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Published: Monday August 8, 2016

The real truth about lying

Human beings by nature are voyeuristic and are attracted to things that appear exciting and “sexy”. Our brains are hardwired to enjoy new experiences. This explains why a new car for instance is exciting in the beginning.Functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) research has shown that when we process new stimuli our brain releases dopamine which gives our system a quick hit of pleasure.

There was a lot of dopamine being released on January 21st 2009 the day behavioural science became exciting and sexy. This was the day the USA was introduced through the medium of TV to Dr. Carl Lighterman and his associates at the Lighterman Group. Lighterman (Played by Tim Roth) who was based loosely (Very loosely) on the psychologist Dr Paul Ekman consults with local and federal law enforcement and assist in investigations. He does this by utilising tools such as the Facial Action Coding System which by “coincidence” Ekman’s company The Paul Ekman Group (PEG) happened to be marketing at the time! I personally find it hard now not to look back on the series as being nothing more than a weekly hour long commercial for Ekmans business.

However the impact of “Lie to me” was immense and led to an immediate mushrooming of web based self proclaimed deception detection experts all too keen to offer comment on the behaviours of the rich, famous and infamous. Whilst some of these individuals had and still have credence many others were nothing more than opportunists with dubious credentials jumping on a bandwagon as it rolled on through.

Nothing wrong with that you may say thats how business trends work. Well yes, but actually there is a very dark side to this particular bandwagon as it created the impression that lie detection was easy and anyone who had seen all of series one of the programme were suddenly themselves experts. Whilst there is no doubt that Paul Ekman is an acknowledged expert in facial expression coding and a serious academic his company rode the wave and links with the programme even though its presentation of the role of micro-expressions to assist in identifying the truth from lies was somewhat over egged.

So what is the real truth? Well there is one thing for certain there is no one undeniable action or behaviour that shouts out “Liar,liar pants on fire”.

To get a less sensationalist view of the subject one needs to look towards individuals who have proven credentials and this brings me firstly to Dan Ariely Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics and  the founder of The Center for Advanced Hindsight. Ariely wrote an article for the Association for Psychological Science in July 2016 entitled “The truth about lying” which offers a well formed explanation of how and why we lie;

“The prevalent theory of dishonesty from a legal perspective is the idea of cost–benefit analysis. It says that when people think about being dishonest, they think about ‘What can I gain? What can I lose?’ and figure out if this is a worthwhile act of dishonesty. If there’s a big cost, we’re not going to be dishonest.”

However Airely points out that this actually maybe an overly simplistic view of the rationale for lies and deceit.

“When you look at crimes, in a lot of the cases, it’s about the slippery slope,you say to yourself, ‘I can’t imagine being a drug dealer.’ But what is the difference between people who commit crimes and those who don’t? Is it just missed opportunity? We find that it’s all about the ability to rationalize dishonesty.”

This highlights an interesting proposition the concept of rationalisation and may explain why some of us are more accomplished at lying than others. Rationalisation is a mental exercise in which we create a false version of the facts to suit our own purposes – we in fact rewrite the truth. It follows therefore that in undertaking this process we are creating a new false truth. In fact it may be that the false truth could become a true truth and that the so called  nonverbal cues to deception bandied about will not be present as to all intents and purposes the person is telling the truth.

So how to we identify if the truth is in fact “true truth” ? Aldert Vrij is a professor of applied social psychology at Portsmouth University.and an acknowledged expert in the field of nonverbal and verbal cues to deception.

Vrij promotes the position that nonverbal “Shows” of deceit are “typically faint and unreliable” and it is in fact words that are more reliable. By employing “Triggers” within a controlled environment like a police interview he proposes an approach based on cognitive load can be effective. This approach works on the premise that recounting the truth requires little mental effort.  Lairs however win response to probing questions are required to reconstruct their story. This increases the cognitive load sometimes to the extent that cognitive overload occurs and the amygdala hijack our bodies natural defence system kicks in. Under such circumstances the ability to control all of the visual and audible signals we transmit decreases.

“We argue that this affects liars more than truth tellers, resulting in more, and more blatant, cues to deceit. The strategic-questioning approach examines different ways of questioning that elicit the most differential responses between truth tellers and liars”.  Vrij,Mann,Leal,Granhag : Outsmarting the liars- towards a cognitive lie detection approach  Current Directions in Psychological Science 20(1):28-32 · February 2011                                                      

Vrij proposes simple techniques like having the individual tell their story in reverse or disrupting the linear nature of how we construct an untrue story by asking questions out of order and context will heighten the cognitive load.

Certainly my experience and perspective is that in general we, as human beings, are not naturally gifted at spotting the cues to deception and to some extent our ability has decreased due to exposure to generalistic and in some instances just plain wrong myths propagated via the internet. However with appropriate training and in the right circumstances our ability to identify anxiety and defensiveness can be increased. The holy grail which as yet has not been, and may never be, attained of having a fail proof method of detecting lies is just an aspiration.

Bob Pointer is the founder and director of learning development at the Centre for Investigative Learning

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