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Aug. 09, 2011

The Science of Lying

by Kaitlyn Gerber

Click to enlarge images

By Kaitlyn Gerber, Carleton College

A new study shows that more often than not, liars cannot suppress all signs of a lie. But if this is true, why aren't we better at detecting lies ourselves? And is the ability to lie really programmed into our genes?

New research published in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior asserts that when under scrutiny, humans can reduce facial actions and tics when lying, but cannot eliminate them all -- implying that we're not quite as good at lying as we believe. Co-authored by Dr. Mark Frank of the University of Buffalo, and Carolyn Hurley, research scientist at the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, the study involved 33 female and 27 male undergrad students. Participants were put in a room with an envelope that held a pair of movie tickets and asked to either remove the tickets or leave them behind. All subjects then had to convince a neutral interrogator that they had not taken the tickets. Afterwards, the majority of the students believed that they had kept a "poker face" and convinced the interrogator of their innocence. However, frame-by-frame coding revealed that all of the participants that lied had managed to suppress -- but not completely eliminate -- telling facial movements, such as eyebrow twitches.

Frank believes that his findings have important implications for lie-detecting security. "Until this study," said Frank in an interview, "researchers had not shown whether liars could suppress elements of their facial expression as a countermeasure." As a result, he continued, his findings have "important implications for security settings," because since lying "raises the cognitive load," it is difficult - if not impossible - to suppress all signs of a lie.

However, if we are so bad at concealing lies, why isn't it easier for humans to detect when other people are lying -- and why do we do it in the first place? Studies have shown that it is nearly impossible for humans to guess whether or not another individual is lying based solely on face-to-face contact, and even based on a polygraph test. Statistically speaking, when humans predict whether someone is lying, they have about a fifty-fifty chance of guessing correctly -- the same odds as correctly guessing the outcome of a coin flip. Despite Frank's findings that liars cannot fully suppress facial movement, innocent people under stress may exhibit some or all of the same facial tics, making it nearly impossible to determine who is the true liar in a given situation.

In fact, lying may pose evolutionary benefits to our species. Robert Feldman, Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts, says that lying is a basic evolutionary skill. In an interview with The Independent, he explained: "If you can fool a member of another species and it allows you evade detection, or it allows you to evade being eaten, then that gives you an advantage." He pointed out that lying can be socially, professionally, and sexually advantageous; in a society that places such a high value on success, one might think that humans need to lie in certain situations in order to advance.

Researchers have found that children who are convincing liars early in life are more successful later. The ability to tell fibs at the age of two or three is indicative of advanced cognitive development, because it allows for multiple brain processes, such as integrating different sources of information and manipulating data to benefit the individual. In a study conducted by Dr. Kang Lee of the University of Toronto, young children told not to look at a toy almost always lied about it later. However, the study, which encompassed children of all ages, found no correlation between lying early in life and cheating on exams or other fraudulent behavior. Instead, Lee believes that while parents should teach their children to be honest, children who lie are actually advancing their cognitive ability.

What is the truth? Although lying may be advantageous, it is still hotly debated whether we are evolutionarily "hotwired" to lie. Regardless, researchers are quick to point out that lying can backfire on the individual as well.

Ultimately, dishonesty "makes our relationships less real," said Feldman in an interview with The Independent. "People have been found to express regret for pulling something over on another person -- even when they think they are doing it to make something better."

______________________________

Kaitlyn Gerber will be a sophomore at Carleton College, where she plans to major in biology or physics. Originally from Ridgefield, CT, she likes soccer, reading, and science, especially ecology and astronomy.

About Kaitlyn Gerber

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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