April 7, 2010

Hey, Pinocchio!

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For years, Bernie Madoff lived a lie. As his Ponzi scheme unraveled, the public looked on with disbelief. Shortly after the story was confirmed, attention shifted to Bernie’s wife, Ruth Madoff. Could Ruth really not have known that the man she was married to for almost 50 years was lying to her and everyone they knew?

While Madoff’s case is an extreme example, the act of lying is quite commonplace. According to a study by UVA psychologist Bella DePaulo, most people lie as frequently as once or twice a day.

Who is on the unfortunate receiving end of these lies? DePaulo found that college students lie to their mothers in one out of two conversations — sorry, mom! And, researcher Dory Hollander found that dating couples lie to each other in about one-third of their interactions. Eighty-five percent of the college couples Hollander interviewed admitted that they had lied to their partners about previous relationships or past indiscretions. (Next time your girlfriend starts a conversation with, “Let me be totally honest with you,” you might have reason to wonder if she is being totally honest.)

But while lying is prevalent, the situation isn’t as grim as it sounds; lies overwhelmingly fall into the “false positive” category, such as telling your best friend that you love her new haircut when you really think she should have asked for a refund. In fact, false positive lies are 10 or 20 times more common than false negative lies. False positive lies serve a social function, and unless your M.O. is derived from Kant’s lessons, they are not moral offenses. Regardless, learning about the prevalence of lies might make you want to search Amazon for portable polygraphs. But don’t spend your hard earned money just yet — you can learn a few reliable indicators and improve your own lie detecting skills.

As Papa Geppetto learned, Pinnochio’s nose grew every time he told a lie. While a liar’s nose probably won’t start growing in front of you, their face — like poor Pinnochio’s — can give them away. When rumors that Alex Rodriguez was using steroids first surfaced, Katie Couric interviewed the baseball star and directly asked him whether he was using performance-enhancing drugs. His answer was, as you may recall, a lie. To the experts, the venerable baseball icon’s face told a different story than his words.

No matter how much of a control freak you are, you can’t (without a lot of training and insane amounts of practice) consciously control every muscle in your face at every moment. Even if you’re a great liar, the lack of total control leads to what psychology researcher and human lie detector Paul Ekman — also the inspiration for the hit show Lie to Me — labeled “microexpressions.”

Microexpressions are flashes of true emotion, appearing and vanishing in as little as one-twentieth of a second. Researchers suggest that if you watch Couric’s interview with A. Rod closely, you can see the left side of his mouth rise into a split-second smirk. Dan Hill, an emotion expert who works with Fortune 500 companies, notes that smirks reliably indicate contempt. With an untrained eye, your chances of noticing microexpressions are slim. In Ekman’s study, less than one percent of the 15,000 people he tested could spot the fleeting microexpressions. But, almost anyone — from CIA agents to paranoid moms — can be trained to improve their ability to spot a liar.

The noticeable indicators of lying are not foolproof, but knowing them might help you when your roommates, girlfriend or local used car salesman is trying to pull a fast one on you. Generally, people who are lying touch their faces more, specifically rubbing their noses and covering their mouths. When they aren’t covering their mouths, you can likely notice that their lips are thinner and tighter than usual.

Liars also blink more often, break eye contact and sometimes squint or close their eyes. Glancing up and to the left can also indicate lying, whereas glancing up and to the right may indicate trying to remember facts. When someone is lying, their voice pitch frequently gets higher, the palms of their hands may be either turned down or closed and they generally make a higher proportion of grammatical errors.

Forget the lie detector — there are more than 21,000 hits on Google for “how to cheat a polygraph.” Learning some behavioral indicators should put you in good enough shape for spotting the conniving liars in your life. And let’s be serious — strapping your date into a portable polygraph at the dinner table probably isn’t what she has in mind for a memorable first date.  RLD

Original Author: Emily Weinstein