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Psychology of Deception

The Face in Deception

Deception is ubiquitous among higher organisms, but one usually thinks of an intention to falsify, hide, embellish, or otherwise alter the actual facts when abstracting the elements of human deception. Deception among humans is not necessarily a bad thing, but is widely condemned when it hurts or has potential to harm people. Innocuous deception is practiced by virtually everyone daily as a routine aspect of living. Managing the expressions of the face, disguising its features, and enhancing its attributes are important aspects of deception whenever people meet face-to-face. Much as deception is fair under the rules of many competitive games, so too is it an acceptable part of human interactions that follow certain rules. Malevolent deceit may also be practiced by certain individuals to circumvent the rules. Given the ubiquity of deception, and the possibilities of high stakes losses if one is fooled, it is not surprising that efforts to uncover deceit are also prodigious. The success of most people in detecting deception is, however, surprisingly poor. The following text discusses how one can see through attempts to use the face to deceive.

The Clues to Deception

innocuous deception in theater
Kabuki and other theater
engages in pretending
where the audience
is ready to believe in the
performance of the actors.
enjoyable lying
The mask of the clown or
the dissembling, unadorned
face can hide or exaggerate
a genuine expression. .
deceit serving special communication
Whether for enhancing
apparent ferocity, ritual
communion with the
spiritual, camouflage, or
symbolic theater, face
painting is a means to
assume a different
Varieties of

Observers usually are looking at the face of the person who deceives rather than their legs or arms, creating a dual dynamic for the process of deception and its detection. First, there is a pressure for the person to control the face in some way to ensure that it does not betray the deception or to improve its ability to give a false impression. Second, the rest of the body, which may not be as closely scrutinized by the other person or monitored as closely by the deceiver, is less subject to similar efforts at control. This difference has suggested to many psychologists that the clues for deception might be more apparent in the body than the face. Though the body has an important roll in nonverbal communication, how much it can reveal about deception is probably not as great as how much can be uncovered in the face. The face has a closer connection to many of the underlying processes connected to communication and deception so there is more that might be discovered there. Also, it is difficult to control all the aspects of the face entirely, so clues can still be gathered despite efforts to manage the face's behavior or appearance.

Paul Ekman is a well known authority on deception, lying, and the face's role in deceit. He points out that deception covers a number of different scenarios. For the face, these techniques include masking or hiding one expression with another behavior, suppressing an expression that arises spontaneously, and faking an expression that is not genuine. He discusses many situations and motivations that underlie attempts by people to lie, and how other people can catch lies. He calls attention to the varying ability of people to lie, saying that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to tell whether some people are telling the truth or not, if they are skilled in deceptive interactions. Some occupations require such skills, whether for good or ill.

There is no one specific behavior of the face that says "I'm lying." Instead, the person who wants to be a good lie detector must look for the clues to deception and put them together with many other facts to form an objective analysis. This analysis is often difficult to do in real time because the behaviors are difficult to see and occur in rapid sequence. They may occur only very briefly or together with other behaviors that obscure them. Most people also are not trained or naturally adept at seeing the elemental behaviors that one must perceive to break apart expressions and evaluate whether they are genuine or false. It is important to keep in mind how the facial behaviors correspond to the verbal production of the person, and any non-linguistic vocalizations or sound qualities, that might betray the lie when matched with a particular facial behavior. Psychological insights about the meanings of the verbalizations and their relation to personality, circumstances, and the story told, particularly conflicts, are also valuable in detecting deception. Catching a liar requires a lot of cognitive processing, and one increases the chances of success if the person's behaviors can be viewed repeatedly in slow motion.

How To Be a Better Liar

The question of how one can be a better liar is often raised for legitimate reasons. For example, a physician may want to hide his distress about a patient's fatal condition when telling the spouse about treatment alternatives and procedures, in order to convey the issues and instructions more effectively. The people who want to be a better liar for mischievous or malignant reasons, however, are probably more numerous than the benign, and the harm these people might cause if there were easy access to this information precludes offering advice on the subject. There are books available about strategies for the content of lies, propaganda, and advertizing, but no guides to management of deceptive nonverbal behaviors. So, if you want to become a better liar by improving your behaviors, there is no shortcut available to an arduous learning process. On the other hand, some people seem born with the ability to lie effectively, or to have gained the skill from extensive practice.

Lie Detection

The traditional lie detector or polygraph is widely used in law enforcement circles and intelligence agencies to aid the interrogation of suspects. lie detectorIt does not, however, detect lies, but at best, indicates only whether the person becomes physiologically aroused, something that may or may not be related to an attempt to deceive. A controversy about whether the polygraph is a useful tool has long raged, with one pole of opinion among psychologists that its practitioners are nothing but quacks versus the other pole, held mostly by the people with a financial interest or who have a reputation to protect, that a good polygraph analyst can always uncover the liar. This debate has important practical aspects because, for example, infamous spies within the FBI , CIA, and other government agencies have had successful, long-running careers that have done inestimable damage to United States security despite the deployment of the polygraph. It is safe to say that while the polygraph is easy to beat, the government is heavily invested in a relatively cheap and "tested" detection technology.

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