Think you can spot a liar? Think again. (Photo: Getty Images)
Too bad every liar isn’t Pinocchio, with a tell-all nose. But do our faces give ourselves away in more subtle ways? The answer is often yes — though the science of exactly how is surprisingly complex.
For many people, lying is stressful — so you might think that that stress would reveal itself blatantly via body language. But supposedly obvious “giveaways” aren’t reliable indicators of dishonesty, experts say. Unease could have many causes.
That’s not to say having a strange feeling about the way someone is acting doesn’t mean something. If someone’s body language is making your gut shout “liar,” investigate further. After all, research suggests that intuitions about lying may be more accurate than conscious judgment. In one study, participants watched videos of “suspects” in a mock-crime interview, some of whom were lying. They were able to pick out the liars only 43 percent of the time, less than by chance. In a separate test of unconscious associations, however, they were more likely to link the liars to words like “untruthful” and “dishonest.”
Think you can spot a liar? Here are five supposed “tells” that aren’t as foolproof as you may think.
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It’s the classic sign of discomfort. However, “liars generally don’t appear to be more fidgety,” says Bella DePaulo, a social psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who co-authored a large meta-analysis of studies of lying. In fact, “some truthful people who know they’re under suspicion will fidget,” points out world-renowned lying expert Paul Ekman, author of Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life.
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Lying can require more concentration than usual. Some research suggests that people blink less when they’re thinking harder — for example, when they’re recalling an eight-digit number, compared to one with four digits. In experiments in which some people were instructed to lie and others weren’t, the liars blinked less. But … it depends why you’re lying and how you feel. Anxiety can cause more blinking, says DePaulo, especially if “people were lying about a transgression.”
Dilated pupils are another indication of tension and concentration. This can show up both when liars are thinking hard and when they’re feeling anxious. However, even with an odd sign like this, you can also get “false-positives,” since people can be highly anxious and overthinking the details even when they’re innocent.
DePaulo found that liars avoid eye contact when they’re highly motivated not to be caught. Let’s say you’re questioning your S.O. about something, and he locks eyes with you during his denial. He could still be lying, but he isn’t anxious about it — maybe because he knows you don’t have hard evidence about his wrongdoing.
Differences in the Way a Person Acts
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“She just seems different. I know my girlfriend/wife/sister/mother, and that’s not the way she acts.” We think that because we know intimately how someone usually sounds and moves, we’ll notice tell-tale differences when he or she is lying. Alas, that’s not so — just the opposite. “When we become friends, lovers, or parents, we become blind,” Ekman says. In Behind the Door of Deceit, DePaulo describes research showing that sometimes a perfect stranger can beat romantic partners at detecting each other’s lies
So if these supposed “tells” aren’t really tells at all, how can you catch a liar?
Ekman argues that the key is to catch subtle, fleeting, or tiny micro-expressions — expressions that come and go on people’s faces so quickly you normally wouldn’t notice them, unless you knew to look for them. Ekman zeroed in on these most-minute expressions while he was devising a coding system for facial muscle movements (part of his research in developing a complete list of facial expressions). Examining videotapes, he caught movements that lasted as short as a 20th of a second. These quick, usually unnoticed expressions, he says, tend to reveal emotions that we want to conceal.
Ekman gives the example of the wife of a murder victim. As the police interrogate her, she might be earnestly cooperative, but flash a micro-expression of anger at a particular question. Is she angry because the question is exposing a lie? Let’s say she smiles ever-so-briefly for no obvious reason. Is she smiling with triumph?
On the other hand, her attempt to conceal her emotion may be normal social behavior. She could be angry at the police because she wants privacy. She might be smiling at a happy memory she shared with her husband before he died.
Independent research has backed up Ekman’s theory, though it remains controversial. One study found that when videotaped participants looked at emotionally provocative photos, nearly 22 per cent made micro-expressions, but not more often when they were lying. In a 2012 paper, the same researchers analyzed videotapes of people pleading to the public to find a missing relative. Half of the pleaders were later convicted of murdering the missing person — and fleeting (not necessarily micro) facial expressions did show signs that they were lying.
It is possible to learn how to recognize and detect these signs in real time — Ekman says you can master the skill after four days of training, and offers instructional videos to do so. He cautions against relying on intuitions that someone is lying, since we’re all prey to our assumptions and prejudices. Sharpen your eye instead: Although you may not become Sherlock Holmes, training could help you see more, especially subtle expressions, which are brief but not micros. Lifted eyebrows, for example, show surprise. If just the inner corner of an eyebrow goes up, you may be seeing an early stage of sadness.