Lie to Me

People are liars—lying liars, as Al Franken might say. From white lies to whoppers, people lie and mislead and obfuscate about everything: sex and relationships, work and money, feelings, opinions, intentions. The odds a person will tell a lie in a day are 1 in 2.49.

Apparently, we evolved to lie: deception appears to have emerged among primates some 12 million years ago, which is probably why it’s so difficult to detect. Yet in a dangerous world, distinguishing truth from deception can make the difference between life and death.

Of course, sometimes we expect and welcome lying, as with the little white social lies we tell every day, often to spare feelings or avoid conflict.

But sometimes we need to get at the truth. Is our spouse having an affair? Is a job applicant telling the truth about his qualifications? Has a defendant been falsely accused?

Ever since the first person suggested (wrongly) that people tend to avoid eye contact when they lie, we’ve been trying to crack the code. The medieval “trial by ordeal” involved subjecting a suspect (like an accused witch) to excruciating torment or attempted drowning in an effort to discern truthfulness.

More humane methods involved measuring bodily functions like salivation and breathing to detect the anxiety that’s typically associated with deception. Twentieth-century versions of such tests included voice stress analysis and the polygraph, in which a trained examiner uses a device to measure the subject’s blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, and sweating. But science has not rallied behind the polygraph, and though it is widely used, its admissibility in court is limited.

With new technology (and new worldwide threats) come new developments in lie detection. Researchers are experimenting with using EEGs to pick up a specific type of brain wave, the P300, which seems to indicate recognition—for example, of the actual terrorism target in a list of possibilities. The fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) technique also holds promise, based on the observation that lying requires more brain activity than telling the truth.

But for the best-known modern lie detection method, all that’s needed is a video recording and a trained observer. The Fox TV show Lie to Me is based on the work of Dr. Paul Ekman, who has spent decades investigating phenomena like “micro-expressions.” When these extremely brief involuntary facial expressions contradict what someone is consciously saying, he or she might be lying. Watching a (preferably slowed-down) video recording of the subject is all that’s needed for the trained observer to spot them.

Ekman’s techniques are proprietary, which limits the ability of other scientists to test them and duplicate his results. But the popularity of the Ekman Group’s workshops, for law enforcement professionals and others, attests to their perceived utility. Want to know if your neighbor’s a witch? Twenty-first-century lie detection is right up on your TV screen—and you can test your own skills online.

Click here for an in-depth interview with Paul Kelly, a former Secret Service agent who is an expert and trainer in the Ekman method.

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