4.12.2007

How to Detect a Liar

I just found a fascinating post, via Kevin, about liars, how to detect them, and how to understand their motivations. (I say "them" in the most abstract sense...I lie every day, probably several times.) Kevin calls it "pretty basic stuff;" nevertheless, it's stuff that, despite my obsession with behavioral bio, I've never read before. Here's the gist:
Whether we lie depends on our calculation of the reward/punishment equation. This is called “situational honesty.” Because most of us are conditioned to believe lying is wrong, it creates stress...The degree of emotional discomfort is determined by two factors: the adverse consequences of the lie and our perception of being caught.
Those little white lies, the article explains, don't stress us out because a) there are no adverse consequences; and b) it's unlikely your deception will be found out. Conversely, if you're, say, Jeffrey Skilling (whom superlative-loving CBS news calls "the most vilified figure from the most notorious financial scandal of the decade"), then your lies have enormous adverse consequences AND are likely to be found out. Big lies thus put you in a high-stress mode, complete with "telltale behavioral changes."

What are these changes? I know from Meet the Fockers that your pulse races...but what do the real lie-detecting experts look for? The article mentions several lying behaviors:
  • Repetition of the question
  • Selective memory (I might have been there, I might have been off; I just don't remember)
  • Oaths (Honey, I swear on my mother's life, nothing happened!)
  • Character testimony (I'm an honest person--ask any of my friends)
  • Answering with a question
  • Overuse of respect
  • Avoiding emotive words
  • Covering mouth with hands
  • Assuming a "fleeing position" (That's because, when threatened, humans react with a “fight or flight” mentality....neat-o, right?)

This list is somewhat exhaustive, no? Makes me wonder, what behaviors are left for that hypothetical Ben Stiller, under duress, who's trying to tell the truth?

29 comments:

Liz said...

Actually, there's no sure-fire way to detect a liar; study after study has shown that "experts" at detecting liars are barely better than random chance (and sometimes worse!). Which makes sense--we've evolved to lie convincingly. Lying takes place in almost all primate communities, often as a way of attracting mates...

David said...

Yes, for memory the only group to perform slightly better than controls on these sorts of lie detection tasks were secret service agents.

LBJ said...

I need help to determine if my friend is lying to me. A few nights ago I drank way too much and have memory problems. That being said I'm not in a position to say without a doubt that items were taken from my house. I'm missing my cell phone and I was looking high and low for the cell as well as a bottle of facial cream. One of the two friends is unmistakably a liar, thief, con-artist but his wife I'm not sure 100%. She had made a comment to me about how I have nice skin and for three days I was looking for my face cream, could not find it. She had suggested that I had brought my cell to the bar, I'm convinced I did not. If i had then her son who was looking for his parents would of called on my cell, so there's no doubt in my mind that I did not take my cell with me that night Saturday. This morning Wednesday, I told her I would like to check her car and what's in her car "my face cream". So she quickly says I must of taken that with me on Sat. night to the bar. Now who in GOD"S name brings facial cream to a bar. Out of the blue as we were taking our morning walk she say's to me I hope you don't think that her husband took it. I asked her if I was insinuating that and she said I was, so I then said to her you must have a guilty conscience. The conversation was getting a little to hot under the collar so I said drop the subject. I cancelled my cell line. My question is am I paranoid or does this seem unlikely.

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