detecting lies

Errors in Detecting Lies

Dangers and Precautions when Catching Lies

Detecting lies

Dr. Ekman explains common lie detecting errors.

When it comes to deception and catching lies, there are a number of common errors you need to be wary of. The two biggest failures of judgment in deception detection are what I call the “Brokaw Hazard” and the “Othello Error.”

Below are examples of how these two lie detecting errors look in our everyday lives, general precautions to take when detecting deception, and the two kinds of mistakes that are exactly opposite in cause and consequence: misbelieving the truth and believing a lie

Brokaw Hazard: Failing to account for individual differences

Tom Brokaw, when he was the interviewer on NBC-TV’s, “Today Show,” described how he was aware of verbal clues when people were lying. A few studies of deceit support Brokaw’s hunch that, when lying, some people begin to speak in less direct, circumlocutious ways, and/or might give far more information than requested. However, other research studies, have shown just the opposite- that most people are too smart to be evasive and indirect in their replies when lying. Thus, Tom Brokaw might have missed those types of liars.

Any behavior that is a useful clue to deceit will, for some few people, be a usual part of their behavior. The possibility of misjudging such people I thus refer to as the Brokaw hazard. Lie catchers are vulnerable to the Brokaw hazard when they are unacquainted with the suspect and are therefore not familiar enough with the idiosyncrasies in the suspect’s typical behavior.

In essence, the Brokaw hazard is failing to take account of individual differences that may cause a liar not to show a clue to deceit while a truthful person does show it. 

The Othello Error: Failing to understand that emotions do not tell you their cause

When it comes to signs of lying, we need to be careful to avoid what I have called Othello’s error. In the famous tragedy by William Shakespeare, Othello mistakenly assumed that Desdemona’s expression of fear was the reaction of a woman caught in betrayal. He failed to understand that simply observing an emotion does not tell you what caused that emotion. For example, the fear of being disbelieved when innocent looks the same as the fear of being caught when guilty. In real-life lies that I have studied, people suspected of crimes sometimes show micro expressions of anger. Only through further questioning is it possible to determine whether the concealed anger is the result of being wrongfully under suspicion or whether it is anger toward the interviewer for trying to catch the suspect in a misdeed.

The Othello error— failing to recognize that a truthful person suspected of lying may show the same signs of emotion as a liar—can complicate the interpretation of facial expressions. An innocent suspect may show a reliable fear expression because he is afraid of being falsely accused. Worried that if he looks afraid people will think he is a liar, he may try to conceal his fear so that the signs of fear remain only in his eyebrows, which are difficult to inhibit. The liar afraid of being caught, who attempts to conceal his fear, is likely to show the same expression. 

Dangers and Precautions

Most liars can fool most people most of the time. Even children lying, once they reach eight or nine, can successfully deceive their parents. Mistakes in spotting deceit not only involve believing a liar but also, what often is worse, disbelieving a truthful person. Such a mistaken judgment may scar the disbelieved truthful child despite later attempts to correct the mistake. The consequences can be disastrous for the disbelieved truthful adult as well. A friendship may be lost, or a job, or even a life. It makes the news when an innocent person, mistakenly judged to have been lying, is released after undeserved years in jail; but it isn’t so rare as to make the front page. While it is not possible to avoid completely mistakes in detecting deceit, precautions can be taken to reduce them.

The first precaution involves making the process of interpreting behavioral signs of deceit more explicit. Using the information provided us by the science of deception detection, lie catchers will no longer rely just upon hunches or intuitions. More knowledgeable about the bases of their judgments, lie catchers should better be able to learn with experience- discarding, correcting, or giving more weight to particular clues to deceit. The falsely accused may also benefit, better able to challenge a judgment when the basis of that judgment is specified.

Mistaken Judgements 

Another precaution is to understand better the nature of the mistakes that occur in detecting deceit. There are two kinds of mistakes that are exactly opposite in cause and consequence. In disbelieving the truth, the lie catcher mistakenly judges a truthful person to be lying. In believing a lie, the lie catcher mistakenly judges a liar to be truthful. It does not matter whether the lie catcher depends upon a polygraph test or his interpretation of behavioral clues to deceit; he is vulnerable to these same two mistakes.

The distinction between believing a lie and disbelieving the truth is important because it forces attention to the twin dangers for the lie catcher. There is no way to avoid completely both mistakes; the choice only is between which one to risk more. The lie catcher must evaluate when it is preferable to risk being misled, and when it would be better to risk making a false accusation. What can be lost or gained by suspecting the innocent or crediting a liar depends upon the lie, the liar, and the lie catcher. The consequences may be much worse for one kind of mistake; or, the mistakes may be equally disastrous.

There is no general rule about which kind of mistake can be most easily avoided. Sometimes the chances of each are about the same, and sometimes one type of mistake is more likely than the other. Again it depends upon the lie, the liar, and the lie catcher.

Individual differences, what I earlier named the Brokaw hazard because of a failure to take into account how people differ in expressive behavior, are responsible for both types of mistake in detecting lies. 

Believing a lie

No clue to deceit, in face, body, voice or words, is foolproof, not even the autonomic nervous system activity measured by the polygraph. Believing-a-lie mistakes occur because certain people just don’t make mistakes when they lie. These are not just psychopaths but also natural liars, people who are using the Stanislavski technique, and those who, by other means, succeed in coming to believe their own lies. The lie catcher must remember that the absence of a sign of deceit is not evidence of truth.

Disbelieving the truth

The presence of a sign of deceit can also be misleading, cause the opposite mistake, disbelieving-the-truth, in which a truthful person is said to be lying. A clue to deceit may be set out deliberately by a con man to exploit his victim’s mistaken belief that he has caught the con man lying. Poker players reportedly use this trick, establishing what in poker lingo is called a “false tell.” For example, a player might for many hours deliberately cough when bluffing. The opponent, hopefully astute enough, soon recognizes this pattern of coughing and bluffing. In a crucial hand of the game when the stakes are raised, the deceiver coughs again, but this time he is not bluffing and so wins a wallet-breaking pot from his confused opponent.

The poker player in this example set up and exploited a disbelieving-the-truth mistake, profiting from being judged to be lying. More often when a lie catcher makes a disbelieving-the-truth mistake, the person who is mistakenly identified as lying suffers. It is not deviousness that causes some people to be judged lying when they are truthful but a quirk in their behavior, an idiosyncrasy in their expressive style. What for most people might be a clue to deceit is not for such a person. Some people:

  • are indirect and circumlocutions in their speech
  • speak with many short or long pauses between works
  • make many speech errors
  • use few illustrators
  • make many body manipulators
  • often show signs of fear, distress, or anger in their facial expressions, regardless of how the actually feel
  • show asymmetrical facial expressions

There are enormous differences among individuals in all of these behaviors; and these differences produce not only “disbelieving the truth” but also “believing a lie” mistakes. Calling the truthful person who characteristically speaks indirectly a liar is a “disbelieving the truth” mistake; calling the lying smooth-talker truthful is a “believing a lie” mistake. Even though such a talker’s speech when lying may become more indirect and have more errors, it may escape notice because it still is so much smoother than speech usually is for most people.

Still want to know if you’re being lied to? Check out our micro expressions training tools to learn how!

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.

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