Share via Email Over the years, I have tried to unravel the truth about deception - investigating the telltale signs that give away a liar. There are some pointers to the evolutionary origins of deceit. A few years ago, animal researcher Maxine Morris observed some rather curious behaviour among a group of Asian elephants at Washington Park Zoo.
At feeding time, each elephant was given a big bundle of hay. Morris noticed that a couple of the elephants tended to eat their own hay quickly, sidle up to their slower-eating companions, and then start swinging their trunks from side to side in a seemingly aimless way. Morris's repeated observations suggested that this apparently innocent behaviour masked a duplicitous intent. Once the trunk-swinging elephants were sufficiently close to another elephant, they would grab some of the uneaten hay, and quickly gobble it up.
Was this intentional deception? The only way to know for certain would be to discover what was going on inside an elephant's head - something some researchers believe has been achieved, not with elephants but with gorillas. In the s, as part of a large-scale research programme exploring interspecies communication, Dr Francine Patterson from Stanford University attempted to teach two lowland gorillas called Michael and Koko a simplified version of American Sign Language.
According to Patterson, the great apes were capable of holding meaningful conversations, and could even reflect upon profound topics, such as love and death. Their trainers believe they uncovered instances where the two gorillas were economical with the truth. In one example, Koko broke a toy cat, and then signed to indicate that the breakage had been caused by one of her trainers.
In another episode, Michael ripped a jacket belonging to a trainer and, when asked who was responsible for the incident, signed "Koko". When the trainer expressed some scepticism, Michael appeared to change his mind, and indicated that Dr Patterson was actually to blame, before finally confessing. If the elephants might be given the benefit of the doubt, the apes' linguistic skills seem to provide compelling evidence of intentional deceit.
Other researchers have explored the development of deception in children. Some of the most interesting experiments have involved asking youngsters not to take a peek at their favourite toys. During these studies, a child is led into a laboratory and asked to face one of the walls. The experimenter then explains that he is going to set up an elaborate toy a few feet behind them. After setting up the toy, the experimenter says that he has to leave the laboratory, and asks the child not to turn around and peek at the toy.
The child is secretly filmed by hidden cameras for a few minutes, and then the experimenter returns and asks them whether they peeked. Almost all three-year-olds do, and then half of them lie about it to the experimenter. By the time the children have reached the age of five, all of them peek and all of them lie. The results provide compelling evidence that lying starts to emerge the moment we learn to speak.
Perhaps surprisingly, when adults are shown films of their children denying that they peeked at the toy, they are unable to detect whether their offspring are lying or telling the truth. A few years ago I carried out a national survey into lying, focusing on adults. Other work has invited people to keep a detailed diary of every conversation that they have, and of all of the lies that they tell, over a two-week period. Are you a good liar? Most people think that they are, but in reality there are big differences in how well we can pull the wool over the eyes of others.
There is a very simple test that can help determine your ability to lie. Using the first finger of your dominant hand, draw a capital letter Q on your forehead. Some people draw the letter Q in such a way that they themselves can read it.
That is, they place the tail of the Q on the right-hand side of their forehead. Other people draw the letter in a way that can be read by someone facing them, with the tail of the Q on the left side of their forehead. This quick test provides a rough measure of a concept known as "self-monitoring". High self-monitors tend to draw the letter Q in a way in which it could be seen by someone facing them. Low self-monitors tend to draw the letter Q in a way in which it could be read by themselves.
High self-monitors tend to be concerned with how other people see them. They are happy being the centre of attention, can easily adapt their behaviour to suit the situation in which they find themselves, and are skilled at manipulating the way in which others see them. As a result, they tend to be good at lying. In contrast, low self-monitors come across as being the "same person" in different situations. Their behaviour is guided more by their inner feelings and values, and they are less aware of their impact on those around them.
They also tend to lie less in life, and so not be so skilled at deceit. What are the telltale signs that give away a lie? Is it possible to teach people to become better lie detectors? I devised a large-scale experiment to be conducted live on the BBC science programme Tomorrow's World. Originally I suggested we ask several politicians to lie or tell the truth on the show, and have the public try to identify the lies. Politicians were unwilling to participate, allegedly because they were terrible liars none of us believed them.
We looked for a prestigious alternative, and invited the television political interviewer Sir Robin Day to be our guinea pig. The design of the experiment was simple. I would interview Sir Robin twice and in each interview ask him to describe his favourite film.
In one interview he would say nothing but the truth, and in the other he would produce a pack of lies. We would then show both interviews on television, and invite the public to telephone in their verdicts.
As he sat down in front of the camera, Day seemed slightly nervous that he was about to receive questions rather than ask them. In the first interview, he plumped for an epic drama: Great characters; great film star - Clark Gable; a great actress - Vivien Leigh. I think that it was in There are all sorts of bits in it which I love. And I like them more each time that I see it. We received more than 30, calls from viewers: His reply was short and to the point: It's the most crashing bore.
Psychologists have been exploring this question for 30 years. The research has studied the lying behaviour of salespeople, shoppers, students, drug addicts and criminals. Some of my own work in this area has involved showing people video tapes of instances in which people have made high-profile public appeals for information about a murder, only later to confess and be convicted of the crime themselves.
The results have been remarkably consistent - when it comes to lie detection, the public might as well simply toss a coin. It doesn't matter if you are male or female, young or old; very few people are able reliably to detect deception. The results suggest that we can't even tell when our partners are being economical with the truth.
We're in good company. Psychologist Paul Ekman from the University of California, San Francisco, showed video tapes of liars and truth-tellers to various groups of experts, including polygraph operators, robbery investigators, judges and psychiatrists, and asked them to try to identify the lies. All tried their best. None of the groups performed better than chance. So why are people so bad at detecting deceit?
He has conducted surveys into the sorts of behaviour people associate with lying. He surveyed thousands of people from more than 60 countries, asking them to describe how they set about telling whether someone is lying. People's answers are remarkably consistent.
From Algeria to Argentina, Germany to Ghana, Pakistan to Paraguay, almost everyone thinks liars tend to avert their gaze, nervously wave their hands around and shift about in their seats. There is, however, one small problem. Researchers have spent hour upon hour carefully comparing films of liars and truth-tellers. On each showing, the observers look out for a particular behaviour, such as a smile, blink or hand movement.
The results are clear. Liars are just as likely as truth-tellers to look you in the eye, they don't move their hands around nervously and they don't shift about in their seats if anything, they are a little more static than truth-tellers. People fail to detect lies because they are basing their opinions on behaviours that are not actually associated with deception. So what are the signals that really give away a liar? It is obvious that the more information you give away, the greater the chances of some of it coming back to haunt you.
As a result, liars tend to say less and provide fewer details than truth-tellers. Look back at the transcripts of the interviews with Sir Robin.
Liars often try psychologically to distance themselves from their falsehoods, and so tend to include fewer references to themselves in their stories. Again, Sir Robin's testimony provides a striking illustration of the effect. When he lies, Sir Robin uses the word "I" just twice, whereas when he tells the truth his account contains seven "I"s.
In his entire interview about Gone With The Wind, Sir Robin only once mentions how the film makes him feel "very moving" , compared with the several references to his feelings when he talks about Some Like It Hot "it gets funnier every time I see it", "all sorts of bits I love", "[Curtis is] so pretty The simple fact is that the real clues to deceit are in the words that people use, not the body language.
So do people become better lie detectors when they listen to a liar, or even just read a transcript of their comments? Are there no signs of deception that can be detected in people's body language and facial expressions? Take one of the most common, and frequently faked, forms of non-verbal behaviour - the human smile. We all smile, but few of us have any insight into the complex psychology underlying this seemingly simple behaviour.
Do you smile because you are happy, or to let other people know that you are happy? To help settle the issue, Professors Robert Kraut and Robert Johnston from Cornell University decided to compare the amount people smiled when they were happy but alone, with when they were equally happy but with others.