Cool Research For Writers: Spotting Liars

Note: This is a recurring series highlighting a published research paper that contains cool fodder for writers.

The research: "Lie Catching and Microexpressions," Paul Ekman, The Philosophy of Deception.

Can you tell when someone's lying to you? If you answered yes, you're probably lying to yourself, because research from psychologist Paul Ekman shows we're all pretty crappy at spotting deception in others.

Ekman has spent years identifying and cataloguing the many muscles and expressions that comprise the human face. (The TV show "Lie To Me" is based on his research.) While he says there are lots of uncontrollable facial tics or reactions that suggest someone is fibbing, there's not a single, unimpeachable "tell."

Basically, there's no "Pinocchio's nose" when it comes to spotting a liar. At the same time, if you learn to recognize the "microexpressions" that suggest deceptive behavior, then you can pretty reliably guess when someone's full of it.

Ekman says you can learn to spot many of these expressions in about an hour. Despite this, most people stink at figuring out if a person is lying. We think we can look into someone's eyes and judge if they're telling the truth by the steadiness of their gaze. In fact, we should be looking at how open or closed a person's eyes are, or the shape of his or her mouth. (A crooked smile and a half-closed eye are both indicators of possible deception. But, again, neither of these is a bulletproof tell.)

Also, the timing of these facial cues is important--and extremely fleeting. As in, you only have a fraction of a second to pick up many of them before they vanish.

Ekman calls the ability to either lie or identify liars "poorly developed" skills. That's kind of shocking, when you think about it. You would assume the ability to sniff out BS would be so advantageous that most people would naturally be excellent at it. But we're not.

Ekman puts forward a lot of hypotheses about why this might be the case. But the most interesting one is--as Jack Nicholson's character in A few Good Men would say--we can't handle the truth. Lies are one of those social lubricants that allow people to interact with one another, Ekman says. If we could all tell when a spouse was fibbing, or a friend or colleague was "just being polite," modern life would be pretty difficult.

All good stuff to know if one of your characters needs to be adept at identifying lies or liars.

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