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Lie detection


Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive! - Sir Walter Scott.
How may we detect when a person is lying to us? It's not easy, that's why we get lied to so much. There are some indicators that may alert us to when a person is lying, and, while they are not totally reliable, they may cause us to stop and think about what the person is saying instead of just-just believing them unconditionally.


In the Fox television series Lie to Me, Cal Lightman, portrayed by Tim Roth, uses his skill at detecting microexpressions that indicate lying to help his clients. The show is based on Paul Ekman who uses the same techniques to assist law enforcement, the military, and intelligence agencies in detecting lies.

Microexpressions are small expressions that unconsciously flash on a person's face for less than one-fifth of a second that reflect what a person is really thinking regardless of what the person is saying. If the person is aware of the existence of microexpressions, the person may be able to suppress them or present false ones. For example, when a person acts happy but is really upset about something, the true emotion will be revealed in a subconscious flash of anger on his or her face.

Detecting lies is more of an art than a science. Microexpressions must be interpreted while considering the context and the situation in which they are made, and the person making them. Since there is no single expression that indicates lying, all physical expressions, the context they are used in, and the circumstances in which they are used are must be considered.

Not all this can be done scientifically; it more of a learned art that takes much trial and error to perfect. Sometimes the interpretation is correct, sometimes it is incorrect, so lie detection is only one of many tools that may be used when trying to determine if a person is lying.

Sometimes, microexpressions may be misinterpreted. Ekman calls this error "Othello's Error." In the Shakespeare’s classic Othello, Othello interprets the look of fear on his wife's face as proof of her infidelity. However, in fact, she was merely afraid that Othello did not trust her.

Some examples of microexpressions are:
  • Poker players constantly watch opponents trying to detect some micro expression, or “tell,” that will indicate a player’s true feeling about his or her hand. The best players learn to detect tells in others and hide their own tells or present false tells.
  • Real smiles involve the entire face; the eyebrows are slightly lowered while fake smiles only affect the lower face.
  • In real sadness, the inner ends of the eyebrows rise slightly so the eyebrows slope downward, the cheeks are slightly raised, the lower lip pushes up slightly, and the corners of the mouth slope slightly downward.
  • When surprised, both eyebrows are raised and the jaw drops open, as in Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting The Scream.
  • When angry, the brows are lowered, the eyes glare, the upper lip narrows, and the tightening of the lower lip. These lip changes are difficult to express when trying to fake anger.
  • When in fear, the eyebrows are raised and pulled together, the eyes are wide open with the upper eyelids raised and the lower ones tensed, and the lips are stretched outward. The most difficult part to fake is the simultaneous raising and pulling together of the eyebrows.
  • Disgust is indicated by a raised upper lip, a protruding lower lip, a wrinkled nose, raised cheeks, and lowered brows that cause wrinkling between the eyes.
  • Contempt is expressed by raising and tightening of one lip corner.

Other indicators of lying

Along with microexpressions, body language, gestures, choice of words, and manner of speaking also indicate what a person is really thinking. Some indicators are:
  • A person may say “yes” while his or her head slightly shakes “no.”
  • A person may say they are sure about something, but a slight lifting of a shoulder may indicate they are not sure.
  • Sometimes people unconsciously flip you the “bird” with their middle finger, such as Simon Cowell does on American Idol when he rubs his nose with his middle finger.
  • While describing what another person said, a suspect may slip and say, “I said” instead of “he said.”
  • A person may try to deflect a question with another question or an accusation, such as “How could you ask such a question at a time like this?”
  • A person on the phone could be saying they are sad while they are actually smiling; there is a discernable difference in a person’s voice when they are smiling.
  • Too many pauses may indicate lying, as does shifting to a softer voice.

Unreliable indicators

When interpreting expressions, one must be careful. Sometimes you may be mislead. Some unreliable indicators are:
  • Shifty eyes may indicate lying or they may indicate careful thinking.
  • Strong eye contact may indicate lying or that the person is trying to assert dominance.
  • Looking away when answering a question may indicate lying or it may be because the person has a problem maintaining eye contact.
  • Nervous yawning may indicate deception, or it may indicate boredom or a stuffy environment.
  • A person who fidgets a lot often indicates nervousness, not deception.

What to look for

Some things to look for when you think someone may be lying:
  • Look for inconsistencies. To know if someone is lying, look for inconsistencies in what the person is saying. People may not recall everything correctly, but they should recall it consistently. True memories tend to be consistent; liars tend to get their lies confused.
  • Ask the unexpected. About 4% of people are accomplished liars. To trip them up, ask them a question that they are not prepared to answer when they least expect it.
  • Gauge against a baseline. An important indicator of dishonesty is change in behavior. Distrust someone who is generally anxious, but now looks calm. Or, someone who is generally calm but now looks anxious. If you know the person, gauge his or her behavior against a baseline. Is the behaving normally?
  • Look for insincere emotions. Most people cannot fake smile; the timing will be off, for example, it will be held too long or occur at inappropriate times. Watch for inconsistencies, such as an angry face with a smile. In an insecure smile, the lips are smaller and less full than with a sincere smile.
  • Pay attention to gut reactions. Sometimes, you just know someone is lying. You cannot articulate exactly how you know it; it is just an art you have cultivated from experiences during your life.
  • Look for contradictions. If a person’s voice or gestures do not fit the words he or she is saying, it may indicate a lie, such as answering yes to a question, while subconsciously shaking the head no. These contradictions may be between the voice and the words, the gesture and the voice, the gesture and the words, or the face and the words.
  • Too much detail. Too much detail in the answer to a simple question could indicate the person has put a lot of thought into constructing a complicated lie.
  • Do not ignore the truth. It is more important to recognize when someone is telling the truth than when someone is lying because people may appear to be lying, but be telling truth.
  • Eyebrows. Eyebrows are raised when a person knows the answer to a question, lowered if he or she does not. Eyebrows are oblique when sad, which is difficult to hide.
  • Pupils. Sudden dilation of the pupils indicates arousal, sexual, anger, fear, or excitement; further questioning may reveal which one.
  • Looking down. Eyes looking downward may indicate shame, disgust, disappointment, discouragement, regret, guilt, or sadness; further questioning may reveal which one.
  • Touching ears. Touching the ears may indicate lying or simply nervousness.
  • Flared nostrils. Flared nostrils may indicate fear, anger, or sadness.
  • Biting lips. Biting the lips indicates stress, either from fear of being caught lying or from not being believed.
  • Clenched jaw. A clenched jaw may be a nervous habit or an attempt to control anger or what is being said.
  • Swallowing. Repeated swallowing is a sign of elevated emotions.
  • Cold hands. Cold hands indicate fear as the body prepares for flight, draws blood away from the arms and pumps it into the legs. Hot hands indicate anger as the body pumps more blood into the arms to prepare for a fight.
  • Heart rate. Sudden jumps in heart rate and blood pressure and increased sweating indicate elevated emotion.
  • Verify before acting. When trying to determine if a person is lying, you may use all these clues, but, before taking any action, use other verifiable facts to prove it for sure.
  • Anderson, J. R. 2011. The truth is in our faces. Navy Times, February 21, 2011

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