Terry Pratchett stated in his book ‘The Truth’, “A lie can get around the world before the truth has its boots on!”
From our earliest years, right from the moment we start to communicate (from as young as 6 months old it is believed) we develop the ability to deceive. There are so many reasons to lie: to protect ourselves, to protect others, for some personal gain or to spare someone’s feelings. But is there ever a reason that a lie could be justified? Could the motives for the lie excuse the lie itself? And can we always be sure someone is telling the truth?
Firstly, let us remember one of the key tenets of the lie catcher: There is no single indicator for a lie. What you do get are hints and pointers that something might not be quite right, what Dr Ekman calls ‘hotspots’. Individually these do not indicate a lie, merely that there is something happening that justifies a further investigation. When you put these hotspots together you get a clearer picture that something is leaking out that they may be trying to keep hidden. Again this may not be a lie, just something they don’t specifically want you to know.
Lies contain thoughts and feelings, but in order to make a lie work a lot of thought needs to take place. This extra work is often called cognitive load; when your mind is heavily focussed on thinking, feeling starts to show through, and the feelings shown may not match the story being told. This is emotional leakage. The more consequential the lie, the more likely you are to leak information.
Paul Ekman tried a number of experiments around lying and detecting lies. How people lie and looking for that holy grail of a sign of lying. Needless to say he didn’t find his single indicator, but did find some other interesting facts. His experiments initially were flawed, he realised quickly that people being asked to tell a lie in a lab setting had no consequence to their lie and as such were more difficult to detect.
When a lie has no consequence to it or a risk in its discovery, the emotional load is reduced. The makes is much harder to spot. The risk could be personal such as a loss of liberty or freedom, a risk to health or even personal gain. If a lie doesn’t matter it may not show unless someone’s own personal moral compass is set in such a way that lies are considered taboo.
In order to increase the tension in the situation Dr. Ekman added some factors to the test. He offered financial reward if they could successfully get a lie past him. He left his students in a room with an envelope that contained a sum of money. He told them that they could take the money or leave it. If they took the money they would have to convince him that they hadn’t. If they were successful they would get to keep the cash. Secondly he also told them at the start of their interview that he would be able to tell when they were lying and he has never failed. He had just increased the apprehension about being caught and there was a financial risk in place. Suddenly the emotional leakage increased and the lies became significantly more obvious.
To detect a lie you increase the chances when there is some risk to the liar.
People also find it more difficult to lie convincingly if they have an emotional connection to the subject of the lie. Dr. Ekman further emphasised this with another experiment with another study group. The group was told to describe a pleasant scene that they saw on a film. Half of the group were shown a film of flowers and gardens and asked to describe what they saw. The second group was shown a film of a rather involved surgical procedure but were still asked to describe a scene of flowers and gardens.
In the experiment nearly all the people asked to lie were spotted. They all leaked a very fast, subtle expression of disgust despite their more over demeanour of happiness.
We know that someone who feels no emotional connection to the subject and fears no consequence of being discovered is more likely to escape their lie being discovered. This is also one of the failings of the lie detector test or as it is more properly known the Polygraph. Lie detector itself is a misnomer as it does not detect lies. What it does measure are changes in the Autonomous Nervous System. Heart rate, body temperature, respiration and perspiration. All of these are signs of Emotional Arousal, not lies. Fear of being discovered and fear of being disbelieved look exactly the same. Excitement and fear look very similar to the polygraph. The advantage of the human over any machine so far created is we can determine the emotion being felt and probe appropriately.
Some people say that the eyes are a good sign of a liar, that they will avert their eyes from you while they are lying. Others maintain that a liar is more likely to hold your gaze to see if a lie has been believed. At the moment there have been no confirmed studies that prove one way or the other, regardless of what the body language books tell you.
There are also other theories that rubbing the nose is a sign of a lie. Again not strictly true. The nose contains erectile tissue that expands when extra blood flows to it. This happens during moment of emotional arousal causing it to tingle. The key here is emotional arousal not lie. and you need to understand what emotions are causing this any why.
A lot of body language books put great store in illustrators and manipulators. Illustrators are the visual punctuations to verbal statements. The visual way of exclaiming and underlining. Think back to the film footage of Adolf Hitler’s speeches. He used a lot of illustrators. When speaking from memory or something you passionately believe in illustrators tend to be visible. When cognitive load increased illustrators tend to decrease. Again not necessarily a sign of a lie, just that a lot of though it going on.
Manipulators are the comforting gestures. Many exponents of body language cite these as reliable signs that someone is uncomfortable. Yes they do appear more with discomfort; however, they are very easily controlled and suspended. They can be reduced with very little effort.
A lie can sometimes be very difficult to spot because as Sir Terry said, it can get around the world before it has its boots on. Detecting a lie can take time and patience compounded by the fact that most of us are biased to accept what we are told as truth.