Lie To Me– If You Dare


Profiling and lie detection are two areas I find intriguing. And judging by the ongoing success of murder-mystery novels and of police “procedurals” on television, I get the feeling that I’m far from alone when it comes to being fascinated by such areas of psychology.

Recently, I checked-out the book Telling Lies by Paul Ekman. Mister Ekman spent much of his life investigating the phenomenon of lying. We humans are practically the only species which lies, unless one counts as lying:  evolutionary camouflage, cuckoo egg-mimickry, and Nature’s other manipulative or survival tricks.  Also, there may be some studies showing that sometimes dogs or monkeys can “put on” the behavior which they think will get them a reward. But let’s face it, no non-rug entity can lie like a human being.

Ekman writes that George Steiner, in After Babel, credited “the linguistic capacity to conceal, misinform, leave ambiguous” with being “indispensable to the equilibrium of human consciousness and to the development of a Man in society.” This makes sense; after all, think how quickly society– as it is constructed now at least– would breakdown if people started revealing how they REALLY felt about each other.  Courtesy could actually be considered a form of lying, for polite society demands that we not truly– or at least not fully– be ourselves in public.

After reading Ekman, I came away feeling that there are really just two main categories of lies:  1) outright untruths, 2) lies involving concealment or omission.  Deceptions are often carried-out by telling only PART of the truth. We do not tell a falsehood when we do this, and yet we are purposefully misleading the hearer.   Other times, we liars will show true emotions, but then lie about the real cause behind our feelings, such as when an upset spouse lies and says that “I’m just not feeling well” when asked what’s the matter.

Interestingly, even on our most moronic days, we can still behave in a manner quite complex when it comes to getting around the truth; even half-asleep we can pretty easily pick and choose precisely what pieces of the puzzle we wish to reveal or not reveal so that the hearer comes away with the desired, if incorrect, inference as to what has actually occurred. And then there’s the old dodge of admitting the less-horrific part of the truth, thus deflecting farther inquiry upon the matter. I used to use this method in high school when I’d admit to cutting school for lunch– and accept chastisement for my crime– meanwhile saying nothing about the alcohol we also managed (somehow) to buy while escaped from the day-cage!

By the way, in case you’re judging me at this point, just remember:  we are ALL liars. I’m pretty sure that even deaf-mutes have told their share of whoppers.  To broaden what a female friend of mine once said of men… if our mouths are open, we are lying.  (Obviously, this is a little unfair. I mean, sometimes I yawn or visit the dentist.)

I have to say, after living several decades now in this world, I find that when people are talking, it is pretty safe to assume that we are doing so with an agenda.  We are either “spinning” an event, or justifying an action or belief, or trying to manipulate (sometimes innocently) others into doing something which benefits ourselves. When we’re not doing this, the rest is basically just gossip or chatter to pass the time– and even this often comes with some self-benefiting under-goal (such as when we imply that Betty is a floozy– unlike ourselves, of course– and we thus benefit by the comparison).


According to Paul Ekman’s book, Telling Lies, there are numerous ways to tell if someone is lying. Most of these boil down to two behaviors: 1. Deception Clues (when behavior or body-signs suggests a lie, but the truth is not revealed), or 2. Leakage (when the liar mistakenly reveals the truth).

Deception Clues might better be called “Emotion Clues,” for they do not, Ekman points-out, tell us that someone is lying; instead, they suggest that a person is experiencing an emotion. The connection to lying is that certain emotions are linked to lying, namely Fear (of being found-out) and Guilt.

These emotions, which MAY indicate lying but are certainly no guarantee of it, often reveal themselves in facial expressions. Ekman states that the muscles of the face are “directly connected to those areas of the brain involved in emotion” and that “when emotion is aroused, muscles on the face begin to fire involuntarily. It only by choice or habit that people can learn to interfere with these expressions.”  Thus, a non-expert liar’s face will often betray him.  On the other hand, one can fairly easily learn to control the face with some practice, and thus mislead people with the appropriate mask.

Speech can also betray a liar. The most common deception clues in this area, writes Ekman, are pauses and stutters, as the liar tends to need to THINK more about what he is saying than a truth-teller. Relatedly, someone telling a lie may trip-up more in their speech, and even let loose a “slip of the tongue” which, if bad enough, can sink the whole ship-of-deceit. Furthermore, someone lying will not uncommonly start to speak faster and with a slightly higher pitch.

And here’s another thing to keep in mind: If you’re talking with someone and they suddenly unleash a tirade— that’s a good indication that there is something they are covering-up or else otherwise feeling defensive about.  Personally, I’ve always felt that people will launch into tirades when they feel that the logical content of their argument is proving inadequate to their agenda.

Some physical indications of the emotions (fear and guilt) associated with lying are connected to our autonomic nervous system and so are almost beyond our powers to control. These emotion-indicators would include: sweating, blushing, blanching, depth and rate of breathing, blood pressure, and pupil dilation. This is where the lie detector (the machine) comes in. It is very difficult to “beat” a good lie-detector-machine when the right questions are asked of the subject and the physical responses are interpreted by an expert.

On the other hand, it is very easy to get away with a lie in day to day interactions–even when lying to someone trained in lie detection. This is because we, the victims of a lie, are hit with a “barrage of information” to judge at the instant a lie is issued. “There is too much to consider at once,” says Ekman. “Too many sources– words, pauses, sound of the voice, expressions, head movements, gestures, posture, respiration, flushing or blanching, sweating, and so on.”  Even Ekman, himself, has to record his subjects and play their reactions back in slow motion to pick up on the correct and often subtle “ticks” giving the liar away in spite of himself.

One reason we are so easily fooled by the liar, says Ekman, is that we tend to pay attention to the LEAST reliable indicator of truthfulness– words.  Also, we often relax our guard when we are hit by that most ubiquitous of lie-camouflages– the smile. There is something about a smile which is naturally disarming. In fact– and I find this interesting– Ekman says it is hard NOT to return a smile– even when one is looking at a photograph of a smile!

Here’s a personal reveal:  I tend to smile when interacting with people by sheer force of habit.  And I’ve come to realize that I have developed this quirk (which I suppose it could be called) in order to place people at ease or to nudge them toward adopting a favorable disposition toward yours truly. I never made the conscious decision to flash the ol’ pearlies in order to make friends and influence people, and yet, I know that this is precisely what I’m doing. However, I’m convinced that sometimes it works to my disadvantage, for I feel I can come off as simple-minded or as a pushover.  Nevertheless, in most situations it probably helps more than hinders me.  I bring this up because I have actually seen people, obviously unaccustomed to smiling, naturally return my smile in a way that almost appears to hurt them.  Obviously, they have fallen into subconsciously mimicking my own smile.

Lastly, this post wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention “micro-expressions.” These fraction-of-a-second ticks, the discovery of Ekman, are full-face expressions that flash for an instant over the countenance of the liar and reveal his true emotional state.  Much more common than the micro, however, is what Ekman calls the “squelch.”  This occurs when a betraying emotion starts to come into the liar’s face, but then is immediately interrupted or covered by another (more lie-appropriate) expression.  And remember:  as it goes for ALL these lie-detection clues, the squelched expression does not directly indicate a lie, but the presence of an emotion which MAY indicate a lie.


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