"Don't trust your impressions,"
Ekman says of trying to detect concealed emotions. "They'll
probably be wrong based on stereotype. Judging by demeanor
is very difficult to do." One of the easiest ways
to see beyond impressions is to learn to catch micro-expressions,
which betray emotions, he says. "If you see a sign
of fear on someone's face -- particularly if it's concealed
-- then you'll go up and ask a few questions." Inquiring
may lead to a caught lie and eventually the truth.
Of all the body language
classes, the one on detecting deception is the least attended.
People don't seem to want to know the truth.
Getting away with lies seems less easy to do these
days. There are e-mail trails and cellphone videos and
rabid cable news networks with a nose for hypocrisy and
double talk. There are video montages on YouTube of government
officials blatantly contradicting themselves.
Still, this doesn't mean a golden age of truth
telling is at hand.
"The same phenomenon that's making our words
stick around can be used by people to lie even more,"
says Feldman, of U-Mass. "You can go into a chat
room and be anyone you want and make up a whole identity
So the way we observe, catch and perpetrate lies
has changed over the past 50 years, but the consequences
of being caught have not. Choosing to lie is often a serious
gamble with integrity.
"A big cost of lying is people won't be able
to trust you again," says Ekman, the psychologist.
Everyone knows what it takes to lie, but "nobody
knows the ability it takes to reestablish trust. You can't
work with someone, let alone live with someone, if you
don't trust them."
We are liars and lie catchers, and the sport runs
from the banal to the breathtaking, from personal to public.
Right now, someone somewhere is lying about "having
plans tonight." Meanwhile, someone else is discovering
that his or her spouse has methodically concealed an affair.
All you have to do is watch or read the news and you'll
about somebody lying whether it's government, corporations
or the public, lies are all around us.
Sometimes, of course, dishonesty is the best policy.
Lying, for all the bad it might cause, is an indispensable
part of keeping our day-to-day lives running smoothly.
"Everybody lies -- every day; every hour;
awake; asleep; in his dreams; in his joy; in his mourning,"
Mark Twain wrote in his 1882 essay "On the Decay
of the Art of Lying."
Much of the time we don't even know it. Lying
is a necessary, near-involuntary practice that keeps
the fabric of society from unraveling. Example:
"How are you?" a co-worker asks.
"Fine, thanks," you say, when in truth
you're not fine. Life is a hellish morass, and this
person is getting in the way of your dutiful self-pity.
But to respond in such a dour manner would turn a passing
pleasantry into an awkward, socially debilitating episode.
Take your average 10-minute conversation between
two acquaintances. In that span, the average person
will lie two to three times. That's not cynicism. That's
science. And it's ingrained in us at a young age, when
we're whipsawed between "honesty is the best policy"
and "no matter what, tell Aunt Barbara you like
"We're always telling children you should
tell the truth, and yet we're also giving them the message
that it's absolutely fine to lie," says Robert
Feldman, associate dean at the College of Social and
Behavioral Sciences at the University of Massachusetts.
"At a very early age we're getting these conflicting
messages about honesty, and for some people it makes
them more prepared to be deceptive later in life."
And here we are, all grown up and peddling lies
big and small: exaggerating our resumes, misleading
our lovers, fibbing to spare people pain, lying to ourselves
to preserve our sanity. All those fit into the seven
reasons we lie, as delineated by the psychologist Paul
Ekman: We lie to avoid punishment, to get a reward,
to protect others, to escape an awkward social situation,
to enhance our egos, to control information and to fulfill
our job descriptions (think spies).
So many reasons to lie. So many ways
to lie. How do we cut through the thick crust of deception
and drill our way to the hot, molten core of truth?
It's easy. With training and practice.
When it comes to teaching the art of detecting
deception, Ekman is the man. His 1985 book "Telling
Lies" is a benchmark work on the topic, and he
has tested the lie-detection ability of more than 12,000
people and found that the average person will correctly
identify a lie 54 percent of the time, hardly a desirable
success rate. But that person will do considerably better
if taught to detect micro-expressions, which are suppressed
(or repressed) emotions that briefly flash across someone's
face. The truth is often tucked discreetly under a quilt
of cheerful lies.