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?