The truth and society’s inability to accurately recognize a lie


The human obsession with lie detection is nothing new. One of the earliest forms of lie detection existed in India 2,000 years ago. A potential liar was told to place a grain of rice in his mouth and chew. If he could spit the rice out, he was believed to be telling the truth. If he couldn’t, it was understood that the fear of being caught had parched his throat, and his deception was confirmed. Although lie detection technology has advanced monumentally since then, a perfect test still does not exist. The need to “decipher the science” behind modern lie detection is quite understandable in the context of criminal investigations. However, the obsession is perhaps fueled more by a refusal to accept human fallibility. This article, part 3 of the Lie-spotting series, explores society’s obsession with truth and our ultimate inability to accurately recognize its opposite. This article first appeared on FirstRand Perspectives. – Nadya Swart

Lie Detection Series: More Lies Part 3

By Alistair Duff

In the modern age, there has been the propensity to demonize lying and to judge those caught in the act of deception. From business leaders like Madoff to true world leaders like Clinton, their misdeeds have dominated news cycles, made headlines, and are the subject of days of televised debates. We have been forced to accept a post-truth world in which meaning and intent should be considered more important than facts, as the current President of the United States seems to address daily via Twitter.

It would seem that most people still believe that facts matter and lies should be punished. It seems even more of an obsession with truth and dishonesty, reinforced by endless discovery of everyday happenings across our world. Where we were previously shocked by a high-profile scandal, we’ve evolved into a lottery pick to see who gets caught next.

Culturally, this obsession heightens public interest, which means that anyone with ideas on this subject will write a book, deliver a speech (or speeches), stand in front of any available camera, and in this new digital world, the sudden appearance of a surprising number of applications.

Each app is masterfully represented by intriguing icons of fingerprints, heart monitors, and stacks of polygraph drawings. So mysterious and alluring, and all available for just $14.99; why choose only one or two? If each offers nearly 100% accuracy, surely one combination can provide 300% or 400% accuracy and the potential to impress friends, embarrass others, and the potential to write a book. Obviously, the success of this book will be severely hampered by the base of the American intelligence community who have all written a similar tome with the added magic ingredient of “field experience”.

One of the main beneficiaries of this increased awareness and interest in lie detection has been Pamela Meyers, the main subject of our previous article on fibs. His books and lectures proved to be bestsellers and cemented his reputation as the best human lie detector. People were amazed that by simply studying behavior they could increase their ability to evaluate truthful statements by 50% to 90%. To be fair, this sudden ability doesn’t come with a money-back guarantee in any of his work. The irony of the human polygraph lying about lies would prove far too meta (physical) for many. Later research attracted far less attention, but again unilaterally failed to show similar remarkable results. The bucket of cold water for many aspiring Sherlock Holmes is the number 54, or 54% to be precise. If the work conducted by Meyers suggests 90% accuracy, that suggests that the participants were about 90% functional and very powerful telepaths (someone calls them the X-Men). All other research in this regard seems to settle comfortably around 54% or very close to that figure.

Luckily for us, researchers sometimes read past studies. Thus, in a single project, 206 previous studies were analysed. This massive undertaking included 24,500 judges with more than 6,600 posts collated and evaluated based on progress in lie detection. Don’t worry about a lack of experience in the field, as 3,000 recognized experts have also been included. The average success rate among the 206 of these report rates was, you guessed it, 54%. An average accuracy of 54% can be easily contextualized as it is remarkably similar to the result of a simple coin toss.

After further analysis of these results, some facts have become clear about the mystical art of lie detection. When simple fact-checking isn’t possible, we seem to almost ignore the actual statement, relying more on behavioral cues that seem to suggest lies. These physical oddities have become widespread over time and are now referred to as “such”. The popularity of this belief drives the public to learn and seek out the most accepted tales, and in general the majority of lectures and books focus on exactly this. These are not to be ignored altogether, as they are accepted standards for a reason and may at least suggest dishonesty. However, the big obstacle to a one-size-fits-all approach to detection is the simple fact that the human race is made up of individuals in both behavior and detection. Attempts to decipher an individual’s honesty based on suggested standards fail to recognize the key fundamentals that affect the person in question. Mood, motivation, habits and appearance massively influence responses to questions.

It would also seem clear that our interpretation may well be based more on our own opinions and a strong case of confirmation bias than on the actual evidence. Confirmation bias is a human condition in which we actively seek support for our existing beliefs while ignoring conflicting evidence. The most glaring example of the inaccuracy of lie detection relied simply on appearance. In a study that flatly refutes the ability to accurately and objectively detect dishonesty, the real truth becomes undeniable. In an ingeniously simple experiment, respondents were shown statements from people who seemed naturally sincere versus those who might seem less sincere. Unsurprisingly, these judgments are based on pre-existing geographical or cultural biases. This approach has been described as a behavior-truth concordance condition comprising sneaky-looking liars and sincere-looking honest people.

The trick was also to include sleazy-looking truth tellers and those who looked innocent but were actually lying. The study included students from different cultures, seasoned college professors and, not to be outdone, our trusted lie detection experts. The results are as follows:

The conclusion suggests that when seemingly innocent people tell the truth, or when sleazy customers lie, we’re pretty good at recognizing it. However, if a statement’s appearance and truthfulness don’t add up, we all look pretty awful, regardless of culture, experience, or, more shamefully, claimed expertise. Experts show the biggest gap in the ability to look beyond appearances. While you would naturally expect pros to look past the tackles during assessments, their score is embarrassing. There seems to be an even greater tendency to jump to conclusions without considering individuality and context. In the final analysis, it would seem that finding a trustworthy lie detection expert can be extremely difficult.

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