better at it than the rest of us. But this study claims that Swedish judges on the Migration Board (MB) are about as good at recognising the signs of lying as students:

Overall, the beliefs held by MB personnel were not more in tune with research findings on objective cues to deception than were the beliefs of the students. In addition, MB personnel often refrained from taking a stand concerning the relation between specific behaviours and deception; they exhibited substantial within-group disagreement […]

In fact, we all seem to make the similar stereotypical mistakes when judging lies, implying that we believe our lie detecting abilities are much better than they actually are:

[…] there is a lack of overlap between the cues research has shown to be associated with deception (objective cues) and the cues people believe to be associated with deception (subjective cues) […] Generally, these subjective cues to deception are indicators of nervousness. It seems as if people believe that a liar will feel nervous and act accordingly; however, far from all liars do […]

But is there any group that is actually good at detecting lies? Indeed there is: of convicted criminals. Why? The most likely hypothesis seems to be that criminals have much more experience in deception, and, crucially, have feedback: when they’re lied to, they generally discover it (to their cost) later.

So, unless you have a criminal record or a great experience in being lied to, the best is most definitely not to trust your gut.

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  • http://profile.typekey.com/forsberg/ Razz

    “So, unless you have a criminal record or a great experience in being lied to, the best is most definitely not to trust your gut.”

    That seems like a wrongful, or at least invalid, conclusion.

    It’s certainly possible that most liars people are likely to encounter in fact will be nervous, and that this makes signs of nervousness a good indicator that something is fishy.

    Possibly you should be careful about going with your gut when trusting or distrusting someone entails risk, but that’s not really the same thing as your, I assume lighthearted, conclusion.

    All it says is that we’re overconfident about our ability to catch lies, we still have to weigh expected outcomes to know what side we should err on.

    On a side note I find it a little bit difficult to believe that people are really bad at catching lies, since it seems we have a fair bit of brain tissue dedicated to detecting cheating in social situations. Evolutionary it would seem quite useful to be able to catch any objective clues towards deception. If there are any such clues I would be surprised if our ancestors weren’t partly selected for their ability to detect those clues.

    Also there’s a huge difference between a random liar and an expert liar. Could it be that these studies mostly consider expert liars, or people lieing in situations where there are no pressure?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/forsberg/ Razz

    Oh, finally. Our guts just have to be a tiny bit better than random to be valid as evidence to consider.

  • http://www.aleph.se/andart/ Anders Sandberg

    As I suggested on my blog, maybe we should make sitting on the migration board a punishment for repeat offenders?

  • Stuart Armstrong

    But there’s also an evolutionary pressure pushing us towards being good liars. And our lie detecting abilities would have evolved socially, i.e. we’d be much better at detecting lies in people we know than in strangers.

    The article “Vrij, A. (2000) Detecting Lies and Deceit: The Psychology of Lying and its Implications for Professional Practice,” (which I can’t access, grrrr) apparently shows:

    accuracy rates fall below 60 per cent (Kraut 1980; Vrij 2000). This performance level is hardly impressive, considering the fact that an accuracy rate of 50 per cent is expected by chance alone.

    That’s very poor.

    So yes, our guts do provide some indication, but we normally overestimate its reliability – a dangerous thing. We also (in my experience) tend to look at lying differently from other issues (such how reliable is the evidence, is it biased, what does it actually say, etc…)

    Take “he may be lying”, “he may have made a mistake” or “he may be biased”. People I know tend to be reasonably bayesian with the last two, but treat “he may be lying” as an either/or, not an estimate in between.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    As I suggested on my blog, maybe we should make sitting on the migration board a punishment for repeat offenders?

    Good idea! But my favourite punishment for repeat offenders is to get them to fill in pages and pages of surveys. A specific population, of course, but within that population a hundred percent response rate and no self-selection…

  • http://homepage.mac.com/redbird/ Gordon Worley

    I question, though, if prisoners (and people with paranoia, for example) are *accurate* judges of deception, specifically, if in being able to better detect liars their success is from simply suspecting more people are lying. And even if they do successfully catch all of the liars, how often do they wrongly claim non-liars? They may be just as bad as the general population, except that they have defaulted to believing people lie rather than tell the truth.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Perhaps government civil servants do not have much relevant expertize in their tasks because voters have a hard time monitoring them. Do private professionals whose job is to detect lies do any better?

  • TGGP

    “you’d expect that those whose job involves ferreting out liars, such as police officers or immigration judges, would be better at it than the rest of us. But this study claims that Swedish judges on the Migration Board (MB) are about as good at recognising the signs of lying as students”

    “unless you have […] a great experience in being lied to, the best is most definitely not to trust your gut.”

    The two quotes seem to conflict. Wouldn’t people whose jobs involve ferreting out liars have a lot of experience with being lied to?

  • http://www.hereticatthegates.blogspot.com will mcbride

    Maybe this is the answer to Robin’s previous post. Use criminals to define the objective truth, then compare popular opinion to that.

    Also, if you believe that politics is mostly a sham, as I do, then this would predict that voter turnout is low among criminals.

  • Carl Shulman

    TGGP,

    The experience is valuable if combined with feedback on accuracy. The parole boards don’t get rewarded or punished on the basis of recidivism rates among those they release.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    If this is true, shouldn’t it be possible to have hardened criminals watch the investor relations presentations of corporate officers, and point out which ones were suspect? Would it be possible to beat the stock market this way?

    Actually, one would probably prefer to call upon a disciple of Ekman then a hardened criminal per se.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Do private professionals whose job is to detect lies do any better?

    Most of these papers seems to imply that private professionals perform just as badly as anyone else, but have more confidence in themselves.

    It’s the feedback that seems key.

    They may be just as bad as the general population, except that they have defaulted to believing people lie rather than tell the truth.

    The papers’ claim that they are stictly better, not differently defaulted. And relationships in the criminal world are much more dependent on trust (with no legal system to enforce contracts, trust and fear are the main tools to do so). So it’s not just a question of ferretting out the liars but of figuring out the truth tellers.

    shouldn’t it be possible to have hardened criminals watch the investor relations presentations of corporate officers

    The best idea here would be to get people who were involved, as a group, in long-term financial fraud (like the Enron crew). They would probably be superb at this.

  • http://rafefurst.wordpress.com/ Rafe Furst

    Joe Navarro, formerly of the FBI, went up against a psychic, a poker player (Annie Duke) and a few other people in a televised experiment to see who was best at detecting lies. Navarro and Annie were the best. If the question is “is there any group that is actually good at detecting lies?”, my money is on the criminologists and poker players. After all, their livelihoods depend on it very directly.

  • Douglas Knight

    Poker players are an example of RH’s class of “private professionals whose job is to detect lies,” and I’m glad RF provided an example. I don’t know what you mean by “criminologists,” but I think that would fall under the category of public professionals, who do not seem to do very well, as RH said above, their livelihoods don’t depend the quality of their work. I read in some secondary source, probably Gladwell, that although the median police aren’t better than the median civilian, the proportion of really good police is higher. Perhaps Navarro is of this class. Or maybe that’s not true, it’s just easier to find good police because they get a reputation.

    Re: criminals.
    Yes, the papers say they do better, but do they use studies designed without this objection in mind? I doubt it. Studies with half the people lying are probably cheaper than with 10%. An easy enough thing to check.