Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Truth Is Awkward: Barbara Gunnell on Why We Prize Honesty, Yet Hate to Challenge Those Who Lie

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Truth Is Awkward: Barbara Gunnell on Why We Prize Honesty, Yet Hate to Challenge Those Who Lie

Article excerpt

Anne Darwin was a "lying bitch", according to her son Mark. He and his brother had grieved and supported her over the disappearance and likely death of their father--her husband--only to learn, six years later, that their parents had enacted an elaborate hoax.

How could the sons not have known, some have asked. Folk wisdom has it you can tell when people are lying. They scratch their noses, over-emphasise words or look shifty.

But, says the psychologist Paul Ekman, a world authority on mendacity and author of Telling Lies, we are actually bad at detecting liars. Yes, there are minute facial muscle movements that coincide with intent to deceive, but most of us, he maintains, fare no better than chance in detecting falsehood through facial expression.

Honesty in life partners, friends and political leaders is consistently highly rated in surveys and polls. So why have we not developed the ability to detect dishonesty? Ekman suggests that our evolutionary history has not prepared us to catch out liars. When people lived close to one another, there would have been few opportunities to deceive. We would have had no need to develop skills in spotting liars.

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Ekman also thinks that we may actually prefer not to catch people out lying, since life is far more enjoyable when we trust each other. Always doubting family, friends and colleagues would be an unpleasant way to live. Thus, we suspend disbelief.

So where does that leave politicians? …

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