To be perfectly honest, this seems to be a prime time for lies, mistruths and pants on fire. We have to navigate fake news constantly, while dodging conspiracy theorists, antivaxxers and misleading anti-abortion activists on social media. Last week, the Washington Post calculated that Donald Trump had told his 10,000th lie while in office. Theresa May, meanwhile, clearly didn’t believe former defence secretary Gavin Williamson’s protestations that he wasn’t responsible for the National Security Council leak, hence Williamson’s extreme step of swearing on his children’s lives that he wasn’t guilty.
And what about the rest of us? How many of our #livingmybestlife Instagram posts are, to put it charitably, putting a positive spin on things?
Are we living in an age where lies are acceptable? Robert Feldman, professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts and author of The Liar in Your Life, says he thinks we are. “I do feel that it’s become more acceptable to lie. Presidents – even ones you don’t like – are role models, and if you see someone with high prestige who constantly lies and gets away with it, as seems to be the case, it’s providing a model of what’s acceptable. I used to talk about Bill Clinton as the president who made lying acceptable and yet what happened was, he got away with it.”
Not only that, he says, but, despite his denials of his affair with Monica Lewinsky, Clinton is still regarded with respect and even affection. “That’s a pretty powerful message that you can lie and still be accepted by society. Now, I think we have an even greater example in the White House of a leader who lies constantly. These are absolute falsehoods and yet here he is. This is probably something he’s done his entire life. I think it sends a terrible message to children growing up and even to adults as to the efficacy of lying. It creates a climate in which lying is much more acceptable.”
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Which also means we may have to become better at spotting liars. There is a common belief that this is relatively straightforward. Liars look shifty – you can track their eye movements (supposedly in one direction for memory; another while they’re making up a story) and they might say things such as “truth be told”. In fact, “we’re pretty rubbish at it”, says Dr Gordon Wright, lecturer in psychology and co-director of the forensic psychology unit at Goldsmiths, University of London, “When we engage in passive lie detection – watching people to try and work out if they’re lying or not – the general research finding is that we make very poor quality decisions. We’re around 54% accurate. Tossing a coin would give you 50% accuracy.”
Polygraph, or lie detector, tests give an accuracy rate around 65% to 70%, Wright says; full-body motion capture experiments are a little better at around 85%, but both take place under tight experimental conditions, and would have different results in real-world settings such as a police interview room.
Worse still, he says, many liars know about the supposed physical “tells” and try to use them to their advantage. “We find that liars look at people more intensely – they play on these stereotypes,” he says.
But police and other law-enforcement officials still believe many of these cues. Pär-Anders Granhag, professor of psychology at the University of Gothenburg, has delivered training to organisations including the FBI and the LAPD. “What forensic psychology is trying to do is debunk this myth about non-verbal behaviour,” says Granhag. “It’s difficult to get that message through because they want to believe they have this skill of observing the outside and figuring out what’s going on on the inside.”
There is no universal set of cues, and even the same person will show different types of behaviour, depending on the situation. Instead, much of the research into deception is now about looking at what people say, rather than how they say it.
One way to improve results, Granhag says, is the “unanticipated question technique – ask questions that liars have not prepared for. Liars prepare more than truth-tellers. If you ask only anticipated questions, you are playing into their hands. Truth-tellers can answer those questions because they draw on their memory, whereas liars have a more difficult time because they have prepared ready made answers to anticipated questions, but they haven’t prepared for other questions.”
It is cognitively more complex to lie than to tell the truth, he says. “That can be a valuable lesson, because if you increase that complexity even more, liars will have an even more difficult time than truth-tellers.” One example might be asking someone to tell the story backwards, which would be difficult for someone making it up.
Michael Fuller is the former chief constable of Kent police and the author of Kill the Black One First, about his time as a black policeman in London. When he was training, he was taught about supposed signs of lying, including changes in demeanour, scratching one’s head and avoiding eye contact. What it always comes down to, though, he says, is evidence. “People are taken in by plausible stories. In policing, it’s different because you’re not just reliant on what you’re being told, you would investigate. An experienced investigator would carry out a background investigation of the facts. Having got that – surveillance and witness evidence, CCTV, documents – before you interviewed somebody, if they were lying, nine times out of 10 it would be obvious because it would be inconsistent with the information you’ve got.”
He has got it wrong before, he admits. One man was arrested because he matched the photofit of a man who had been carrying out serious sexual assaults in London, and he was carrying a knife. He protested his innocence – and DNA results cleared him. “Everyone assumed this guy was lying, but the DNA evidence conclusively proved he was innocent,” says Fuller. “If it wasn’t for that, the likelihood was he would have been charged.”
In police dramas and crime novels, it’s often the detective’s hunch that unravels a case. How much did he rely on instincts? “You do, a lot, because that can start an investigation,” says Fuller.
Take the dying man who told the police he had murdered his brother years earlier. Fuller and his colleagues had to decide whether it was worth digging up the patio of the house (now belonging to someone else). “I had an inkling this guy was telling the truth,” Fuller recalls, “when the detective inspector was telling me he thought we shouldn’t do it – we would just upset some family who were nothing to do with the case. It turned out my instincts were right.” Still, he says, “It’s always a search for evidence to confirm or refute what you suspect.”
Poker players must have honed instincts. Surely they can spot liars? “In poker, when you bluff, you’re bluffing with a bad hand which means you’re risking something,” says the poker player and TV presenter Liv Boeree. “What you tend to look for are signs of discomfort and stress – things like the heart rate going up, so you can sometimes look at the pulse in their neck.” People are very aware of their “poker face” she says, so she looks for self-soothing behaviours, such as someone stroking the back of their hand with their thumb. “But it’s only useful information if you have an idea of what someone’s natural behaviour is when they are relaxed and not likely to be lying – you’re looking for the change in behaviour, rather than a specific behaviour.” And, she concedes, the signs that someone may be lying about having a strong hand can look very similar to signs they are excited – about having a strong hand.
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So is there anything we can watch or listen out for? Do liars have anything in common? “We know that liars prepare more than truth-tellers; they often try to convince, which is different from just telling the truth,” says Granhag. “They see whether the person believes them or not and if they suspect they don’t, they can change, add more details.” Some research suggests people will use fewer person pronouns when they’re lying, says Wright. “The western interpretation of this is they’re trying to distance themselves from the lie,” he says. “But in non-western cultures, it goes the opposite way – they own the lie more. There are no hard and fast rules.”
Last week, after Williamson was sacked for leaking information from the National Security Council, which he strenuously denies, he said: “I absolutely promise, hand on heart, I did not leak this. I realise my obituary will say I did, but I swear on my children’s lives I did not.” It sounds shifty, but Williamson may well be telling the truth. “Sometimes truthful people under stress appear deceptive,” says Wright. It is known as the Othello error, after Shakespeare’s character who doesn’t believe in his wife’s innocence. “This could be a case of that. It’s an uncommonly strong denial.”
Is someone more likely to be lying if they say things such as “to be honest”? “I’d be really wary of suggesting these are powerful because people are so variable,” he says. “I’m sure you’ve had vocal tics and phrases you’ve developed. Sometimes that’s just what happens. It’s not that you’re being deceptive – you’re just in the habit of saying ‘to be honest’ or ‘without a word of a lie’.”
Being wary of your own biases might help you know what to believe. Wright has found that people are more likely to believe a lie if it fits with their own opinions. “If someone is lying and says, ‘I really like Jeremy Corbyn’ and I happen to be a Corbyn supporter, I’ll probably think that’s truthful.”
But even experts in lying can’t easily spot lies. “Lots of research has actually been done on people like me who study this phenomenon and, actually, we’re no better than anybody else,” says Wright. “Police officers, lawyers, therapists. US secret service are supposedly the only group in the world who are any better, but the story goes that they mark their own tests. Nobody really has any skills in mastering passive lie detection.” Fuller says he watches the TV panel show Would I Lie to You with his wife, and she is just as good – or bad – as him at spotting the fibs.
Why are we so bad at detecting untruths? “I think a lot of it is we don’t get much feedback on whether someone is lying or not, growing up,” says Feldman. “My basic premise is that people lie all the time, that we use lies socially all the time – we tell people we like what they’re wearing when we don’t, we tell people things that make us look better. Most of the time they have very minor consequences and they don’t matter, but serve to grease the wheels of social interaction. There are lies around us all the time and we don’t get a lot of feedback if we’re right – if somebody else is being deceptive – so we don’t learn to spot if someone is lying. The other reason is we’re not motivated to determine if someone is lying to us. Most of the time, when we get praise we accept it, we want to believe it. There is almost a conspiracy where a person who is lying does it to make a person feel good about themselves, and the recipient doesn’t want to expose the lie.” Wright agrees: “I think people lie more than they think they do. It’s not such a bad thing; it’s sort of how society operates.”