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Atlas of Emotions in the New York Times

May 6, 2016

As featured in The New York Times (Inner Peace? The Dalai Lama Made a Website for That)

ROCHESTER, Minn. — The Dalai Lama, who tirelessly preaches inner peace while chiding people for their selfish, materialistic ways, has commissioned scientists for a lofty mission: to help turn secular audiences into more self-aware, compassionate humans.

That is, of course, no easy task. So the Dalai Lama ordered up something with a grand name to go with his grand ambitions: a comprehensive Atlas of Emotions to help the more than seven billion people on the planet navigate the morass of their feelings in order to attain peace and happiness.

“It is my duty to publish such work,” the Dalai Lama said.

To create this “map of the mind,” as he called it, the Dalai Lama reached out to a source Hollywood had used to plumb the inner workings of the human psyche.

Specifically, he commissioned his good friend Paul Ekman — a psychologist who helped advise the creators of Pixar’s “Inside Out,” an animated film set inside a girl’s head — to map out the range of human sentiments. Dr. Ekman later distilled them into the five basic emotions depicted in the movie, from anger to enjoyment.

Dr. Ekman’s daughter, Eve, also a psychologist, worked on the project as well, with the goal of producing an interactive guide to human emotions that anyone with an Internet connection could study in a quest for self-understanding, calm and constructive action.

“We have, by nature or biologically, this destructive emotion, also constructive emotion,” the Dalai Lama said. “This innerness, people should pay more attention to, from kindergarten level up to university level. This is not just for knowledge, but in order to create a happy human being. Happy family, happy community and, finally, happy humanity.”

The Dalai Lama paid Dr. Ekman at least $750,000 to develop the project, which began with a request several years ago.

“ ‘When we wanted to get to the New World, we needed a map,’ ” Dr. Ekman recalled the Dalai Lama telling him. “ ‘So make a map of emotions so we can get to a calm state.’ ”

As a first step, Dr. Ekman conducted a survey of 149 scientists (emotion scientists, neuroscientists and psychologists who are published leaders in their fields) to see where there was consensus about the nature of emotions, the moods or states they produce, and related areas.

Based on the survey, Dr. Ekman concluded that there were five broad categories of emotions — anger, fear, disgust, sadness and enjoyment — and that each had an elaborate subset of emotional states, triggers, actions and moods. He then took these findings to a cartography and data visualization firm, Stamen, to depict them in a visual and, hopefully, useful way.

“If it isn’t fun, it’s a failure,” Dr. Ekman said. “It’s got to be fun for people to use.”

Stamen’s founder, Eric Rodenbeck, has created data visualizations for Google, Facebook and MTV, as well as maps showing climate change and rising oceans. But he said the Atlas was the most challenging project he had ever worked on because it was “built around knowledge and wisdom rather than data.”

Not surprisingly, getting scientists to reach a unified understanding of human emotions was difficult.

Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, also counseled Pixar on establishing and depicting the emotional characters for “Inside Out.” He has even advised Facebook on its emoticons.

While Dr. Keltner took part in Dr. Ekman’s survey, the two are not in complete agreement on the number of core emotions. Dr. Keltner said that the findings the Atlas was based on were not without flaws, but that he saw the project as a good step.

“The survey questions could have allowed for more gray areas,” he said. “But it’s important to take stock of what the scientific consensus is in the field.”

Dr. Ekman emphasized that the Atlas was not a scientific work intended for peer review.

“This is not a science project,” he said. “It is a visualization for what we think has been learned from scientific studies. It’s a transformative process, a work of explanation.”

Whether science project or tool for self-enlightenment, the Dalai Lama wants to keep religion out of it.

“If we see this research work as relying on religious belief or tradition, then it automatically becomes limited,” he said. “Even if you pray to God, pray to Buddha, emotionally, very nice, very good. But every problem, we have created. So I think even God or Buddha cannot do much.”

The Dalai Lama said he hoped the Atlas could be a tool for cultivating good in the world by defeating the bad within us.

“Ultimately, our emotion is the real troublemaker,” he said. “We have to know the nature of that enemy.”

The Dalai Lama said he had been encouraged by President Obama’s reaction to the project when he told him about it in India.

“Obama seems, I think, to show more interest about our inner value,” he said. “In the past, compassion was something of a sign of weakness, or anger a sign of power, sign of strength. Basic human nature is more compassionate. That’s the real basis of our hope.”

While excited about the Atlas, however, the 80-year-old Dalai Lama will probably not be clicking around the interactive site. He is much more comfortable turning the printed pages of a version that was custom-made for him.

“Technology is for my next body,” he once quipped to the researchers.

What Scientists Who Study Emotion Agree About

April 12, 2016

Originally published in the Perspectives on Psychological Science

What Scientists Who Study Emotion Agree About

Paul Ekman

University of California, San Francisco and Paul Ekman Group, LLC


In recent years, the field of emotion has grown enormously—recently, nearly 250 scientists were identified who are studying emotion. In this article, I report a survey of the field, which revealed high agreement about the evidence regarding the nature of emotion, supporting some of both Darwin’s and Wundt’s 19th century proposals. Topics where disagreements remain were also exposed.

In considering how emotions might be distinguished one from another, two approaches were proposed in the 19th century. Darwin (1872/1998) took for granted that emo- tions are modular (or discrete) and used terms such as anger, fear, disgust, and so forth to specify separate mod- ules. Allport (1924), Ekman and Friesen (1969), Izard (1971), Tomkins (1962), and Woodworth (1938) all uti- lized very similar approaches to organizing emotions and posited many of the same modules.
Wundt (1896) proposed differentiating emotions via the dimensions of pleasant–unpleasant and low–high intensity. Plutchik (1962), Russell and Fernandez-Dols (1997), and Schlosberg (1954) all advocated similar approaches. Wundt also described a modular organiza- tion of emotions, advocating the combination of both a dimensional and modular approach. For example, the anger module differs from the fear module, but anger varies in how unpleasant it feels and in its strength.

Whereas Plutchik set out to describe what emotions are and not just how language is used to represent them, Schlosberg’s focus was on how to best represent the information signaled by facial expressions. James A. Russell (personal communication, January 25, 2015) believes that his “dimensions are useful descriptors of the meaning of words and parts of emotions themselves”.
Fifty years ago, only a handful of scientists pursued the study of emotion, but in recent years, experiments in this field have grown enormously. Many of these experi- ments have focused on facial expression, but an increas- ing number have examined the physiology of emotion
and other issues as well. Recent years have also seen the rise of respected scientific journals devoted to emotion, such as Emotion, and anthologies (Evans & Cruse, 2004; Soloman, 2003) presenting the diverse views of philoso- phers, sociologists, psychologists, and neuroscientists.
The purpose of the survey was to evaluate the status of this field of research today. Were disagreements revealed in 1994 (albeit using different methods) resolved by the evidence obtained since then? What topics remain unsettled? The survey focused on those scientists using quantitative methods to study emotion.

The participants in this email survey were identified by multiple criteria: (a) They had published five or more times in the past 8 years within or across the following scientific journals: Emotion, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Psychological Science, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Psychological Review, Psychological Bulletin, Journal of Neuroscience, Neuron, Nature, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, or Science; (b) they were on the editorial board or reviewed articles for the journal Emotion; (c) they had contributed to the first edition of the Nature of Emotion, edited by P. Ekman and R. A. Davidson (21 of the original 24 contributors were still alive); or (d) they were invited by R. A. Davidson and associates to contribute to a second edition of the Nature of Emotion.

A reviewer of this report raised the possibility that the selection criteria might have skewed the sample toward older, more established scientists. The age distribution was examined and found to be normal, with as many participants between 30 and 40 as there were over 60. There were no significant differences in the answers to the survey as a function of age.
To guard against unwitting substantive bias in the selection process, the author of this report, who is an early and well-known contributor to emotion research and has used a modular approach in studies of expression and physiology cross culturally, enlisted the help of a well-known scientific critic of the author’s findings and theory. James A. Russell verified that the selection process was free from bias, except for excluding those not using quantitative methods. Russell also vetted the survey questions and contributed one of the questions included in the survey (Question 2 in the Appendix).

The survey was emailed to 248 scientists in mid-June of 2014. The cover letter explained how the participants were selected and the steps taken to guard against bias in participant selection and questions asked. Participants were told that the survey had been kept brief to encourage their participation—only six questions plus a possible nine follow-up questions. The responses offered were closed-ended. A follow-up reminder was sent 2 weeks after the initial email. There was a moderately high response rate of 60%.

The existence of “compelling evidence for universals in any aspect of emotion” was endorsed by 88% of the respondents. The evidence supporting universal signals (face or voice) was endorsed by 80%. There was less agreement about whether there is compelling evidence for universals in the events that trigger an emotion (66%), physiology (51%), or appraisal mechanisms (44%). Thus, Darwin’s claim in 1872 and the more recent work of Ekman and Friesen (1969) and Izard (1971) regarding the universality of some facial expressions were supported.

In response to the question “which of the following best captures your orientation toward emotion in your research?”, 49% chose “discrete emotions (anger, fear, etc.) combining both biological and social influences,” 11% chose “emotions as constructed, either socially or psychologically to fit current conditions,” and 30% indicated they used both approaches.

Because there has been disagreement in the past literature about the meaning of the phrase “basic emotions,” the question “what is most basic about emotions” was asked. In responses, 18% chose dimensions such as approach–avoidance, positive–negative, or a model including two dimensions; 16% chose “discrete packages of emotional responses,” whereas the majority (55%) reported both views to be most basic about emotions, the stance taken by Wundt (1896).

All those who chose both approaches, in addition to those who had chosen only the discrete choice (a total of 74% of those surveyed), were asked which emotion labels (out of a list of 18) should be considered to have been empirically established. There was high agreement about five emotions (all of which were described by both Darwin and Wundt): anger (91%), fear (90%), disgust (86%), sadness (80%), and happiness (76%). Shame, surprise, and embarrassment were endorsed by 40%–50%. Other emotions, currently under study by various investigators drew substantially less support: guilt (37%), con- tempt (34%), love (32%), awe (31%), pain (28%), envy (28%), compassion (20%), pride (9%), and gratitude (6%).

Finally, there was high agreement about whether “specific moods may be related to specific emotions(s) such as anger to irritability” (88%), whether “specific personality traits are related in some way to specific emotions, such as fear to shyness” (82%), and whether specific emotional disorders are related in some way to specific emotions, such as disgust to anorexia (75%).
When only those who responded to some but not all of the questions, or just those who only met the frequent publications criterion, were examined, the findings did not differ by more than 2 or 3 percentage points. None of the demographic responses—country, discipline, year Ph.D. was achieved, age, or sex—were related to the sur- vey question answers. A comparison of a random sample of 30 people who responded to the survey with a random sample of 30 nonrespondents revealed no differences in any of the demographic variables.

Comparing these findings to an investigation of the views of the 24 most active emotion researchers 20 years ago (Ekman & Davidson, 1994) reveals much more agreement now than then. There was no agreement then about universals or about what emotions should be considered. The agreement now about the evidence for universals in emotional signals and the evidence for five emotions is robust. There was no agreement 20 years ago about whether moods differ from emotion. Today, most emotion scientists agree that moods are related to emotions, but this survey did not explore how. In a similar fashion, most scientists see personality and psychopathology related to each emotion, but the nature of that relation- ship was not explored in this survey. Twenty years of research has been productive, but as this short survey revealed, there are still many aspects of emotion that deserve further scrutiny to reduce the disagreements that still persist. Perhaps most important, the question remains: Will compelling evidence for more than just five emo- tions be forthcoming in the coming decades, or is that all that can be empirically established?
This survey should help to eliminate the confusion in the popular press about whether there is any agreement at all about the nature of emotion. Disagreements, which still persist about every question asked, have been misinterpreted (for example, The Atlantic, February 2015) as a lack of agreement about anything (Beck, 2015). This survey has found broad areas of agreement about the evidence for some of the major issues about the nature of emotion. Also, most emotion scientists find both a modular and a dimensional view of emotions useful in their research, as suggested by Wundt more than 100 years ago.

Because of the need to keep the survey short in order to achieve a high response rate, questions did not address many current active areas of research. It should also be noted that those who study emotion using a qualitative approach may hold very different views about the nature of emotion than what was found for those using a quantitative approach.

Author Note
Paul Ekman is professor emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco and President of the Paul Ekman Group, LLC.


I would like to acknowledge Eve Ekman, who gave valuable help in constructing the survey, and Matthew Fiorello, who ran the survey.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author declared no conflicts of interest with respect to the authorship or the publication of this article.


The Dalai Lama Trust provided funding as part of a larger project that was guided by this survey’s findings on the scientific consensus about emotion.

Dr. Paul Ekman on Torture

August 17, 2015

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 months 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.

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 (Micro Expressions and Subtle Expressions) 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 ‘’ 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 displayed 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) 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 Subtle Expressions. It takes about an hour for most people to develop the skill to spot minis.

Subtle Expressions 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 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 – “can’t 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” or “that color really looks good on you”. I don’t consider these to be lies, anymore than bluffing in poker is a lie, 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 will be 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 are 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? If 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 and 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 honesty 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.