Category Archives: “Deception Detection”

Paul Ekman on Torture

As seen in the Huffington Post

I was approached soon after 9/11 by a senior psychologist, who held office in APA, to participate in the government’s newly developing interrogation program. I declined, although I had already developed techniques for establishing better emotional connections with interviewees, through my work on nonverbal behavior, facial expressions and gestures. And I had done research on what punishments work best on prisoners.

In the late 1950’s when I was drafted into the Army, serving as First Lieutenant and Chief Psychologist at Ft. Dix New Jersey I performed an experiment to evaluate the most effective punishment for AWOL offenses. I was able to match prisoners on a number of variables, randomly assigning half a month in the stockade (the standard punishment up until then) or three hours a day of extra labor but no imprisonment. Recidivism six month later was 60% higher among those who went to the stockade, and based on that finding the Commanding General changed the standard punishment for first AWOL to extra labor but no imprisonment.

Such an experiment cannot be performed now to evaluate the competing advocates of harsh interrogations tantamount to torture and those, like me, advocating humane interviewing. (I did get the chance once to train interrogators at Abu Ghraib, and they reported back that my humane, emotional connection interviews were very successful.) If we can’t run an experiment to find out, and many including me would argue that even conducting such an experiment in which so-called harsh methods were to be used on some of the prisoners violates ethical guidelines, then we must do the right thing, take the ethical path, do what is expected of democracies. Only humane interviewing should be conducted by any member of APA.

8 Myths about Lying

by Paul Ekman, Ph.D. as featured on Forbes.

Myth #1 – Everyone lies.

Not so. Not about serious matters, not about lies which if caught could result in the end of a relationship, employment, freedom, large sums of money or life itself. Those are what I call high stake lies; they are the lies that the police and the FBI and insecure spouses are trying to catch. They are the lies of the criminal, the terrorist, the philanderer, the embezzler, and what the cops call ‘bad guys’.

Myth #2 – No one lies.

Hardly. Nearly everyone tells low stake lies. Politeness, for example, or praising the host for a dull dinner and conversation, flattery, and so forth. No one really expects to be told the truth in those situations.

Myth #3 – Women can spot lies better than men.

No they can’t; most people are terrible lie catchers, fooled by high stake lies again and again. Often they want to believe the liar. Do you want to find out your lover is unfaithful, your children are using hard drugs, the person you recommended for the job is embezzling? These are hard truths to accept, so the target of the lie often cooperates in being misled because the truth is too painful.

Myth #4 – Psychopaths are perfect liars.

Psychopaths are no more skillful at lying than anyone else, but they are so charming we want to believe them, and we do.

Myth #5 – Looking up and to the left is a sign of lying.

The research shows that which way you look before answering a question is unrelated to whether you are lying.

Myth #6 – Micro facial expressions are proof of lying.

Fleeting facial expressions do reveal an emotion that is being concealed, and that is a kind of lie, but innocents under suspicion may conceal their fear, or anger about being suspected. You need to find out why they are concealing their emotions in order to judge whether it is sign they are guilty of the offense you are investigating.

Myth #7 – Scientists have discovered a silver bullet, which works on everyone, to betray a lie.

We don’t have Pinocchio’s nose. Nothing exists which, if absent, means the person is truthful and if present is proof of lying. The polygraph, the so-called lie detector, is just a little bit better than chance. Yet it does have its use in a criminal investigation—if only one of the suspects fails the test, he or she is the first one to investigate, bearing in mind that this suspect may be the most nervous or worried about not being believed, though innocent.

Myth #8 -There is no way to spot lying from how people behave.

There are what I like to call ‘hot spots’ which indicate you are not getting the full story. If you really do want to catch a liar there are nearly thirty different hot spots to pay attention to. Micro facial expressions and gestural slips are the two most important ones, but there are many more.

For example, a slight shrug, usually of one shoulder, coinciding with a verbal statement of confidence is an example of a ‘hot spot’ revealed in a gestural slip. Something is awry.  Another is a slight head shake no, only very slight, when saying ‘yes.’

Is Snowden Lying?

June 2014

Many readers have asked whether Snowden was lying in his recent NBC-TV interview, knowing I have worked for the government and corporations spotting lies by how someone behaves. When I attempt to evaluate truthfulness I need to be the one asking the questions, able to ask follow up questions, allowed as many hours as I need, and the person I am interviewing must not have had time to prepare or be coached. Even if these requirements were to be met, I maintain a strict policy: I never evaluate anyone involved in litigation. In our judicial system it is the responsibility of the jury not an expert to determine truthfulness, difficult as that often is when only yes/no questions can be asked, and there is plenty of time for answers to be prepared. So, under these circumstances, I simply cannot comment on Snowden’s veracity. Still, some of Snowden’s claims merit consideration.

Snowden claims longer and more serious employment than was previously revealed by the government, and many attempts to be a whistle-blower, which, he says, were met with resistance by the NSA. The next day after the NBCTV interview the NSA denied these claims, as did Senator Diane Feinstein, head of the Senate committee that oversees intelligence capabilities. We don’t know who to believe.

Snowden claims he would not be granted a fair, open trial with access to all the charges and witnesses against him if he were to return to the United States. That is probably true, because a public trial, or even a closed trial in which all the information against him were to be revealed, might help our enemies if they were to find out. This leaves Snowden in limbo, the resolution of which has not been suggested by anyone.

Snowden also said that our mobile phones can be turned on by the intelligence agencies of the industrialized world, without our knowledge or consent, to listen to what we are saying. No one has denied this claim! When I was a Fulbright lecturer at Leningrad State University in 1979, people whose homes I visited would immediately put their telephones in the bathroom, convinced that otherwise the KGB would hear what we said. Do we need to take the same precaution against the NSA?

No one is claiming Snowden forged the NSA documents he stole, which revealed previously unknown threats to privacy. I would like to see an impartial judicial authority, perhaps an international one, review those revelations, charged with suggesting regulations of whose privacy can be invaded without notice or consent. They might also consider how to resolve the question of whether there is any way for Snowden to get a fair trial, and if not how should the issue of whether he should be punished be resolved.

We need public discussion of the tradeoffs involved if and when privacy is invaded, to be certain the public knows what is being done, if not in every specific instance, then in general. If what I am suggesting is not feasible there must be some way to change where this matter presently stands – in a state of confusion about charges and countercharges.


For more on Privacy Invasion, read “Who Should Know How You Are Feeling?” by Paul Ekman featured on his blog, Face It!

Spotting Poker Bluffs

May 2014

The game has changed now that TV broadcasts people playing poker.

In the old days not a word was spoken, and that tradition continues today in some venues. But lies had to be spotted; bluffs called. I learned about this from winners of the International Poker Tournament held each year in Las Vegas. It costs $15,000 to enter the fray, and then, after two weeks of serious gaming, the winner walks away with a million bucks.

Two of the winners, in different years, sought my advice knowing that I am an expert in spotting liars. I told them I had not played poker since junior high, and had never watched poker being played. They thought that didn’t matter. It turned out they were wrong.

You can’t win without bluffing, but you can’t win if you can’t spot the bluffers.

The key to winning, each said, was spotting bluffs. Once you know they have a bad hand, if you have a good one, you keep raising the stakes causing the bluffers to lose a lot of money when they are called. I asked them how they did it, given what each said about what happens during a game. Everyone wears large dark glasses, blocking most of the face. Not a word is spoken. That worried me since I had found that detecting lies using my methods got easier the more words that were spoken. What did they rely on if they couldn’t see most of the face and no clues from the words or sound of the voice?

Cards are picked up and laid down, cards are examined, and a movement of the cards on the table signals a wish for another card. They had learned the differences in those few movements to detect when someone is bluffing. But they were not going to tell me how they did it. They wanted me to tell them anything additional they could use to spot the bluffer.

Are poker winners wizards of deception detection?

I tested each of them by showing them a videotape I had made in which you saw 30 people lying or telling the truth. Some were lying about whether they were watching a film of gruesome surgery or beautiful flowers. Some were lying about a strongly held opinion about the justification of capital punishment. And others lied about whether they had taken money which was not theirs. I had shown this test to nearly 15,000 people in every profession you can think of. Over 95% of the people I tested did not much better than chance. But would these poker winners be in the 5%, who I called the wizards of deception detection? No; they were in with the 95%! They were highly skilled in interpreting a very special vocabulary of movements in this silent game of poker they played. Those movements did not occur when people were interviewed.

If people talk while they play their hand, if they claim to have a great hand when they don’t, then what I rely on to catch liars – very brief (micro) and very small (mini) facial expressions, gestural slips, voice changes, and so forth — will probably work. But the stakes have to be high: there has to be a lot to lose or gain. And there has to be conversation during and about the game. For the moment, the silent game of poker remains a mystery to most of us.  Mum’s the word.  And it’s also the best how-to tip for playing poker and getting away with bluffs.

Authorized Lying and Uncovering Deceptions

No one objects to trying to spot poker bluffers; in a sense it is authorized by the rules of the game. Catching liars is also authorized when interrogators question criminal suspects. Although told they have to answer truthfully, confessing crimes they committed, interrogators expect suspects will lie if they think they can get away with it. Although torture is not allowed, interrogators can trick the suspect to get at the truth. Our supreme court has upheld convictions based on confessions obtained by lying to the suspect – for example, claiming another suspect has already confessed, or their fingerprints were on the gun, when neither is true. (Incidentally, that is not allowed in England and most other European countries).

Medical patients are not always truthful, sometimes concealing problems they are embarrassed about having, and often lying about whether they really did use all the medications that were prescribed. No one objects when the doctors or nurses uncover such deceptions, but unlike the interrogator-suspect context, here it is done to help the person engaging in concealment.

Where does this leave us on lie catching?

Whether we should expect to be misled and feel authorized to catch liars is less certain in other arenas. Should we expect someone bent on seduction to be truthful about how many previous partners they have had, or how much undying love they feel? Will our friends tell us about our unwelcome or unattractive mannerisms? Often it is not clear what to expect and whether lie catching is needed or justifiable. That is the ambiguity we live with about truth and lies.

Visit our Training Tools page to learn more about how you can train yourself to recognize micro and subtle expressions and improve your ability to ‘read’ others.