detecting decit

Detecting Deceit

Exploring our imperfect ability to lie and catch liars

detecting deceit

Our imperfect ability to lie

When I first set out to study the ways to lie (and our (in)abilities at detecting deceit), I had no way of knowing what I would find. Especially at the time, study outcomes on the topic and claims were contradictory. Freud claimed: “He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.”

Yet I knew of many instances of quite successful lying, and my first studies found people did no better than chance in detecting deceit. Psychiatrists and psychologists were no better than anyone else. I am pleased with the answer that I have found: We are neither perfect nor imperfect as liars, detecting deceit is neither as easy as Freud claimed nor impossible. It makes matters more complex, and therefore more interesting. Our imperfect ability to lie is fundamental to, perhaps necessary for, our existence.

Consider what life would be like if everyone could lie perfectly, or if no one had the ability to lie at all! I have thought about this most in regard to lies about emotions, since those are the hardest lies, and it is emotions that interest me. 

What if everyone could lie perfectly?

If we could never know how someone really felt, and if we knew that we could never know, life would be more tenuous. Certain in the knowledge that every show of emotion might be a mere display put on to please, manipulate, or mislead, individuals would be more adrift, attachments less firm. Consider for a moment the dilemma for the parent if the one-month-old infant could disguise their emotions and falsify as well as  most adults. Any cry could be the cry of “wolf.” We lead our lives believing that there is a core of emotional truth, that most people can’t or won’t mislead us about how they feel. If treachery was as easy with emotions as with ideas, if expressions and gestures could be disguised and falsified as readily as words, our emotional lives would be impoverished and more guarded than they are.

What if no one could lie?

But, what if the opposite were true instead? If we could never lie—if a smile was reliable, never absent when pleasure was felt, and never present without pleasure–life would be tougher than it is, with many of our relationships harder to maintain. Social politeness, attempts to smooth matters over, to conceal feelings one wished one didn’t feel—all that would be gone; there would be no way not to be found out or seen, no opportunity to sulk or lick one’s wounds except when alone. Consider life with a friend, coworker, or romantic partner who, in terms of emotional control and disguise, was like an infant yet, in all other respects—intelligence, skills, and so on—was a mature adult. It is a painful prospect. We are neither transparent as the infant nor perfectly disguised. We have the ability to lie or be truthful, detect deceit or miss it, be misled or know the truth. We have a choice; that is our nature.

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.

Leave a Reply