Fear, Lies and Scott Peterson

How signs of fear can tell us everything and nothing.

signs of fear

Fear, lies and Scott Peterson

Original excerpt published September 2009

Show no fear

Since the signs of fear look exactly the same for a liar afraid of being caught and a truthful person afraid of being disbelieved, signs of that emotion are 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. Similarly, fear increases with the severity of the punishment for being caught. 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.

“If you lie, I will catch you…”

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.

Remembering the Scott Peterson Case

If a person has had successful lying experiences (especially with a particular lie) in the past – having multiple arrests but no convictions, carrying out affairs without ever being suspected, secretively partaking in drug use – 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.

Studying Scott Peterson

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 know the girlfriend’s story.

Peterson showed many micro expressions and some not-so-micro expressions of fear; still, 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. Peterson was sentenced to death. His case is on appeal to the Supreme Court of California. He maintains his innocence.

Paul Ekman is a well-known psychologist and co-discoverer of micro expressions. He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2009. He has worked with many government agencies, domestic and abroad. Dr. Ekman has compiled over 50 years of his research to create comprehensive training tools to read the hidden emotions of those around you.

Verbal Deceit

Why liars choose their words carefully

verbal deceit

Excerpt from Telling Lies by Paul Ekman, PhD

What liars pay attention to

When lying, people usually do not monitor, control, and attempt to disguise all of their behavior; they probably couldn’t even if they wanted to. Instead, we tend to participate in verbal deceit, showing the most concern about choice of words. Liars censor what they say, carefully concealing messages they do not want to deliver, making detecting deception from words difficult. 

What we pay attention

Everyone learns in the process of growing up that people listen closely to what is said. Words receive such great attention because they are, obviously, the richest, most differentiated way to communicate. Similarly, we have learned that we will likely be held more accountable for our words than for the sound of our voice, facial expressions, or most body movements.

An angry expression or a harsh tone of voice can always be denied. The accuser can be put on the defensive: “You heard it that way but there was no anger in my voice.” It is much harder to deny having said any angry word. It stands there, easily repeated back, hard to disavow totally.

 

Paul Ekman is a well-known psychologist and co-discoverer of micro expressions. He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2009. He has worked with many government agencies, domestic and abroad. Dr. Ekman has compiled over 40 years of his research to create comprehensive training tools to read the hidden emotions of those around you.