Saturday, March 28, 2009


OUR research (Ekman and O'Sullivan, 1990; Frank and Ekman, forthcoming; Ekman, Frank, and O'Sullivan, forthcoming) suggests that most people cannot tell from demeanor whether someone is lying or telling the truth. Such poor performance is not because lies are told flawlessly. Most liars make mistakes which could be detected but usually are missed. Both perpetrating a lie and detecting a lie, in most people, seem to be poorly developed skills. In this article, I consider six explanations for why most of us do not catch liars from demeanor. I will first explain how I distinguish lying from other forms of deceit, and then discuss the evidence which suggests that people are such poor lie catchers.

The intent of the liar is one of the two criteria I (Ekman, [1985] 1992) use to distinguish lies from other kinds of deception. The liar deliberately chooses to mislead the target. Liars may actually tell the truth, but that is not their intent. And truthful people may provide false information--bad advice from a stock broker--but that is not their intent. The liar has a choice; the liar could chose not to lie. We are all tempted to lie, but we do not always do so. Lying is not irresistible; it is, by my definition, a conscious, considered choice. I do recognize that lying can become a habit and then performed with little consideration, but, at least initially, all such habits began as considered choices about whether or not to do so. Presumably, a pathological liar is compelled to lie and by my definition, therefore, is not a liar.

The second criterion for distinguishing lies from other deceptions is that the target is not notified about the liar's intention to mislead. A magician is not a liar by this criterion, but Uri Geller is a liar, since Geller claimed his tricks were not magic. An actor is not a liar, but an impostor is. Let the buyer beware is one example of an explicit warning that products or services may not be what they are presented to be. (Of course, that warning does not appear in advertisements, nearly all of which are designed to convey the opposite message.) Poker is still another situation in which the rules of the game sanction and notify the players that deception will occur, and, therefore, one cannot consider bluffing to be a lie.

Sometimes notification of an intention to mislead is implicit in the framing, to use Goffman's (1974) term, of the situation. In real estate transactions, the potential buyer is implicitly notified that the seller's asking price is not the actual price the seller would accept. Various forms of politeness are other instances in which the nature of the situation notifies the target that the truth may not be spoken. The host would not properly scrutinize the dinner guest to determine if the guest's claim to have enjoyed the evening is true anymore than the aunt should worry whether the nephew is lying when he says that he appreciated being given a tie for Christmas. Deception is expected; even if the target might suspect that the truth is not being told, it is improper to question it. Only certain types of deception may be allowable: the poker player cannot use marked cards; the home seller cannot conceal a known defect.

In courtship, it is ambiguous whether the parties should expect truthfulness. The saying "all's fair in love and war" would seem to warn lovers not to believe all they are told. Recent public opinion polls suggest that lies that downplay the number of previous sexual partners are common among college-aged adults. Yet I expect that lovers want to believe in the truthfulness of their lover. Many popular songs testify to the betrayal felt when lies are discovered (although some do warn that lies may be expected). Romantic love requires collusive efforts to develop and maintain myths about each other and the nature of the relationship.

I differ from Bok (1982), who only considers false statements to be lies. I (Ekman, [1985] 1992) argued that one can falsify without words, and one need not falsify, verbally or nonverbally, to lie. Concealment is just as much a lie as falsification, if there is an expectation that information will be revealed. When filling out a job application that asks for a listing of all previous employment, omitting the one from which one was fired would be a concealment lie, for there is an obligation to reveal. In personal relationships it is not always so clear cut, and the liar, once discovered, and the target of the lie may disagree about whether or not an obligation to reveal the concealed information was in force.

Concealment and falsification are different techniques for accomplishing the same objective. The issue is the motive, not the technique employed to accomplish it. If the motive is to mislead, then the choice between falsifying or concealing is simply a matter of which technique will work better in a given instance. Elsewhere (Ekman, [1985] 1992) I have explained why most liars would prefer to conceal rather than falsify if the situation will allow it and also described some other techniques for implementing a lie.


Post a Comment