The conclusion

“Assumption, my dear Mitz, is the mother of all f#%k ups!”

A quote from The adventures of Priscilla, queen of the desert. And something we need to be aware of if you are looking for signs of deception. I have already mentioned the lack of a Pinocchio’s nose (I’m a real boy), and in a way this is just as important, it is what Paul Ekman calls, The Othello Error.

We are all guilty of making assumptions every day of our lives, about each other, situations and even places we visit. But making an assumption when you are looking for signs of deception could give you a very different idea of someone’s motives. We like to take short cuts, we want things immediately and on tap and it can be very easy to skip over things that we consider to have no relevance.

Paul Ekman is a scientist so in the study of emotion and deception he followed a scientific process. He set out with a theory, applied a method, came to a result and then tested that result for its tolerance in the face of alternative theories. He tested his hypothesis.

We must do the same whenever we are looking at he emotions of another, and deciding if there is deception. We must deal in facts, of what can we be sure? What emotion was displayed and what evidence is there to confirm that is the emotion we have seen? This needs to be tested against its alternatives. Cognitive load and anger can look the same and many people often mistake fear for surprise and vice versa.

Then we move onto why are we seeing what we are seeing? Is someone swallowing excessively because their mouth has gone dry in response to heightened anxiety or because the air is dry and the have been talking for a while? Maybe the just have a sore throat? And if it is anxiety, is it because they are fearful of being interviewed, disbelieved, caught lying or even has a question brought back an associated event from their past?

The key is there are always more possibilities that you have to consider, and just assuming that the most obvious answer is the correct one is always going to be flawed and terribly unscientific.

Test your theories to destruction, and always be ready to change your conclusion!

This was brought home to me this week when in a discussion with some who professed to know “a lot” about body language accused a colleague of lying to them because he kept rubbing his neck. I happen to know that the individual had been in a minor car accident a couple of days previously and had whiplash. An assumption had been made without one important fact. Not only had they assumed, but they didn’t question or test the hypothesis. They also made a further assumption that this manipulator was a reliable sign of deception. As we know from the science they are not. The are physical or psychological comforters, in this case physical, rubbing the strained neck muscles.

The key is always to think there may be any number of reasons for an action or emotion, what you need to do then is start to look for things that support, or challenge that reason.

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2 comments on “The conclusion

  1. Great post and thank you for sharing!

    I was reading this post and wondering (please note my start at hypothesising) how strongly the tendency we have make assumptions is linked to the hypothesised human trait of being cognitive misers? Or, it could be that there are (or, what we think are) hard and fast rules about what shows someone to be honest (or less so).

    Is it that the really important part of all of this is the discipline and focus required? You need to at least suspend and ideally unlearn all those assumptions, generalisations, myths, ideas and concepts. Only then can you begin to take in more of what is going on around you, to make better judgements.

    As for calling it (concluding) with such certainty and so speedily, let’s leave that to fiction and to Cal Lightman shall we.

    • Cognitive miser could certainly be a part of the equation along with the joy of WWID ( what would I do), we make so many assumptions coloured by own own view of the world and many of us don’t even realise it. It is a very tricky skill to step out of your own head and takes some serious awareness of self. Of course alternatively you could go with Okham’s razor, that the most simple explanation is often the most likely, but I would still be looking for an alternative

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