Liars and Lies

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lying_under_oath_1600_wht_9449Goebbels famously said in 1941:” The essential English leadership secret does not depend on particular intelligence. Rather, it depends on a remarkably stupid thick-headedness. The English follow the principle that when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it. They keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous”.

And so the BIG LIE idea, 16 years after Hitler had first used the term in Mein Kampf, passed into popular usage.

There have been some famous liars in recent years, despite the risk of exposure on social media. For example Stephen Wilce. He was, until exposed by TV journalists, New Zealand’s Chief Defence Scientist and had a high security clearance and access to highly sensitive information.

According to his CV he had been in both MI5 and MI6, played international rugby for Wales, swam for England in the Commonwealth games, competed in the bobsleigh in the Winter Olympics, been a member of the New Zealand yacht squadron, fought alongside Prince Andrew in the Falklands and Gulf wars, been decorated for bravery, and had an honorary PhD from Cambridge university.

He did have an MBA, had been in the Royal Navy, had competed in bobsleigh events, and had worked as a bar manager at the Americas Cup but everything else was pure fantasy. It sounds funny but how embarrassing after all the security vettings and selection processes.

So while Wilce was clearly a fantasist, research tells us that people in positions of power are better liars.

Dana Carney, at Columbia University Graduate School of Business carried out research to see if it made a difference if you had more power. The research subjects were divided into bosses, with bigger offices and more power eg they could assign salaries, and employees. Half of each group were then asked, via computer instructions, to steal a hundred-dollar note then lie about it later when interviewed.

The subjects were then measured on 5 variables associated with lying:

accelerated speech – liars utter more syllables at a higher pitch and repeat words and sentences more
shoulder shrugs – liars shrug more when trying to suppress the lie
cortisol – liars’ saliva contains a higher concentration of the stress hormone
eyes – liars’ pupils dilate
mouth – liars press their lips together and involuntarily smirk when they think they’ve got away with it

Only the low-power liars could be seen to be lying. High-power liars were indistinguishable from non-liars. A sense of power seems to buffer people from the stress of lying and increases their ability to deceive others. As most people can’t detect liars better than chance unless specially trained it suggests most people in a position of power can get away with it. Perhaps they are in positions of power because they are good liars. (See “Leadership – the dark side“)

Occasionally of course powerful people get caught out lying. MPs are a case in point and many lost their seats following the expenses scandal exposed by the press.

Another aspect of the research was about power posture compared with low power, non-assertive postures. Power postures take up more space, like a peacock spreading its feathers, whilst subordinates want to take up less space.

The researchers found that those people asked to adopt power postures, even though they didn’t know why, had higher levels of testosterone and lower levels of cortisol.

In other words they felt more powerful and less stressed out although they didn’t know why.

Originally posted on SGANDA



Spotting a lie

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Leaving aside the controversy about whether or not lie-detectors (polygraphs) actually work can we really tell when someone is lying?

Of course if you watch the Paul Ekman inspired programme “Lie to Me” you know it’s all in the NVC micro-expressions and only about 1 in 400 people have the natural ability to understand them.

Even people you might expect to do well at spotting liars such as police and security officers rarely do better than chance without extensive training. You might as well toss a coin. (If you don’t believe me have a go at judging whether or not these smiles are genuine).

There are methods experts can use in controlled settings, such as analysing written content, and getting people to illustrate their stories or tell them in reverse order but you can hardly do that in normal social situations.

Scientists no longer believe there is one single non-verbal signal that gives people away but more likely a cluster of NVC signals or behaviours.

Psychologists and scientists at MIT carried out a series of experiments to ascertain if NVC could convey trustworthiness. Strangers were asked to conduct a 5-minute conversation together either face-to-face or via web chat (but without using emoticons) to see whether or not they were better at judging trustworthiness face-to-face.

The participants then played a game that measured cooperation and self-interested economic behaviour.

Those who had chatted face-to-face beforehand were more accurate at predicting the trustworthiness of a stranger.

So what was missing from the text only conversation that was present in the face-to-face ones? Independent judges were asked to view the videotapes of the latter and identify all possible NVC clues such as smiling, nodding, touching etc.

Then they looked for specific clues when the volunteers successfully detected other people’s self-serving intentions. The body language that appeared repeatedly in those sessions was hand touching, face touching, crossing arms, and leaning away. Taken together they indicated deceitful behaviour and the more often they did these behaviours the less they were trusted.

But are these the only clues and what about people who fidget anyway?  To take the experiment further the researchers used a robot called Nexi which is designed to emote with humanlike facial expressions and body language. They asked some of the participants to have a 10-minute conversation with it.  The robot was manipulated to carry out the four behaviours linked with deceitfulness in different orders and with some repeats to stimulate normal fidgeting.

Other participants were also asked to have a conversation but during those conversations Nexi used gestures other than the four associated with deceitfulness. When Nexi used the deceitful movements people said they felt a sense of distrust but not with the other movements. And during a replaying of the game with Nexi they expected to be cheated and cooperated less.

An interesting aspect of the experiment was that although participants were skeptical of Nexi’s motives when it exhibited deceitful NVC they didn’t necessarily dislike it. Just as in real life you can like people you don’t necessarily trust.

Source: “How to Spot a Scoundrel” in Scientific American Mind September/October 2012

FYI Just how good are you at recognising emotions?