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Darwin’s Claim of Universals in Facial Expression Not Challenged

March 2014
 
Paul Ekman, Emeritus Professor, University of California, San Francisco
Dacher Keltner, Professor, University of California, Berkeley
 

Lisa Feldman-Barrett’s recent contribution (New York Times, February 28, 2014) seeks to undermine the science showing universality in the interpretation of facial expressions. In her eyes, recent evidence “challenges[ing] the theory, attributed to Charles Darwin, that facial movements might be evolved behaviors for expressing emotion.” Such a disagreement really belongs in exchanges of findings and theory in a scientific journal, evaluated by colleagues as evidence accumulates, not the public press. This is not the first time that Feldman-Barrett publicized her views in the press. We didn’t respond then, but feel compelled to do so now so that the public is not misled, and is apprised of the broader, Darwin-inspired science of emotional expression many scientists are working on today.

First, let’s get the science right. Darwin never claimed in his great book The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) that all facial expressions are universal, only a specific set of expressions that he had observed and studied. Nearly one-hundred years later Silvan Tomkins helped Ekman and Carrol Izard refine and add to Darwin’s list. In the late sixties, Izard and Ekman in separate studies each showed photographs from Tomkins’ own collection, to people in various literate cultures, Western and Non-Western. They found strong cross cultural agreement in the labeling of those expressions. Ekman closed the loophole that observing mass media might account for cross cultural agreement by studying people in a Stone Age culture in New Guinea who had seen few if any outsiders and no media portrayals of emotion. These preliterate people also recognized the same emotions when shown the Darwin-Tomkins set. The capacity for humans in radically different cultures to label facial expressions with terms from a list of emotion terms has replicated nearly 200 hundred times.

Feldman Barrett is right to ask whether individuals in radically different cultures provide similar interpretations of facial expressions if allowed to describe the expressions on their own terms, rather than a list of emotion terms. Haidt and Keltner did such a study comparing the free responses to the Darwin-Tomkins set of expressions and some other expressions, with people in rural India and the U.S. Once again the findings of universality were clear cut, and evidence of universality in the expression of embarrassment was also found. The evidence on the judgment of the Darwin-Tomkins facial expressions is robust; so we suppose is Feldman-Barrett’s evidence for the expressions not covered in the Darwin-Tomkins set. She has missed that point, not understanding the difference between unselected and theoretically selected facial expressions.

Feldman-Barrett also ignores two other very powerful data sets that don’t involve showing portrayals of facial expressions to people. Instead what people actually do, spontaneous facial expressions, is measured in numerous, different emotional contexts. Ekman and Friesen published what might be the first such study comparing the spontaneous facial expressions shown by Japanese and American subjects in a private and public setting, finding universal facial expressions – the Darwin-Tomkins set—in private, and different expressions in public. Since then over a hundred studies have been published measuring spontaneous facial expressions, enough to justify two volumes reprinting the articles of dozens of scientists by Oxford University Press.

Another large body of research has established different patterns of physiology – in bodily changes generated by Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) activity and in brain activity – coinciding with the appearance of the Darwin-Tomkins set of facial expressions. Separate, well-replicated studies, have also shown that voluntarily generating the Darwin-Tomkins set of facial expressions produced distinct changes in ANS and brain activity! Still other studies have related the Darwin-Tomkins set of expressions to distinct responses, including cortisol, oxytocin, dopamine, and the cytokine response that is part of the immune system. This work, ignored in Feldman-Barrett’s critiques, suggests that facial expressions not only are informative about individuals’ feelings, but patterns of neurophysiological activation in their bodies. Darwin emphasized the importance of some universal facial expressions in establishing the unity of mankind, challenging the racist assertions of his time that Europeans had descended from a more advanced progenitor that Africans. Those findings and the conclusion that all human beings have a shared set of facial expressions remains unchallenged.

Are there universal facial expressions?

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 3.40.08 PMTake our simple test to learn more about facial expressions of emotion. 

Welcome to our new Website!

April 2014

I’m Paul Ekman. Welcome to the first post of my blog on our new website!  This past year has been exciting as we’ve improved our training products and created new ways for you to connect with us. Our training tools have been expanded and refined, and our most popular modules (METT and SETT) are now iPad-compatible. We’re hoping to hear from you, so go to the connect page and send us your thoughts.

I’ll be writing about the latest research, news, relevant developments in the field, and asking some tough questions that I hope young researchers will tackle with gusto. Members of the Paul Ekman Group will post about our latest ventures (and adventures), and they’ll be fielding questions for me that you, our readers, submit by using the hashtag #AskEkman on Facebook and Twitter. We’ll also be inviting guests to share their opinions with us from time to time.

Some of you know me because I am credited with establishing that basic emotions are universal, as are their expressions. Decades ago, while working in Papua New Guinea, I realized, contrary to other anthropologists like Margaret Mead, that emotional expressions are not a culturally specific learned behavior. Later, I became known as co-founder of microexpressions, those blink-of-an-eye facial expressions which give us clues as to whether someone is trying to conceal an emotion. When someone may be trying to hide something (or is unconsciously worried about revealing “too much”) it important to learn how to “read” what’s not said through words. So I focused on developing tools to teach that skill.

Others of you know me as the scientific expert behind the FOX series “Lie to Me”, which featured Cal Lightman, the “world’s leading deception expert, a scientist who studies facial expressions and involuntary body language to discover not only if you are lying, but why.”

My whole life as a researcher and author I’ve paid attention to how humans communicate. Through facial expressions, gesture, voice, and even silence, we communicate our feelings. Learning more about this universal language has been my life’s work, and helping others to delve into the many questions that arise is my passion. From deception detection to compassionate connection, the Paul Ekman Group looks forward to providing resources and relevant fodder for a lively ongoing discussion. Our topic? How to better recognize and respond to each other in meaningful way.

Make sure you subscribe to receive alerts when we’ve posted something new. To get involved with the Paul Ekman Blog you can submit questions to me via ‘AskEkman@paulekman.com’ or on Twitter or Facebook (use hashtag #AskEkman along with your question).

Have an idea for the PEG blog? We welcome collaboration! Just email us.

Duping Delight

Written December, 2009

The Navy warrant officer John Anthony Walker, Jr. was convicted as a spy for the Soviet Union in 1987, and is serving a life sentence. The New York Times said he had been the most damaging spy in history, having helped the Soviets decipher over 200,000 encrypted naval messages. It wasn’t the polygraph that caught him, nor surveillance by U.S. counter-espionage officers. His wife Barbara turned him into the FBI. He was bragging about all the money he was making, but Barbara was his ex-wife and Walker was behind in alimony payments.

What motivated this smart, devious fellow to be so foolish? Probably what I call duping delight, the near irresistible thrill some people feel in taking a risk and getting away with it. Sometimes it includes contempt for the target who is being so ruthlessly and successfully exploited. It is hard to contain duping delight; those who feel it want to share their accomplishments with others, seeking admiration for their exploits.

When Hitler so successfully lied to Chamberlain concealing that he had already mobilized the German army to attack Poland, he asked for a time-out from their meeting. With his generals who had been witnessing his most successful lies, Hitler went into an anteroom, where he reportedly jumped up and down with joy, and then having reduced his duping delight, he returned to the meeting.

The presence of others witnessing the successful liar typically intensifies the delight experienced and increases the chances that some of the excitement, pleasure, and contempt will leak, thus betraying the liar. Not everyone is likely to feel duping delight; some people are terrified of being caught. More manipulative individuals are vulnerable to this emotion; the third emotion that most often betrays a lie is fear–guilt about lying.

Duping delight is an especially useful emotion when detected by the lie catcher because it is not often felt by an innocent person under suspicion. As I explained in a former newsletter, such an innocent person may be afraid of being disbelieved, complicating the interpretation of fear as conclusive evidence of lying about a misdeed. And people may show guilt about some other aspect of the situation, not relevant to the misdeed the interviewer is investigating.  Recall in a former newsletter that the sergeant who did not murder his neighbor’s wife but was guilty about having been sexually aroused when he discovered her nude body.

Duping delight is not always a certain sign, for it to can occur for reasons other than pride in having misled someone. I consulted with the police on a case in which a fourteen-year-old boy was accused of murdering his former girlfriend of twelve. he was dressed in the outfit of a member of the counter-culture, and such individuals are likely to feel superior to the police, or a television presenter, making no attempt to conceal their contempt, and pleasure in toying with anyone who is falsely accusing them of a crime.

The Neglected Clue: Mini’s

Written November, 2009

It was the last day of the Irangate Congressional hearings. Lt. Colonel Oliver North, impressively uniformed, very much in command of the situation, listened attentively as Congressman Lee Hamilton praised North’s many years of dedicated service to the country. Then without warning Hamilton said “but you almost brought a President down”. North did not reply in words, instead he displayied a very subtle lower lip raise, a very tiny pout. The possibility that his covert supply of weapons to the Contras might have damaged President Reagan hurt North. This subtle expression was important because it told those who recognized it that North was not a psychopath, for they don’t care about hurting others.

POUTS: Early in infancy right before a full force cry the lower lip often is pushed up in a prominent pout. Intervention then can often abort the crying episode. But in most adults, especially males, and a Marine officer, all that remains of the cry that leaks out is the subtle, miniature pout.

I have wondered why these subtle expressions have not gotten the attention that micro facial expressions receive. They also can reveal an emotion a person is trying to conceal. But the media – the TV show Lie to Me, and the press – have focused on micros not these minimal, subtle expressions.

In my book TELLING LIES, I only mention them in closing chapters, and didn’t emphasize them as much as current research suggests they deserve. Perhaps also ‘subtle expression’ is too long a moniker, not as snappy as micros. That is why I am adopting the term mini to refer to them. Recent research by a team of English scientists showed that training to recognize minis (with the Subtle Expression Training Tool SETT) improved the ability to identify lies, a little better than training to recognize micros!

In our workshop on Hidden Facial Messages we train people to recognize minis, micros and the clues that a facial expression is false.

Minis can be shown in any part of the face — forehead, eyebrows, eyelids, nose, cheeks, lips, or chin. Sometimes they cut across a number of regions, they can even register across the entire face, but that is less frequent than being restricted to one or two facial regions. Although minis can be as brief as a micro, typically they last longer on the face.

Minis are triggered when:

  1. A person’s deliberate attempt to conceal a strongly felt emotion is not completely successful, so that it leaks out in a mini.
  2. The emotion being felt is very slight, and will quickly pass.
  3. An emotion that is going to grow stronger first begins, revealed in a mini before the person showing it is aware of becoming emotional.

We don’t yet know if there are any differences in the minis’ appearance as a result of what triggered it. I suspect there is not, just as there is no difference in the appearance of a micro resulting from suppression or repression. To accurately interpret minis the observer has to determine what triggered it. Usually that is obvious by the context in which it occurs and the answers to further questions asked of the person who showed the mini.

Learning to identify minis can help establish rapport, allowing people who recognize minis to better calibrate their own behavior. It is useful to the health care provider, the teacher, the salesperson, negotiator and the interrogator. And because it can also betray a concealed emotion recognizing minis is important to anyone who needs to know more than what the other person wishes to reveal.

In my book EMOTIONS REVEALED, and in the workshop Hidden Facial Messages, I explain how to skillfully use the information obtained from minis (and micros) in the workplace, in family life and friendships.

Most people do not recognize minis without training with SETTonline. It takes about an hour for most people to develop the skill to spot minis.

SETT has two parts. In the Learning section the minis for each of the seven universal emotions are displayed one at a time; for example, there are six different minis that register sadness. Each one is shown twice and then held on the screen. In the Practice section minis of all seven emotions are shown in a randomized order and the learner has to judge which of the seven emotions each mini displays. We suggest a slow exposure speed the first time through. At the end of the practice the number correctly judged is displayed. If it is above 85% correct, the exposure speed should be shortened, and the practice repeated. Each time the practice is used the minis are shown in a different randomized order.

Why Lies Fail – Part 2

Written October, 2009

I asked people “If you could be absolutely certain that your lover would never find out, would you have a one-night stand with a very attractive person?” About half said “no”. They didn’t differ from those who said “yes” (that they would cheat) in whether they were married or single, if married, how long they had been married, and if in a committed relationship, how long they had known their lover. Men as often as women said they wouldn’t cheat. When I asked these non-cheaters “why not”, they said they would feel too guilty.

Not every cheater realizes ahead of time how guilty he or she might feel afterwards. Guilt about breaking the other person’s trust, compounded by lying about it, is the second emotion that can betray a lie. (Fear about being caught was discussed in Newsletter 3.) Guilt changes the sound of the voice. The facial expression of guilt is not different from sadness, but eye contact is avoided and the head may be angled down or turned away.

The changes in behavior are involuntary, hard to suppress, just as they are in fear; but guilt and fear don’t look or sound alike. Strong feelings of either emotion may also interfere with the ability to speak smoothly or coherently, which can betray a liar.

Some people readily feel guilt, as if they are looking for an opportunity to take responsibility for a misdeed. Police need to be cautious about such people who may confess to crimes they didn’t commit with little prodding to do so. And some people are quite resistant to feeling this emotion, rarely taking responsibility for causing harm to others – ‘it was his fault’, or ‘she wouldn’t have gotten hurt if she hadn’t wanted to take the risk’. The most extreme case is the psychopath who feels no guilt about harming others.

Guilt may become so unbearable that it motivates a confession. Guilty people often feel relieved at having gotten their offense off their chest, hoping for forgiveness. They may not anticipate that sometimes a betrayed person may have a very hard time trusting them again.

People who feel ashamed don’t want to confess, certain that if their shameful act was discovered the person who found out would be repulsed. It is not just a misdeed; people feel ashamed about who and what they are. They are often the targets of their own loathing. They do not believe they can ever be forgiven for what they have done, or accepted for whom they are if their true nature was ever to be discovered.

I believe that most people fail to consider how difficult it is to maintain the lies that become necessary to conceal some misdeed. They don’t:

  • Anticipate exactly when, nor how often they might come under suspicion;
  • What they will need to say as a cover;
  • The problem of remembering what they said, in order to keep their story straight the next time they are queried;
  • The guilt they may feel;
  • The disruptive impact of the fear of being caught;
  • And, the severe penalty a loss of trust imposes.

Guilt is most likely when the liar shares values and respects the target of the lie. It is much harder to lie or cheat someone who has acted fairly. But if the wages are too low, the spouse cold and inconsiderate, the parent too strict – the liar may feel entitled to cheat, and feel no guilt about doing so. No guilt is felt when lying is authorized by a higher authority as it is for the spy, the undercover vice police officer, or the terrorist.

The lie catcher must be cautious not to interpret signs of guilt as proof of a misdeed. Even when people try to conceal guilt feelings that does not mean the person is guilty of the misdeed under investigation. They could be feeling guilty about something else. Always remember emotions don’t tell us what triggered them.

Sometimes there is no consensus about whether the truth must be told: A woman about her age? A man or woman about how many sexual partners they have had in the last year? Is all fair in love and war? The seducer who falsely proclaims undying love may believe the target must know that it is a ‘line’. If there is no widely accepted consensus about whether truthfulness is required, or if the liar is convinced the target really doesn’t want to know, or knows but doesn’t object, guilt wont be felt.

In the next Newsletter learn about the third emotion that most often betrays the criminal, spy, terrorist or rebellious adolescent.

Why Lies Fail – Part 1

Written September, 2009

Not all do.

  • “Can’t talk now, just on the way out the door”.
  • “I love your new dress.”
  • “What a great evening, thanks so much.”
  • “Sorry, couldn’t get a babysitter.”

Such lies of every day life usually go undetected because the target wants to be misled. It would be rude if the truth were to be told:

  • “I don’t want to talk to you now, or ever.”
  • “The dress is totally inappropriate for someone your age, and the color is wrong to boot.”
  • “The food was dull and the company worse.”
  • “I don’t want to get stuck wasting another evening.”

And, it would also be rude if the target challenged whether the truth was being told.

Another reason such trivial lies succeed is because nothing is at stake, the liar doesn’t expect to be questioned, doesn’t fear being caught. If by accident the target later found out that the truth had not been told, what had been said was an excuse or flattery, no harm done.

Research shows that it is easy to tell such trivial lies precisely because nothing much is at stake, so there will be no clues to deceit in demeanor. Of course many lies – trivial or serious — are detected not from what the liar said or how he or she said it, but from other sources unrelated to the liar’s demeanor. A witness observes a violation of the lie, or some physical evidence (lipstick on the shirt collar), for example.

It is only when a lot is at stake, when not only a valued reward would be lost but also punishment will be delivered if the lie is uncovered, that there is a chance that the liar’s demeanor will betray the lie.
“No, I am not the least bit angry; I really appreciate your criticism”.

Lies about a strong emotion felt right at the moment are the hardest to tell successfully. It doesn’t matter which emotion is denied: anger, fear, disgust, contempt, excitement, enjoyment, sadness or surprise. Each of these emotions generates involuntary changes in facial expressions, voice, posture, gaze and posture. Most people cannot deliberately inhibit or cover every manifestation of an emotion when it is felt strongly. The emotional load – the burden of trying to conceal any sign of the emotion that is churning away – interferes also with the ability to speak coherently and convincingly, so that the words spoken may also betray the lie.

Many lies are not about emotions felt at the moment; rather they conceal a past action, plans for a future action, thoughts, attitudes, or values. If the discovery of the lie could result in punishment, then the liar will have emotions about engaging in the lies. These feelings about lying will generate involuntary changes in demeanor that can betray the lie.

A liar might feel sad, angry, or disgusted with himself for engaging in a lie, and the signs of these emotions if not completely concealed could leak. Three other emotions are most frequently felt about engaging in a serious lie.

In one of my research studies I gave the participants the opportunity to take money that wasn’t theirs and lie about it, or not take the money and truthfully proclaim their innocence.

When I began my interrogation I held up my book Telling Lies, saying, “I wrote this book. If you lie I will catch you but if you tell the truth I will know it.” I was trying to increase the fear of being caught in those who were about to lie and decrease the fear of being mistakenly judged a liar, reassuring those about to be truthful.

Since the signs of fear look exactly the same in the liar afraid of being caught and the truth teller afraid of being disbelieved, signs of that emotion are of useless unless there is reason to believe that only the liar will be afraid.

Fear increases the more that can be gained if the lie goes undetected. Fear increases with the severity of the punishment for being caught is severe. The truthful person afraid of being mistakenly identified as a liar, also will be more afraid when the threatened punishment for that mistaken judgment is severe.

Past success in telling a particular lie – multiple arrests but no convictions, many affairs never suspected, drug use not noticed by parents – generates confidence, just as a target known to be suspicious increases fear. Liars who have the opportunity to rehearse will be less afraid of being caught.

Scott Peterson showed many examples of fear in his initial police interrogation. His wife Laci , eight months pregnant, was reported missing on December 24, 2002. After he changed his story about where he was when she disappeared, and his massage therapist girlfriend came forward revealing that he had told her two weeks before Laci’s disappearance that his wife was “lost” the police became suspicious. A retired law enforcement officer and I reviewed a videotape of his first interrogation at the request of the local police. We did not then now the girlfriend’s story.

Peterson showed many microexpressions and some not so microexpressions of fear. We had to consider whether it might be an innocent husbands fear of being disbelieved. There were so many other forms of leakage that we were convinced he was the murderer. I will describe some of those others behavioral signs that suggested he was lying in my next newsletter. Peterson was sentenced to death. His case is on appeal to the Supreme Court of California. He maintains his innocence.

 

Why People Lie

Written March, 2009

“I thought I was only going 55 miles an hour officer” claims the driver speeding at 70 mph. “My wristwatch stopped so I had no idea that I got home 2 hours after my curfew”, says the teenager. Avoiding punishment is the most frequent reason people tell serious lies, regardless of their age, whether it be to avoid the speeding ticket or being grounded. In serious lies there is a threat of significant damage if the lie is discovered: loss of freedom, money, job, relationship, reputation, or even life itself.

It is only in such serious lies, in which the liar would be punished if detected, that lies are detectable from demeanor – facial expression, body movements, gaze, voice, or words. The threat imposes an emotional load, generating involuntary changes that can betray the lie. The lies of everyday life where it doesn’t matter if they are detected – no punishment or rewards — that lies are easily told flawlessly.

In serious lies the falsehood is usually told to conceal the reward or benefit the liar obtained by breaking a rule or explicit expectation. The curfew violator was able to stay longer at the party; the speeding driver is rushing because he pushed the snooze button when the alarm went off. The husband who claims the ringer on the telephone in his office must have been turned off when he was ‘working’ late – in a hotel room with his girlfriend – will pay no price if his lie succeeds. In each of these examples, the rule breaker decides before breaking a rule that he or she will if questioned lie to cover the cheating. Sometimes the reward could have been achieved – a high mark on an exam — without cheating but not as easily, it would have taken more effort (hours of study in this example).

Protecting someone else from harm is the next most important reason why people tell serious lies. You don’t want your friend, you fellow worker, your sibling, your spouse – anyone who you care about — to get punished, even if you don’t agree with what the person you are protecting did that put him or her in danger. It is not certain whether society approves of these lies. When policemen refuse to testify against a fellow officer they know has broken the law, we respect their motives but many people believe they should be truthful. Yet the terms we use – rat, fink, snitch – are derogatory. Anonymous call-in lines exist so those who volunteer information can avoid any loss of reputation or danger by informing. Do we have different standards for people who take the initiative to inform as compared to those who inform when directly asked to reveal information? I will reconsider this issue in a later newsletter when I write about children’s lies and why we don’t want them to tattle.

To protect yourself from being harmed even when you have not broken any rule is still another motive. The child home alone who tells the stranger knocking on the door “my father is taking a nap come back later”, has committed no misdeed that he or she is concealing; it is a self-protection lie.

Some lies are told to win admiration from others. Boasting about something untrue is an obvious instance. It is common in children, some adolescents, and even adults. If discovered it harms the reputation of the boaster, but not much more than that. Claiming falsely to have earned money for previous investors moves into the criminal realm.

To maintain privacy, without asserting that right, is another reason why people may lie. A daughter answering her mother’s question “who were you talking to on the phone just now”, by naming a girlfriend not the boy who is asking her out on a date is an example. It is only when there is a strong trusting relationship, that a child would feel brave enough to say “that’s private”, announcing the right to have a secret. Another topic I will return to in my newsletter about trust.

Some people lie for the sheer thrill of getting away with it, testing their unsuspected power. Many children will at some point lie to their parents simply to see if they can do it. Some people do this all the time enjoying the power they obtain in controlling the information available to the target.

Avoiding embarrassment is still another motive for some serious and many trivial lies. The child who claims the wet seat resulted from spilling a glass of water, not from wetting her pants is an example, if the child did not fear punishment for her failure, just embarrassment.

Avoiding embarrassment is relevant to many less serious lies that come under the rubric of lies-of-everyday-life. Very often people lie to get out of an awkward social situation. They may not know how to do it – “cant get a babysitter” offered to avoid another dull evening and food. “Sorry I am on my way out the door”, an excuse given by people who do not feel brave enough to be truthful even to a totally unknown telephone solicitor.

Then there are the deceptions that are required by politeness — “thanks so much for the lovely party’; “that color really looks good on you”. I don’t consider these to be lies, anymore than bluffing in poker is a lie, or acting in a play is lying, or the asking price not being the selling price. In all of these instances the target does not expect to be told the truth, there is notification. But the impostor is a liar, as is the con man, because they are taking advantage of our expectation that we will be told the truth. More about this in my newsletter about the different techniques for lying.

Is Lying Ever Justifiable?

Written February, 2009

The terrorist who lies to get on board an airplane believes his lie is justifiable. He doesn’t share values with those to whom he lies, in fact he despises them. The undercover vice squad officer, drug enforcement agent, or counter-intelligence agent, are living lies. They believe their lies are righteous, as does our government. Spies who are foreign nationals pretending to be members of the country in which they are living, are another example. As is the citizen who spies against his own country in the service of a foreign power. Such a spy will be more respected by those who employ her if she was motivated by admiration for her foreign employer’s form of government, not by a desire to earn money, pursue romance, or revenge a grievance against her home employer. Each of these very serious lies is authorized by a group, organization, or government. The liar and the authorizing agent believe lying is justified, necessary to do the job, although the employer may not always respect the liar for doing so. Typically the liar does not feel guilty about telling an authorized lie. The liar disrespects the target. Guilt arises only when lying to a respected target.Many lies are opportunistic, not authorized by anyone. The target of the lie often trusts the liar, not expecting to be misled. Sometimes, as when a police officer interrogates a suspect, it is much less certain whether the truth will be told, even though the instructions are to be truthful. Opportunistic lies are the ones where justification becomes a question.

iStock_000012226239_LargeCertainly honesty is usually the best policy, but the truth can sometimes be used cruelly. Suppose a husband is feeling a bit insecure one night and asks his wife “was there any man at the party you thought was more attractive than me”. If there was should she tell him? What would be the benefit? She could try to wiggle out of it: “You are the most attractive man to me?” but what if that is not the case, what if the other man was far more attractive? Is she does not intend to pursue him, what purpose is served by telling her husband the truth?

When I had to wait three days to learn the outcome of a biopsy for cancer, I did not tell my wife, not wanting to worry her before I knew if there was something to worry about. When she noticed I seemed out of sorts and asked me if I was upset about something, I lied, denying I was worried. Later, when I told her about the biopsy, which fortunately was negative, she cautioned me to never again leave her out like that, but she wasn’t angry that I had lied to her. A friend told me that when she was out of town anything she did was OK. I asked her if her husband had agreed? She assumed he did, was certain he wouldn’t want to know or interfere with her independence. She was operating on the belief ‘what you don’t know won’t hurt you’. People should be very careful before following this maxim. Believing the target wants to be misled can be a self-indulging delusion. It gives the liar authorization without revealing his or her intention. In open marriages there was explicit agreement to accept infidelity, although the ground rules varied as to whether it would be concealed or had to be revealed. Believing your partner really doesn’t want to know is a dangerous path if it is not explicitly agreed to. A further hazard by going down this path is that lying can become what the lawyers call a slippery slope. The more one lies, the more matters one lies about, the greater the likelihood that you will lie about other things until there are few areas of honestly left in your life.

Liars who believe they are engaging in an altruistic lie may not realize how often they also benefit. A senior vice president of a national insurance company explained that telling the truth can be unnecessarily cruel when the ego of another person is involved. “Sometimes, it’s hard to say to a guy. “No, you’ll never be chairman’”. The guy’s feelings are spared, but so are the feelings of the vice president. It might be ‘hard’ to deal with the guy’s disappointment, let alone the possibility of protest, especially if the guy might hold the vice president responsible for the negative evaluation. The lie spares both of them. One could argue that the guy is harmed by the lie, deprived of information that, though unpleasant, might lead him to improve his performance, or seek employment elsewhere. Nevertheless there are altruistic lies. The rescuers who don’t tell the injured eleven-year-old boy that his parents died in the airplane crash because he is too weak to deal with that shock, obtain no benefits.
But in the previous examples – the lying spouse, the lying employer – the liars thought their motives were altruistic. Watch out whenever the lie you are considering provides benefits to you.
Is there any other guideline, to help us think through when a lie is justified?

I think there is. It is simple but demands a lot of self-honesty. Put yourself in the shoes of the target and ask yourself how would the target feel if he or she was to discover the lie. Would the target understand that your motive was kindness not exploitation (concealing the worry about the biopsy), or would the target feel betrayed, that advantage had been taken? Would you lose the target’s trust? It is a simple guideline but a hard one to apply, because of the potential trap that you will underestimate how hurt and angry the target might feel so you can lie in good conscience. My advice: talk to a trusted friend, check it out. Err on the side of caution. Once trust is betrayed it may be difficult to re-establish. It is next to impossible to work with, live with, or love someone you don’t trust.