An Education on Deception - a blog by Nicholas Baker

Monday 07-11-2016 - 16:22

The Psychological Society celebrated their first ticketed event with a lecture on liars, manipulators, cheats, scammers and other synonyms – A lecture by Gordon Wright, a graduate of Birkbeck, lecturer of MSc forensic psychology, and founder of the Forensic Psychology Unit at Goldsmith's University (or so he says).


We began by defining what lying was – the deliberate deception of others. The truth must be known to deceive – you cannot lie in ignorance. Other factors, such as lying for benefit, good manners, or fun cannot be fit into the definition. They are associated with lying, but do not define it. However, uncertainty still looms, with questions such as “Is self-deception lying?” muddying the waters.


We were then confronted with how we had lied to ourselves about lying (whether this is a lie still stands). For example, we are more likely to think someone is being honest if we agree with them. We see someone as more truthful if the width of their face matches the height.  And contrary to popular belief, prolific liars are not better liars (according to prolific liars).  This may be a result of polite society refraining from accusing others as liars, so mistakes are not corrected. Alternatively, they may have been lying.


The most insidious of these errors is the Othello Error – where a truthful person, under stress, appears to be lying, due to the stress of the interview, and the possibility of being disbelieved. The nervous recollection of excessive details may in-fact be an indication of truth, but is read as the opposite.  This relates to problems in lie detection by humans, we may be over-dependent on 'demeanour' and tend to profile people. However, machines may be no better as the polygraph is infamously tricked by this, as it only measures if the participant is stressed, not why they're stressed.


The issues with the polygraphs are currently being worked on with the development of polygraph+, which measures multiple physiological features instead of just the stress response, hoping for a more accurate reading. Guiding this is a myriad of studies showing that particular gestures correlate with lying (e.g. pupil dilation, foot movements and a serious tone), but these are only suggestive, not definitive.


Others have taken a more human approach, using 'lie wizards'. These wizards claim to have an acute ability to detect lies by recognising micro-expressions of the face – involuntary expressions lasting a fraction of a second. The truth is written all over our faces, but sadly, not in academia – the research on the wizards remains largely within private institutions. Of the 20,000 tested, only 20 lie wizards were discovered, an incredibly small percentage, less than should occur if the participants answered at random. Some have suggested the wizardry is no more than luck. Others found that the majority of lie wizards were Secret Service Agents, who got to mark their own tests. Are we so bad at detecting lies that we might as well guess? Or are the Lie Wizards the real liars? 


These questions scratch the surface of the deep and uncharted study into deception, and how knowledge can help us detect truth, or conceal it. In the courts, and in everyday life, the hunt for truth remains.


If this topic interests you Gordon Wright recommends Ian Leslie's 'Born Liars' and Dan Ariely's 'The Honest Truth about Dishonesty'.


If you'd like to sign-up to the Psychological Society, you can here.


Our next event is a screening of 'My Beautiful Broken Brain' followed by an interview with Lotje Sodderland, if you are a member of the society, tickets can be bought here.


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