Those Lying Eyes: The Human Art of Telling Fibs

By Tesler, Pearl | Science & Spirit, January-February 2008 | Go to article overview
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Those Lying Eyes: The Human Art of Telling Fibs


Tesler, Pearl, Science & Spirit


In the national spectacle that was the O.J. Simpson trial, aspiring actor Brian "Kato" Kaelin played just a minor role. Yet his performance, complete with shaggy surfer mane, has finally managed to make him a film star of sorts. Psychologists still watch the video of his slippery testimony to study the facial signals of one of our most subtle social arts: lying.

Our ongoing horror and fascination with the Simpson case, recently revived by the release of his book If I Did It, belies a simple truth: Lies fascinate us, probably because they are more a part of our lives than we like to admit. Some lie for a living--gamblers, actors, salespeople, politicians--but most of us lie on an amateur basis, such as when asked, "How do you like my new haircut?" And although some people's jobs rely on lie detection, all of us sniff for lies to some degree, ranging from the ubiquitous "little white lies" to covert infidelity and other big-game deceptions.

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Lest we flatter ourselves that lying is uniquely human, there's ample evidence that animals, too, are not above bold-faced whoppers--particularly the larger primates. Rhesus monkeys will sometimes fail to call to others in the group when they discover food if they think they can get away with it. A female chimp consorting on the sly with a non-dominant male will suppress her usual cries of pleasure to avoid detection. A vervet monkey chased by an angry monkey mob will sound a false alarm call--leopard!--causing his pursuers to flee to the treetops.

Within our own species, the capacity to lie appears quite early, at roughly the age of three. This is just about the same time that children develop what psychologists call a "theory of mind," thought to be a prerequisite for intentional lying, which can be crudely encapsulated as follows: I have a mind, and you have a mind, and my mind may contain information that yours does not. In one study, three-year-olds were left alone in a room with a tempting toy and instructed not to look at it. Though eighty-eight percent of the children did look at the toy, only a third of those admitted to doing so.

Although this and other studies seem to suggest that we are natural liars, our ability to detect lies lags miserably. San Francisco Bay Area psychologists Paul Ekman and Maureen O'Sullivan are two of the field's gurus, having tested the lie-spotting ability of approximately 14,000 people. They showed their subjects videos of others making statements that were either truthful or deceptive. Asked to decide who was lying and who was telling the truth, most people couldn't do much better than chance. In other words, they might as well have closed their eyes, hummed a tune, and guessed randomly.

Why are we such lousy lie detectors? According to Ekman and O'Sullivan, we are largely privy to incorrect paradigms--that is, bad information. Since we don't usually get much feedback about our success at spotting lies, rarely finding out if our hunches are correct or not, we never improve our skills and may persist in carrying around ineffective fib-finding techniques. One example is eye contact. "We say we know someone is lying when they won't look us in the eye," says O'Sullivan, "but the amount of eye gaze actually increases when they're lying."

Sometimes we fail to see a deception because we don't really want to see it. We may be in unconscious collusion with the liar because we, for reasons of our own, fear hearing a truth we are not prepared to accept. There's also a natural desire to believe people are telling us the truth, something O'Sullivan calls the truth bias: "When someone's story doesn't hang together, we fill it in, we fix it up." Finally, there's accusatory reluctance. It's just not polite to call someone a liar, so we try to avert our eyes--and minds--from the evidence.

Amongst the legions of lackluster lie detectors, Ekman and O'Sullivan have identified a handful of people they call "truth wizards," people with an uncanny ability to tell truth from falsehood.

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