Liar Liar
Liar Liar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Is this technique applied during job interviews? At work?


Like most people, airport security screeners like to think they can read body language. In the United States, the Transportation Security Administration has spent some $1 billion training thousands of “behavior detection officers” to look for facial expressions and other nonverbal clues that would identify terrorists.

But critics say there’s no evidence that these efforts have stopped a single terrorist or accomplished much beyond inconveniencing tens of thousands of passengers a year. The T.S.A. seems to have fallen for a classic form of self-deception: the belief that you can read liars’ minds by watching their bodies.

Most people think liars give themselves away by averting their eyes or making nervous gestures, and many law-enforcement officers have been trained to look for specific tics, like gazing upward in a certain manner. But in scientific experiments, people do a lousy job of spotting liars. Law-enforcement officers and other presumed experts are not consistently better at it than ordinary people even though they’re more confident in their abilities.

“There’s an illusion of insight that comes from looking at a person’s body,” says Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago. “Body language speaks to us, but only in whispers.”

The T.S.A. program was reviewed last year by the Government Accountability Office, which recommended cutting funds for it because there was no proof of its effectiveness. That recommendation was based on the meager results of the program as well as a survey of the scientific literature by the psychologists Charles F. Bond Jr. and Bella M. DePaulo, who analyzed more than 200 studies.

In those studies, people correctly identified liars only 47 percent of the time. Their accuracy rate was higher, 61 percent, when it came to spotting truth tellers, but that still left their overall average at 54 percent, only slightly better than chance.

“The common-sense notion that liars betray themselves through body language appears to be little more than a cultural fiction,” says Maria Hartwig, a psychologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. Researchers have found that the best clues to deceit are verbal – liars tend to be less forthcoming and tell less compelling stories.

One technique that has been taught to law-enforcement officers is to watch the upward eye movements of people as they talk. This is based on a theory from believers in “neuro-linguistic programming” that people tend to glance upward to their right when lying, and upward to the left when telling the truth.

But this theory didn’t hold up when it was tested by a team of British and North American psychologists. They found no pattern in the upward eye movements of liars and truth tellers.

“There is no Pinocchio’s nose – no one cue that will always accompany deception,” says an author of the eye-movement study, Leanne ten Brinke, of the University of California, Berkeley.

She and others argue that it may nonetheless be possible to detect certain kinds of “high stakes” lies by looking for an array of body cues. Stephen Porter of the University of British Columbia says the poor success rate in studies is caused partly by the limitations of laboratory experiments in which subjects are asked to lie about things that don’t matter to them.

Last year, psychologists at the University of British Columbia trained professionals in forensics to look for facial expressions and other signs of stress or inconsistency in someone telling a story. Then these professionals looked at news footage of people pleading for the return of a missing relative.

Some of the pleaders were sincere, but others were lying (as eventually revealed by evidence that they had murdered the relative). The trained professionals were able to identify the liars with an 80 percent accuracy rate.

That’s an impressive record, but it’s only one experiment, and many researchers question how reliably these techniques can be applied in the real world.

Why do we intuitively believe we can read body language? After writing a book on the topic, Dr.Epley has an explanation.

“When you’re lying or cheating, you know it and feel guilty, and it feels to you as if your emotions must be leaking out through your body language,” he says. “You have an illusion that your emotions are more transparent than they actually are, and so you assume others are more transparent than they actually are, too.”

Taken from TODAY Saturday Edition, The New York Times International Weekly, 05 April 2014


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