Have we been lying to you?

POSTED 14 OCT 2004

Why Files



Treating pedophilia

Terrorist psychology

The federales (mainly CIA agents) ranked highest in a test of the ability to detect lies. Sheriffs and clinical psychologists who had an interest in detecting lies did pretty well.

Data from "A Few..." (see bibliography).

Have any -- gasp -- politicians been lying to you? Would you even know it?

man holds men reads machine printout Probably not -- most people do no better than chance when challenged to detect a liar. But a few elite folks do far better. Maureen O'Sullivan, a professor of psychology at the University of San Francisco, tested 13,000 people and found 31 "wizards, who are usually able to tell whether the person is lying." There's a sucker born every minute. -P.T. BarnumO'Sullivan spoke Oct. 14, 2004, at a science reporters conference held by the American Medical Association in Washington D.C.

O'Sullivan says she's long been interested in "social-emotional intelligence.... Understanding emotion is not enough. Some people can be very sensitive to emotions, but won't know what to make of them." In other words, just because you have a gut reaction, "you may not have a good sense of the other person."

In a typical O'Sullivan experiment, a subject watches a one-minute videotape of an actor who may or may not be lying. To raise the stakes and increase realism, the actors are rewarded for lies that go undetected. (In the real world, people lie because they expect to benefit, and the payoff increases the emotional stakes for the liar). The different lies concern emotions, thefts or opinions. The subject must give their verdicts within 10 seconds after the tape ends.

Descartes: I believe, therefore I am (a sucker).

Fooling some of the people...
Dr. Dave's Truth Serum (bottle of old-time medicine)How do they do it? Initially, the wizards commonly credit a "gut reaction" for giving away the lie, but they are often able to pinpoint some of the revealing actions when reviewing the tape, O'Sullivan said. "When I debrief them, and they watch the video over again, they will think aloud, and a lot of them are picking up clues" that we, the suckers of the world, miss.

Many of the clues become obvious once highlighted. One wizard watched a tape showing a lie about a theft of $50 and noticed that the actor's voice dropped while pronouncing "money." In other cases, the human lie-detectors "notice something weird, a facial tick, a micro [quick and subtle] expression of emotion," and conclude that "this kind of person, making this kind of expression, in this kind of circumstance," is probably lying.

To be a reliable lie detector, O'Sullivan contends, you need many tools. "There are no clues that always mean someone is lying. It will vary from person to person. It's just my observation, but wizards have different clues for different people, and for different kinds of lies."

So what of we, the gullible masses? We are suckers, plain and simple. "Normal people have a few things they depend on, and use them over and over."

And they don't work very well for us...

Abraham Lincoln: You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.

All of the time
So who is good at detecting lies? In 1999, O'Sullivan, Paul Ekman, professor emeritus of psychology, at the University of California, San Francisco, and Mark Frank of Rutgers described how well various professions detected lies, and found the greatest accuracy among federal officers, including many from the Company, and then sheriffs who were highly regarded as interrogators by their peers.

It makes sense. Some people, O'Sullivan says, "especially the cops, develop it because they wanted consciously to find out if someone is lying." But some wizards came from unrelated fields. For example, an artist wanted to improve her art by understanding people's emotions, and an attorney needed to know who was lying at arbitration hearings. "Wizards develop the talents, often in midlife, needed to be a success," O'Sullivan said.

graph shows longer bars (higher accuracy) for federal officers--80% Lower for law-enforcmnt officers--50%

Those talents also had roots in broad life experiences, she adds. "They may be a corporate attorney or an artist now, but maybe worked in coal mines in Appalachia or as a tugboat captain. They have experienced many kinds of people, and are very motivated to understand them." About a third of the wizards had difficult childhoods, with alcoholic or unstable parents. "They developed a sensitivity to emotions, they had to sort out which ones were likely to get them into trouble, and which were not."

Why Files: If you believe this article, we got a bridge to sell you!

If you're feeling down, just remember this: God must love us, the gullible masses. Otherwise, why would there be so many of us?

-- David Tenenbaum

A Few Can Catch a Liar, Paul Ekman, Maureen O'Sullivan and Mark Frank, Psychological Science, May, 1999.

Emotional Intelligence and Detecting Deception: Why Most People Can't Read Others, but a Few Can, Maureen O'Sullivan, in Riggio, R. and Feldman, R. (Eds.) Applications of Nonverbal Communication, Mahway, NJ: Erlbaum, in press.

The Wizards of Deception Detection, Maureen O'Sullivan and Paul Ekman, (in press). In Granhag, P.A. & Stromwell, L. (Eds.) Detecting deception, Cambridge University Press, in press.


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