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Don't Believe the 'Lie to Me' Hype: Even Trained Eyes Have a Hard Time Spotting Untruths

First, there are "emblems," such as the "thumbs up" gesture, which is recognized to mean "Okay!" Emblems are helpful in truth detection, but only when they are arrested in mid-gesture: shrugging one shoulder, starting to raise and flap your hands away from yourself, as if to say, "Oh, I'm finished with that" -- but halting the gesture. Your body just told the truth before you could stop it. These are "emblematic slips," Ekman says, and indicate the subject is trying to suppress or alter information.

Second, there are "illustrations," such as waving your arms or jabbing a finger in the air. Illustrations decrease when people tell lies because liars are being careful and unconsciously inhibiting their motions.

Last are "manipulations," which are personal grooming tics, such as biting your fingernails. Manipulations, it turns out, don't mean anything one way or the other -- and yet studies show most people list these tics as one of the clearest signs of dishonesty. They're not. People who read them are committing an "Othello error," in Ekman's jargon, a reference to the Shakespearean character who falsely believed his wife to be an adulteress.

These interpretational errors are so profound, Ekman says, that one of his main concerns with the show is that, "We don't want jurors thinking that because they saw 'Lie to Me,' that they can tell when someone on the stand is lying."

He adds, "It takes us two to four days in law enforcement training to get any sort of improvement. The 1 percent who are really good at it, we call 'wizards.' "

Now here's the twist: Truth is not the only issue that's important. Trust counts, too.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, researchers study the physical dynamics of human interactions. Their studies show that body language, vocal pattern and pitch are so critical to human trust that they can predict the success or failure of a sales pitch by reading body language and vocal patterns alone. They don't even need to know what you're saying to know if the other person is likely to trust it.

With a device called a sociometer, project director Alex Pentland detects if you are looking at the person you're talking to, and a recorder tracks the timing, speed and inflection of speech (but not the content).

It turns out that people who use positive body language and correct vocal inflection -- nodding heads in agreement, leaning forward in their chairs, speaking in the same vocal range and speed as conversational partners -- will win other people's trust.

"The background of this is our human communication from 50,000 or 100,000 years ago, when we didn't have that many words, but were still able to communicate and coordinate very closely," he says. "We're still extraordinarily sensitive to socially appropriate behavior, but it's so deeply buried that we are almost unconscious of it."

Then again, this just describes body language that honest people tend to use. It doesn't mean dishonest people couldn't ape that behavior to lie to you.

In the end, "truth wizards" -- the 1 percent or so of people who can see past all this to discern lies really well -- have a unique ability to keep their minds open, O'Sullivan says. "They don't hurry to a conclusion. They'll live with indecision. Most of us don't want to do that, including me. People want certainty."

She laughs and says: "I want things to be nice."

And this is the problem, she notes: Things are often not nice, and yet people who should know better ignore or look past the unpleasantness of the facts to see a happier version of reality and to keep things, you know, nice. Besides, to constantly double-check the information your friends and family gives you might uncover more of the truth about some things, but what you'll really be communicating is that you do not find them worthy of your trust. "Show me" might be a nifty motto for Missouri, but it's a lousy one for a marriage.

"People really don't want to know all the truth all the time," O'Sullivan says.

"No important relationship survives if trust is totally lost," Ekman writes.

So there it is. Absolute truth is doomed because the search to ferret it out would ultimately be so consuming as to eradicate trust, which is the far more solid building block of human relationships.

It turns out that we only want the truth sometimes. What we need is trust, even if that means we are certain to be betrayed. It is, as any fMRI can show you, the human condition.


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