How to Tell When Someone Is Lying

The New Yorker:

On January 27, 2008, Penny Boudreau’s twelve-year-old daughter, Karissa, went missing in her hometown of Bridgewater, Canada. That afternoon, mother and daughter had had a fight in a grocery-store parking lot. They’d been having a “heart-to-heart” about “typical teen-age things,” Boudreau said. At 7:30 P.M., Boudreau, worried, called a few friends and teachers—none had heard a thing—and notified the police. By the following day, Karissa was still unaccounted for and the Bridgewater police began notifying other precincts. They issued a media alert and began a full search effort.

On January 29th, the police station held a press conference. Penny, distraught, pleaded for her daughter to return, in a widely televised appeal. On February 1st, she repeated her plea. Anyone with any knowledge of her daughter’s whereabouts, she begged, should make immediate contact. The search parties widened, and local residents joined law enforcement to help track the girl they were now calling “Bridgewater’s daughter.” Still, Karissa remained missing.

People lie all the time. According to the psychologist Robert Feldman, who has spent more than four decades studying the phenomenon, we lie, on average, three times during a routine ten-minute conversation with a stranger or casual acquaintance. Hardly anyone refrains from lying altogether, and some people report lying up to twelve times within that time span. I might open a conversation, for instance, by saying how nice it is to meet someone—when I’m really not at all happy about it.

A liar fidgets and seems somehow nervous. Sometimes, he’ll scratch or pull his ear. He’ll hesitate, as if he’s not sure he wants to tell you something. These, however, are all “old wives’ tales,” Leanne ten Brinke, a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley whose work focusses on detecting deception, told me. “The empirical literature just doesn’t bear that out.” The mismatch between our conception of a liar and the reality—that there’s no “Pinocchio’s nose,” as ten Brinke put it—is surely one reason that, despite our confidence, our ability to tell a lie from the truth is hardly different from chance. The psychologist Paul Ekman, professor emeritus at U.C. San Francisco, has spent more than half a century studying nonverbal expressions of emotion and deception.

Read the whole story: The New Yorker

See Paul Ekman at the 26th APS Annual Convention.

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