Spotting a Lie Think no one's gonna slip one by you? Think again. Most people can spot lies little better than half the time, according to Maureen O'Sullivan, a University of San Francisco psychology professor who has studied the science of lying and deceit for 20-plus years. Folks who can do better are so rare -- only 31 people out of the more than 13,000 that she and colleagues have tested in the last decade qualify -- that O'Sullivan has pegged them "wizards."
The Knack O'Sullivan had volunteers -- lawyers, police officers and therapists -- view up to three sets of videos of people speaking of such matters as whether they stole $50 or if they supported abortion or gun control. The test-takers then had to decide if the speakers were lying.
Wizards were consistently better than others at reading cues in speakers' facial expressions, body language and speech patterns, according to O'Sullivan. Common telltale signals include fidgeting, pressing the lips together, raising the chin, moving the feet and changing vocal pitch. Researchers warn, however, that such cues are not universal or even always indicative of a lie. Among the wizards, 14 were accurate more than 80 percent of the time on all three tests; 17 did that well on two.
The Weak Spots But even wizards' ability to detect lies had its limits. "Therapists didn't do well on the lie about crime, but did good on the lie about opinions and feelings," said O'Sullivan. "Cops did well on the opinion lie and on crime . . . but not on the feelings lie."
Can lie-spotting be taught? Only to some degree, said O'Sullivan. "I think that individual personal characteristics can't be taught. I think you've got to have some basic steps first," she said.
-- January W. Payne