To Tell the Truth

Many are the individuals who claim they can spot a liar. It’s gotten even worse with the advent of multiple TV cop shows that depict characters with superhuman powers of nonverbal acuity.

Beware the self-proclaimed body language savant, for he may be lying to you. Oh, perhaps not intentionally in every case, but reports show there is some self-delusion at play.

An article in The New York Times Science section, “At Airports, a Misplaced Faith in Body Language,” casts doubt on our abilities—yes, yours and mine—to serve as accurate human lie detectors. As the article notes, even airport screeners from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) who endured behavior observation training fared poorly in sorting the mendacious from the truth tellers.

You’ve probably heard the pop psychology bombast about the supposed signals that leak from liars: Poor eye contact, sweating, and upward cast eyes, to name a few. The fact is liars know all about these indicators, too. Even if such signals proved reliable, don’t you think that professional liars (e.g., terrorists, thieves, or that smarmy boss you once had) would devote time to learning how to mask them? I’ve yet to encounter a real-life Pinocchio who exhibits a no doubt, nose-growing deception cue.

Here in the real world, what can you do when your suspicions are aroused? All hope is not lost. Unfortunately, the article fails to point out that, while zeroing in on one isolated indicator proves a fool’s errand, it can be useful to monitor for patterns of deception. It’s quite true that someone who shifts his eyes upward during interrogation isn’t necessarily trying to mislead. If, however, that trait is part of a larger demeanor that exhibits other cues such as a rub of the nose, a shaky voice, or stumbling syntax, further investigation might be in order.

A falling barometer cannot predict an oncoming rainstorm with certainty. What it can do is place you on higher alert for threatening weather. Similarly, looking for patterns of deception rather than one lone signal is a much more reliable barometer of dissembling.

Keep in mind, it’s the pattern that matters. Common sense tells us that when someone displays suspicious nonverbal patterns, added digging may be warranted. Probing questions are a good idea. So, too, is some independent sleuthing that could expose facts that may otherwise remain hidden.

In the end, you may or not be able to unearth lying with any degree of certitude. The good news is that you will at least be clued in to a potential problem and able keep your guard up accordingly.




One comment

  1. An update from a piece just written by Paul Ekman, retired professor of psychology at the University of California San Francisco. Ekman has been studying facial expressions and gestures for more than 40 years and is one of the leading lights in using nonverbal signals in attempts to detect deception.

    Ekman notes there is “nothing in face, body, voice, speech or physiology that is unique to lying.” It could just as easily be attributed to nerves, agitation, confusion, or other underlying causes. As he writes, these signals mean “something is amiss; that the full story is not being told,” and warrant further digging.

    Read his thoughts at .

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