Lying and nonverbal communication
Although many ”body language” books make us to believe that is piece of cake to spot a liar by using some nonverbal clues, the truth is that is very hard to catch a liar.
According to studies made by psychologist Paul Ekman on professionals interested in discovering liars, the best in detecting liars are those from Secret Service, with an 80% accuracy rate, followed by other agencies (CIA, FBI). Interesting, the psychologists from academic research were also tested and ranked lowest – with an accuracy rate very closed to random guess – 50%. Most of us have this level that means if you want to catch a liar you can flip the coin, it is almost the same thing.
So, it is difficult to detect a liar. It is difficult because there is no specific nonverbal behavior which could be invariably associated with a lie, only small inadequacies and discrepancies, hard to detect. Hard, but not impossible. When someone tells a lie, makes an effort on two accounts: cognitive and affective.
On cognitive account, he must devise something plausible and that takes time. Therefore, errors in utterances may appear or delayed answers. Moreover, when you are making up you don’t have time to work on details – details which in a real experience are always there – and by consequence you have a more abstract, vaguer speech.
On affective account, a lie assumes simulating some emotions, masking other emotions, or both of them. Did your mother-in-law bring you for your birthday a horrible, lame lime pullover? Then you will be enchanted, saying how pleasant is the color (simulation), and you will not show the terror (masking) that engulfs when you are thinking that you’ll have to wear at her next visit. Yet, to simulate/mask emotion is not an easy task, because emotions generate both physiological and emotion changes, which are difficult to control. And leaks may occur.
For instance, let’s take facial expressions. Facial expressions may be produced in two ways: voluntary and involuntary. The more intense they are, the more difficult will be to control them and micro expressions may appear – facial expressions which appear and disappear very fast, revealing the true feeling. More than that, simulated facial expressions do not look exactly the same as the genuine ones. Research has shown that expressions that showed faked emotions are asymmetric, which means on one side of the face are more intense, or maybe some elements are missing from expression. This is due to the fact that not all the facial muscles respond to voluntary control.
Voice can also betray a lie. Due to the stress, voice’s pitch gets higher. Illustrator gestures are fewer, while adaptor gestures prevail (for gesture’s typology – click here). And there are physiological modifications, too. Negative emotions emerging in the act of lying may produce disturbances in breathing, perspiration may occur and also dry mouth.
But what I have mentioned before does not help if we don’t know the base behavior of the person, in what way acts in normal conditions. That’s why is easier to detect lies at those we know better.
And it matters who is the liar, of course. If we are speaking about a child swearing that he didn’t eat chocolate but he cover his mouth – and he has brown fingers – that’s one thing. Instead, if we are speaking about a politician who changed four parties in last three years and is lying all day long on television is another thing; you have a real professional and neither himself knows anymore if he is lying or not.
No matter of a liar’s abilities, the main problem in uncovering the lie is the fact that there’s no specific behavior to be associated with lying. You can just infer the lie indirectly, by detecting distress, and this can have multiple sources.
Yet, I would like to be optimistic. I guess it is a good thing that we can’t detect lie so easy. Imagine that: one morning we are waking all of us with the ability to decipher others’ thoughts and feelings, the real ones. We would know what are thinking about us our dear colleagues, friends, relatives. And how are we thinking about them. Next day, we would end up by hanging ourselves.