Don’t trust your lying eyes…

This blog has already welcomed many posts on lying, how to detect it, and how poor we are at doing so. A New Scientist story provides yet another twist in the tale.

I interviewed the political broadcaster Robin Day, asking him about his favourite film. In the first segment he told me the truth, describing how he adored Some Like It Hot. In a second he lied, telling me how he loved Gone With the Wind when, in reality, he hated it. We asked viewers to watch the two clips and vote on which they thought was the truth. Almost 30,000 people telephoned, and the votes were evenly split between the two interviews.

So far, as expected. We aren’t good at detecting lies. However:

On the same day, we broadcast the two interviews on national radio and published the transcripts in The Daily Telegraph newspaper. An impressive 73 per cent of the radio listeners identified the falsehood and 64 per cent of the newspaper readers did.

Why should this be? It seems that body language and facial expressions give little guide to people’s sincerity. The most reliable signs of lying seem to be in the words we use.

So don’t look into people’s eyes, seek signs of nervousness, or judge their sincerity by their handshake. Ignore the evidence of your misleading eyes. Turn away, and focus only on what is being said.

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  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    some of the “cues” are culturally variant. e.g., lots of asians avert eyes toward those in authority because they feel it disrespectful to make eye contact. in the west this gets perceives as hiding something.

  • http://rationallongevity.blogspot.com AnneC

    Thank you. It seems quite obvious that while body language signals might serve as heuristic aids in narrow (often culture-specific) contexts, they should certainly not be relied upon as absolute indicators of a person’s truthfulness. I have atypical body language myself (am dxed Asperger’s) and have noticed that my interactions with people go a lot better when I get to know them via text prior to meeting them in person. As a child I remember people constantly accusing me of “looking guilty” or “hiding something”, and consequently this led me to wonder constantly if I was doing all sorts of “wrong” things without even knowing it!

    Needless to say, this was very confusing — until I learned that people (at least in this culture) tend not to trust people who avoid eye contact or who squirm/fidget. I find it very difficult to parse someone’s spoken words if I am making eye contact with them, so I am more likely to look up, down, or at the wall when I am talking to someone. I suspect that if someone gets to know me via e-mail or online writing prior to meeting me, they don’t judge me so much on the basis of my body language.

    Additionally, I’ve found that in going out and meeting members of the transhumanist/rationalist/nerd community, I’ve generally been a lot better received than in other contexts. (I talked to a bunch of people at the Singularity Summit, for instance, and found that people tended to jump right into substantive communication as opposed to the kind of “signaling” small-talk that confounds me in other settings). Not saying you’re all autistic, but there might be a greater tendency in people who hold particular interests toward evaluating people more consciously and less based on subconscious cultural programming.

  • Doug S.

    Some poker advice I’ve heard is to ignore body language, as you get far more information about your opponent’s hand from the amount he or she bets.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    “I find it very difficult to parse someone’s spoken words if I am making eye contact with them, so I am more likely to look up, down, or at the wall when I am talking to someone.”

    That’s an interesting catch-22. Have you tried making the eye contact, giving up on parsing their words, and responding with stock complimentary phrases like “very interesting” and “yeah, that makes sense” and head nods? I’m curious to hear how that would work for you. Most people who don’t have Aspergers aren’t very good listeners, so you may be taking on more work for yourself than is necessary.

  • http://cob.jmu.edu/rosserjb Barkley Rosser

    The problem very much has to do with how skilled a liar someone is and how much it means to them to get
    away with it. In the case reported, this was not a big deal. It was not someone lying about having
    committed a murder or a robbery or cheating on their spouse or spying for an enemy government. It was
    something stupidly trivial, which movie they liked. That it was easy for this person to avoid the sorts
    of nervous body language signals that people send when they are stressed out over lying is not surprising.
    But, again, there are people who are professional liars, conmen, grifters, whatever. Such people practice
    to overcome the usual cues. Remember the evidence of those who practice at and succeed at passing lie
    detector tests, and why such tests are not ultimately admissable in courts of law. The bottom line is
    that there is no definitive way to catch a liar, especially a skilled and practiced one.

  • http://rationallongevity.blogspot.com AnneC

    “Have you tried making the eye contact, giving up on parsing their words, and responding with stock complimentary phrases like “very interesting” and “yeah, that makes sense” and head nods?”

    Yes, and it’s gotten me into trouble more times than I can count. I know that’s the kind of thing commonly recommended in “social skills training” for autistic spectrum folks, but I actually think it’s very dangerous advice. It’s one thing to tell people to provide standard signal-responses in casual social interactions, but it’s quite another to tell them that these signals ought to be used all the time.

    When you grow up having teachers yell stuff at you like, “LOOK at me when I talk to you!” and, “Stop playing with that eraser and listen to me!” you can end up developing a very skewed sense of what “listening” actually is, and even what learning is. In my case, if I am looking at the wall, and playing with an eraser (or my hair, or some other random thing), I am much more likely to be deeply listening and processing what someone says.

    However, since I was told so often things that made it sound like eye contact and certain kinds of acknowledgment *were* synonymous with “listening” (and even with “telling the truth”), I wondered if “learning” in the context of, say, school, meant “being able to produce expected responses in real-time”. Sort of like what Eliezer was talking about a number of posts back regarding “guessing the teacher’s password”. I saw the vast majority of spoken communication, (except for speeches and monologues) as an aggrandized game of “guess the password”.

    Yet at the same time, I could feel a subjective difference between actually understanding something and merely having a sense of what the expected response-patterns were. As in, using the “Chinese Room” analogy, I could tell the difference between being able to (sometimes) effectively participate in a character exchange with people outside the room, and actually being able to grok the Chinese (I don’t actually speak Chinese, but you get the point).

    So, while I understand that certain “social signals” are always going to be used, and that some people are always going to have a need for a lot of casual, content-lite interpersonal interactions, I do think it would be worthwhile for the average person to become more cognizant of what criteria they use to judge the truthfulness and trustworthiness of others. It would probably help them become more immune to advertising and smarmy used car salesmen, at the very least. I’m sometimes amazed at how much emphasis is placed (in “social skills” and “personal growth” instruction) on signaling — e.g., getting people to trust you through subconscious manipulation — as opposed to on actually learning to express yourself accurately and be trustworthy.

    Also, at the extreme end of the signaling scale you get sociopathy (in which a person is often very good at sending “trust me!” signals, while simultaneously lying and doing horrible things right under people’s noses), and sometimes I do fear to some degree that modern society is enabling sociopathy by prioritizing interpersonal “window dressing” over integrity.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    That it was easy for this person to avoid the sorts of nervous body language signals that people send when they are stressed out over lying is not surprising.
    Detecting nervousness is not a good proxy for detecting lying. It’s not a question of liars being good at hiding their nerves: why should we assume they’re more nervous in the first place? If the police hauled me off for interogation on some crime, I’d probably be a far more nervous suspect than whoever commited that crime.

    The bottom line is that there is no definitive way to catch a liar, especially a skilled and practiced one.
    Indeed. But some things can help a bit – go after the suspected lie, not after the suspected liar. Deconstruct the story. Ask for more details. Search for hard evidence.

    I’m sometimes amazed at how much emphasis is placed (in “social skills” and “personal growth” instruction) on signaling — e.g., getting people to trust you through subconscious manipulation — as opposed to on actually learning to express yourself accurately and be trustworthy.
    And yet the people who promote and teach these sort of things get suprised when they find that there are liars in the world 🙂
    Maybe it’s people’s delusions that they can detect liars that causes this. There’s no harm, they reason, in teaching people “social skills”, even if they’re a bit manipulative, because we can all detect “liars” anyway.

    I do fear to some degree that modern society is enabling sociopathy by prioritizing interpersonal “window dressing” over integrity.
    T’was ever so, I feel. What in particular would be different in modern society?

  • Timothy Scriven

    This may be one of the few aspects of deception detecting in which autistic people have an advantage since they tend to pay less attention to body language and facial expression.

    I might point out however that it does not really provide much evidence that humans are bad at detecting lying because as a television broadcaster he would be exceptionally good at hiding his true feelings. ( not that I’m implying he is dishonest, merely that he must be exceptionally charismatic, have good acting skills and have some experience feigning emotions etc. ) Also in day to day life people often have more context and it is easier to tell whether or not someone is lying based on their personality and motivations.

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