The why of the lie

Everybody lies. It is something that we do from being a small child right the way through our lives. We adapt our behaviours and speech to get something we want. As we move towards adulthood we become more and more adept at deception, and as a result, more frequent as liars.
We are even taught to lie and lied to by our parents. “When Auntie Violet gives you your birthday present look happy and say you like it very much”; “If you don’t stop misbehaving the policeman will come and take you away.”; “Father Christmas is watching you and if you are bad you will not get any presents for Christmas.”

Some studies have indicated that the average person can lie around eight times in a twenty minute conversation, but how do we define a lie?

Ekman defines as lie as “A deliberate attempt to mislead without prior consent.” Breaking this down gives some clarity. A deliberate attempt – There has to be intent to deceive. If we repeat a lie told to us by someone else does it still remain a lie? Incorrect information passed on is not a lie, unless the person passing that information on is aware that it is inaccurate. If you believe the information you are passing on, there is no intent to deceive.
Actor and magicians lie to us all the time. The actor pretends to be someone he or she is not. This is surely a lie. They know they are not the person they are portraying, and they are doing their best to make us believe they are. This is where consent comes in. The actor calls it “suspension of disbelief.” The very act of going to a play, watching a movie, or seeing a stage magician is implied consent to be deceived. The audience all know that Anthony Hopkins is not Hannibal Lecter but we accept him in that role.

What about little white lies.
“How are you today?”
“I’m fine, thanks”

We tell this type of lie all the time and there is always something of consent to be deceived about them. This question is a social lubricant allowing the smooth transition of a social interaction. If we translate that question and answer into what it really means:
“I am asking you how you are, but I don’t actually want to know, I am just engaging conversation or being polite to reinforce our interactions or move this conversation forward to the real subject.”
“I know you are being social and have no interest in my well being at the moment, so I will lie to you so we can move this conversation forward or accept that you are somebody that I will engage with socially at a later time.”

Two people just lied to each other and probably didn’t even consider that they were lies. But what would happen if you change the context. What if the question is being asked by a Psychiatrist and the respondent is a patient on suicide watch? There would be no implied consent for deception, indeed a failure to pick up on a lie in this case could detrimental to the well being of the patient.

Next time you are asked a question examine your response. Have you just told a lie, and what was the motive for doing so? Social lubrication, personal gain, avoiding punishment or to protect someone else?

In my area of expertise, it is not when someone lies, it is why?

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.

What are customer testimonials really saying?

Every day we are surrounded by advertisements.  Billboards, buses, radio and of course the internet and television.  Even watching a video on these days fires an advertisement at you.  How often have you seen those adverts that have a testimonial in them?

“I used ‘Product x” and within 2 weeks I was a millionaire with beautiful skin!”

We take them for granted, we may even occasionally pay attention, but what are they really saying.

We can listen to the words, but are they the real words of the customer, or are they scripts?  Are these really customers or are they actors?

We take a lot of things at face value, especially in advertising, and rarely pay attention to what is going on until we have made a decision that we are planning to buy.  But what if the advertisement is sending out the wrong message.

I have looked at a couple of ads this evening and had the briefest analysis of what is going on with the people providing the testimonial.  Some of them are really great ways of honing your skills at MFE detection.

Slips of disgust, anger, emblem slips, sadness.  All the signs are there in direct relation to the comments that are made.

I have posted one here for your view.

let me know what you think of the first couple and their statement.  Would you believe their testimony?  Does this give you a good impression of the company or a bad one.

I welcome your views, let me know what you see and think and I will post my views as a comment in a week.


It’s all in the code

An exiting week as I start my journey into the world of FACS (Facial Action Coding System).

A simple system for mapping what is happening on the face and some parts of the body with a series of alphanumeric identifiers.

It has been good to get back in touch with some old friends from my first days with Paul Ekman International and The Emotional Intelligence Academy, it has almost been like a reunion in a way and I think that has added to the whole excitement of the situation.

So what is FACS?

FACS is a way of demonstrating what is happening on the face by using a series of codes called an AU or Action Unit.  The idea being that you can demonstrate exactly what is happening on a face, without actually needing to see the face itself.  The system was developed by Paul Ekman, Wallace Friesen and Joseph Hager.  An AU itself does not define an emotion has appeared, simply that the use of a muscle or combination of muscles has produced a discernible difference on the face.  This is important to remember!  Many people think that the FACS system is a way of coding emotions, not true, though there are recognised combinations for certain facial displays associated with emotions.  Confused yet?

Think of this more like a map of what is going on in display only. A map of the local countryside is a map only and does not give you the reason for the fields and the hills. Think of FACS in the same way.  As you get deeper you can start to look at the emotional signals that we recognise and start applying a code to them.  A genuine smile uses the AU 6 and 12, and if it is a subtle or gentle smile may be coded as 6c+12c.  The letter following the number indicates the intensity of the action shown.

The cominations are varied and different and have very specific criteria for their measurement.  Not only this but one may impact on the display of another.

If it sounds complicated it is, while being essentially very simple at the same time.  The key is the understanding of how the various muscle groups work together and against each other in the facial displays that we see everyday.

It is considered to take over 100 hours of coding before you would be considered to be proficient at  measuring and mapping the criteria, and many thousands of hours before you could be considered expert.

The advantages of the system of those of us that deal with emotions is it gives us a far greater and finer insight into what actions are behind the facial displays we see.  The advantage is being able to spot the very subtle displays of emotion can be significantly increased.  Think also about squashed, masked, and even display rules.

The system is sound and has been used for many years, in the measurement of psychology patients and in these days significantly more for counter terrorism, advertising and even developing accurate facial displays for computer game characters.

There are many uses that FACS can be diverted into and certainly with the technology advances that are happening these days plans are in place to develop computer systems and programs that use elements of FACS to identify responses to advertisements.  Could we soon be looking at technology that reads what is going on with our face, understands that we are interested by what we see and continues to aim those adverts at us.

I can say with confidence that is being looked at, though at the moment processing power is an issue and the human brain is still far superior at coding.   The best computers are still taking weeks to code a face that takes an experience coder a few minutes.

I will certainly be using the new skills I am learning and expect to hear more on the subject in future.


I’m a real boy

Is there such a thing as a fool-proof tell that someone is lying?  The Holy Grail of deception detection.

Body Language, expressions, the use of language and even technology have been used to try to give us a hint at lies.  Sadly, to date, there is no Pinocchio’s nose.

If there was such a thing, imagine what our legal system would look like.  Certainly the time spent in courtrooms would be much reduced and police investigation would be a lot simpler.

When we are looking for deception all we can really is look for a sign that something is not quite right.  Paul Ekman calls these signs that something needs to be looked as a Hotspot.   But a hotspot itself is not a sign of a lie, all it tells us is that there is something outside of the normal operating practice of the person we are looking at.  Something has happened out of context, the emotion displayed does not match the words used, or perhaps the words used are distancing or out of context.  Think of someone yelling at you that they are not angry!  The words don’t match the voice pitch, tone and volume, and it is likely that the facial expression would also be angry.  You can be pretty sure they are angry.  As I have said these hotspots do not indicate a lie, only that something has happened that needs to be investigated further.

Consideration should always be given to “Why?”  It is very easy to jump to a conclusion or think about how you might have reacted in the same situation.  We really need to look at all the possibilities of why something happens before we make a statement.  Consider also that other people may react completely differently to the way you may react in a very similar situation.  Assuming a reason for a reaction based on your own personal experience would only be valid if we all exactly the same.   These are very hard habits to break.

When we jump to a conclusion we are at danger of coming to the wrong conclusion.  Paul Ekman describes this as The Othello Error.  Seeing the emotion but misinterpreting the reason for the emotion.  When Desdemona was challenged over her fidelity she became fearful and begged that Othello check her story with her supposed lover.  Othello announced that he had already murdered her alibi.  Desdemona’s fear increased.  Othello saw this fear and made an assumption that this was because she had been discovered and feared for her own life.  In reality she was in fear of being disbelieved and punished for something that she had not done.   Fear of discovery and fear of being disbelieved in the truth is still fear, and looks exactly the same.

Looking at all the possible alternatives for a hotspot is our only defence against making Othello’s error, and there may even be times were we can’t make a decision especially when you remember that it is unlikely you will ever be in full possession of all the facts.

If someone tells you that they have a fool-proof indicator of a lie, are they lying?

Isn’t it all a bit…

Isn’t just looking at body language a bit pointless?

I had a discussion over this with a friend a while ago.  We were discussing body language, micro-expressions, she asked “Don’t you think it is all a bit pointless, if you are spending so much time looking at the body language, how are you meant to do anything else?”

How right she is.  Not about it being pointless, but more about the effort of will that is required to focus on so many things happening at the same time.

When we are making an assessment of someone for credibility there are five channels of communication that we need to focus on.  Focussing on five very different areas for the minutia of information and then comparing that with the signals you are getting from the other four channels, it could give you a headache.  Making sure that the questions that you are asking are pertinent and then listening to the response while also thinking the next question up.  Is the response appropriately worded, at the right speed and pitch, is the language distancing?  At the same time what is the posture like, what are the emblems being shown and do the expressions match the details of what is being said?

But if we restrict ourself to just body language, as many practitioners do, we are missing a lot of information.  It would be like looking at a tapestry down a toilet roll tube.  You would only see a tiny part of the image and wouldn’t get the whole picture.

Assessing someone is like driving a car.  You have to control acceleration, gears, clutch, braking, monitoring the instruments, steer and keep an eye on everything that is going on outside the car.  When we first learn to drive, all of these things take a huge amount of concentration, but as we become a lot more accomplished, some things become second nature.  It can be the same with the assessment process.

Some people have an advantage where they have a natural talent, just like some formula one drivers have a natural ability in driving in comparison to your average road driver.

There are ways that you can make this easier on yourself.  Work in pairs or teams with one person asking the questions and listening to the answers, and the other person focussing on the non-verbal elements.

But remember,  before all you must try to establish a base line – the normal operating level of the person.  Without the baseline it makes it difficult to spot the deviations from normal that give us something to focus on.  Baseline does not just happen, and should have some time devoted to it.  Establishing normal operating levels but also what a genuine emotional response looks like.  Take your time and become familiar with normal.

This is something that is nearly always missing in job interviews.  A couple of minutes chatting about inconsequential things can make a huge amount of difference in finding out what is really going on with someone.


‘Tis much proved, that with devotion’s visage and pious action, we do sugar o’er the Devil himself.

We are all capable of deceit and of lying,  that is without question, but the reason for the lie could be just as important as the lie itself, especially when it comes to discovering the lie.   Dr. Ekman states that most people lie when there is something to be gained.  That could be financial gain, to prevent punishment, to protect others or even as social lubricants to allow social occasions to be more fluid.

Deceit that is for the protection of others will often be associated with feelings of guilt at the deceit being carried out, but there will be little of shame.  Shame would be apparent when we think of how others view our actions.  But what about when we deceive for personal gain?  The confidence trickster against the mark?

We have a number of issues when we are trying to pin down the deceiver.  When you are looking at personal gain by someone practised at deceiving for gain, very little guilt may be apparent.  They have been able to squash all sign of the subtle sadness from their face, or they have internally justified what they have done so that guilt is no longer felt.  If the possible gains out-weigh the guilt associated with the action in the mind of the deceiver guilt is less likely to show.  Guilt outweighing the gains and it is likely that the act would not have been done at all.  The sweet spot is when guilt and gain are very close to balanced.  The inner turmoil that will keep resurfacing is likely to become quite clear.

Confidence tricksters have usually become very good at what they do.  Think of the professional poker player, they are themselves in a way a confidence trickster.  They bluff and deceive to try to cause you into giving up the game.  Practice makes perfect, and in the case of confidence tricksters of all types this is true.  As they become more successful at what they do, then their risk of discovery starts to decline.  Risk is, as Dr. Ekman says, one of the biggest factors in being able to detect deceptive behaviour.

There are flaws in practised deception though, and one of those is the inability to account for all possible outcomes.  Throw in something unexpected.   Suddenly cognitive load has to increase as they go through the mental gymnastics of trying to work their way around the complication.  As soon as the brain is engaged the emotions can slip out.  Interviewing and interrogation uses some of these techniques to constantly keep the target of the questioning from settling in a comfort zone.  There are elements of the words used and the story told that can also give away signs of the story being constructed as opposed to being remembered, but that deserves a post of its own, or possible a number of posts.

The things to remember about constructed lies is they tend to follow a linear pattern.  They have a start, a middle and an end.  They follow a chronological telling because that is how they were constructed.  This is one of the reasons that random questioning can sometimes be successful. It removes the opportunity for linear stories.   Changing you questions to different parts of the story can be very useful.  This was shown to a degree in the show “Lie to Me”, when a suspect was asked to reconstruct events in reverse order.   Pick something from the middle of the story and ask them what happened before that.

There is an old adage that states “to be a good liar you must have a good memory”.  This is certainly true.  I would also say you have to be able to think laterally too.

People’s success at lying is not just dependent on the quality of the lie and the liar, but also the bias of the target of the lie.  Human nature means that most of us tend to have a truth bias, this is strengthened with people we respect and know.  There are certain professions of course that require a different bias, such as criminal investigators.   We don’t like to think that we have been lied to and sometimes this can be one of the biggest issues.  In a relationship it is usually the deceived partner who is last to know of the deceit; not because the signs weren’t there, but because they have been subconsciously ignored.  We are self deceivers, we lie to ourselves all the time and indeed each other.  Those social lubricants. “How are you?” “oh, I am fine!”

A lie is organic.  It grows and develops and eventually, without care, it can get out of control.  Lies are like scaffolding.  They rely on the strength of the other lies around them, and like chains, they are only as good as the weakest link.

Now how are you going to act? The Interview.

One of the most common questions that anyone in non-verbal communications gets asked is “How should I act at an interview?”

My response is usually that you shouldn’t be acting at all.  Though I appreciate this is not what they were really getting at.  Though it is something that is worth bearing in mind.

When you go for an interview you would expect that the person interviewing you would be honest with you, answer your questions truthfully and give you a real understanding of what the new job role would be about “warts and all”.  Would it not be fair to extend them the same courtesy?  When someone is looking for a person to fill a role they need to make sure they are getting the right person for the job.  If someone decided to fib on their application or at interview, you would not have been honest with your prospect employer, but most certainly you would not have been honest with yourself.  You may even end up accepted into a role that you are just not suited for and out of your depth.

It is obvious that the real question should be, “How do I give the best impression of myself at interview?”   That is a different story.  Here are some hints and tips, by no means an exhaustive list but food for thought.

  • Everyone gets nervous at an interview.  When there is a risk involved anxiety is heightened, and in applying for a job you have a risk element to it.  Fail to impress and you will go away with out the job, you will have missed out on a chance at personal gain.  Try and look at thinks objectively.  If you are not successful at interview you are in no worse position that you are at the moment.  I am not suggesting you are completely blasé about things but accept things for what they are don’t focus on the ifs and buts.
  • Offer you hand to the interviewer on first meeting them and greet them by name if at all possible.  Make sure you have had an opportunity to dry your hands before meeting.  Sweaty palms are not pleasant and watching someone rub their hands on their clothes to dry them is a sure give away of nerves.
  • Wait until you are invited to sit before doing so.  Sit with a good posture, but not too rigid and face the interviewer directly.  Turning to the side is a defensive posture and can make you seem closed.  If you are feeling nervous you can subtly adjust your posture to the side, this should help you feel more comfortable but take care not to over-extend this.
  • Try not to fidget.  This makes you look very nervous or like a five-year old in need of the toilet.  Focus on your body in a way that does not detract from what you are doing in the interview.   Fold your hands loosely with your fingers laced together in your lap with your thumbs pressed together.  This is a good neutral posture and should give you a focus, it will also reduce the chance of excessive manipulators being shown.  Be warned though, leaning forward and putting your hands on the desk is a territorial display.
  • Regulate your breathing.  When we are emotionally aroused our respiration rate tends to increase.  This can become very obvious when you are speaking, making your conversation stilted and even slightly asthmatic.  If you are prone to this behaviour, pause and take a slow breath before starting to speak.  Take care not to over emphasise this pause though.  I saw a very bad example of this behaviour during the recent interviews with a certain Media Mogul.  Over extend the pauses and you come off as either disinterested or clueless.
  • Taking a more relaxed posture can help reduce some of the tension, this is fine to do as the interview progresses, but remember to stay attentive.   Being upright and rigid can come across as very tense.  If the chair has arms lean one elbow on the arm and drop the shoulder slightly.  This will give you a much more relaxed look and will also make you feel more relaxed with it.
  • Don’t be afraid of using illustrators, but don’t fabricate them.  Remember a genuine illustrator has a tempo that matches the speech and underlines or emphasises phrases in the speech.   Let them flow naturally but don’t let them get out of control.

Remember, most interviewers will be expecting you to be nervous anyway, so a little trepidation is fine, as long as you are not a gibbering pile of nerves and sinew.  Also consider that these are very general guidelines and should be suitable for most situations.  However, a sales role may expect you to be far more aggressive in your attitude and posture, and confident in your delivery.

Also consider that even if you don’t get past this interview it is a chance to learn and practice, and always thank your interviewer for their time and part with a handshake.


With a curl of the lip, he is not Elvis

“Contempt is the weapon of the weak and a defence against one’s own despised and unwanted feelings.” – Alice Miller.

We are all capable of it.  We see a quality in someone who we don’t like or find immoral or substandard and we start the climb to the moral high ground.

Human beings are naturally a social creature and as such we have a certain established social hierarchy.  This has been much convoluted over the years, mainly through the development of our higher brain processes, established deferential protocols in business and so forth.  you have to love that neo-cortex.  However, we are still at the mercy of our limbic brain when it comes to some of our daily interactions.  Contempt is one of the most unusual of the seven base emotions for two reasons.  Firstly, it is the only unilateral expression in that it only happens on one side of the face.  Secondly, it requires a moral comparative to take place.  The other six base emotions do not have to have a second individual involved.  You can be happy, angry or sad, even disgusted without another person being involved.  Contempt requires direct interaction with another individual.  It comes by the assessment of that individual and their actions in direct comparison to how we would behave in the same situation, or as a direct result of a previous interaction.  Contempt is filled with self-identity.  It requires an element of higher brain function but is still shown at the Micro-facial expression level showing that it can still appear on the face before the cognitive mind has a chance to get in the way.

As mentioned contempt is the only unilateral universal expression.  There doesn’t seem to be any definitive study on which side of the face it tends to appear on, but I have noticed (not scientifically measured) that right-handed people tend to show contempt on the left side of the face and vice-versa.  Perhaps others would like to confirm or deny this observation.

Contempt is shown by a tightening of the cheek muscle, pulling the lips up and outwards, almost a half-smile, though there is no involvement with the muscles around the eye.  Sometimes, though not always, the head will tip backwards slightly giving the appearance of  “looking down the nose”.

Let me point out at this time, that Elvis was not showing contempt in his lip curl, though that lip is almost the further extension of the contempt expression into the sneer.  A demonstration that is almost a contempt/disgust blend.  Sometimes the contempt comes with dismissive emblems, the flick of the hand, the closed shoulder and a prolonged blink when using dismissive language.

Contempt is not a pleasant emotion to be on the receiving end of.  It is degrading, it makes you feel worthless.  In a working relationship if a staff member demonstrates contempt for a superior, that working relationship is likely to be unrecoverable.  This can be said also for a customer to a supplier.

As the quote from Alice at the head of this post says; you often see contempt being raised when someone sees something they don’t like about themselves in another person.

Contempt can easily lead to disgust and anger, and that itself leads to a whole heap of problems of its own.

Roll up – Roll up!

“There is something that you are not telling me”

How can you tell if there is something more that someone wants to add, but for some reason they are “holding their tongue”.  There are various ways and these can change depending on cultural background. But I am going to look at a couple of the more common ones.

A fair description of what goes on is what I have already said, holding your tongue.  When you are looking for clues to deception it is not always about telling a direct lie, sometimes deception can be accomplished by omission of information.  This can often be more difficult to spot.

Holding the tongue between the teeth is a signal that someone is trying to resist the temptation to say something, just as is the cheek bite.  Remember though, you may not be sure what the information being held back is.  It may not be a lie as such, there may be no intention of deceit.  They may be holding back on something they feel personally embarrassed or ashamed about.  We must also consider baseline.  This may be a normal operating procedure for them. Maybe they have a sore tongue, maybe they have dry lips.  Only by knowing what is usual, can you see what is unusual.

The other holding sign is the lip roll.  Rolling the lips inwards between the teeth or pressing the lips together so that the darker lip area disappears.  This is a really good indicator that someone is trying to hold back on saying something.  Consider other factors along side.  Nothing happens in isolation, you will need to look at the other signs at the same time.   Rolling the lips with a lowered brown and raised lower eyelid is closer to a sign of anger.  You can almost guarantee that someone is holding in their anger.

You have to consider many options when people don’t want to tell you something.  Don’t assume that there is a vindictive or deceptive reason for doing so.  Perhaps they are considering the impact of what they might say and sparing the feelings of those around them.

To make an assumption on what you see is inviting error.  Dr. Ekman called this the Othello Error.  Making an assumption that what you see means something specific rather than looking at the alternative possibilities.