Telling Lies by Paul Ekman

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I thought it would be useful only for those working with mental patients. My study of lies began when the therapists I was teaching about my findings—that facial expressions are universal while gestures are specific to each culture— asked whether these nonverbal behaviors could reveal that a patient was lying. Usually that is not an issue, but it becomes one when patients admitted to the hospital because of suicide attempts say they are feeling much better. Every doctor dreads being fooled by a patient who commits suicide once freed from the hospital’s restraint.

Their practical concern raised a very fundamental question about human communication: can people, even when they are very upset, control the messages they give off, or will their nonverbal behavior leak what is concealed by their words? I searched my films of interviews with psychiatric patients for an instance of lying. I had made these films for another purpose—to isolate expressions and gestures that might help in diagnosing the severity and type of mental disorders. Now that I was focusing upon deceit, I thought I saw signs of lying in a number of films. The problem was how to be certain.

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In only one case was there no doubt— because of what happened after the interview. Mary was a forty-two-year-old housewife. The last of her three suicide attempts was quite serious. It was only an accident that someone found her before an overdose of sleeping pills killed her. Her history was not much different from that of many other women who suffer a midlife depression. The children had grown up and didn’t need Introduction 17 her. Her husband seemed preoccupied with his work. Mary felt useless. By the time she had entered the hospital she no longer could handle the house, could not sleep well, and sat by herself crying much of the time.

In her first three weeks in the hospital she received medication and group therapy. She seemed to respond very well: her manner brightened, and she no longer talked of committing suicide. In one of the interviews we filmed, Mary told the doctor how much better she felt and asked for a weekend pass. Before receiving the pass, she confessed that she had been lying to get it. She still desperately wanted to kill herself. After three more months in the hospital Mary had genuinely improved, although there was a relapse a year later. She has been out of the hospital and apparently well for many years. The filmed interview with Mary fooled most of the young and even many of the experienced psychiatrists and psychologists to whom I showed it.

We studied it for hundreds of hours, going over it again and again, inspecting each gesture and expression in slow-motion to uncover any possible clues to deceit. In a moment’s pause before replying to her doctor’s question about her plans for the future, we saw in slow-motion a fleeting facial expression of despair, so quick that we had missed seeing it the first few times we examined the film.

Once we had the idea that concealed feelings might be evident in these very brief micro expressions, we searched and found many more, typically covered in an instant by a smile. We also found a micro gesture. When telling the doctor how well she was handling her problems Mary sometimes showed a fragment of a shrug—not the whole thing, just a part of it. She would shrug with just one hand, rotating it a bit. Or, her hands would be quiet but there would be a momentary lift of one shoulder.

We thought we saw other nonverbal clues to deceit, but 18 Telling Lies e could not be certain whether we were discovering or imagining them. Perfectly innocent behavior seems suspicious if you know someone has lied. Only objective measurement, uninfluenced by knowledge of whether a person was lying or telling the truth, could test what we found. And, many people had to be studied for us to be certain that the clues to deceit we found are not idiosyncratic. It would be simpler for the person trying to spot a lie, the lie catcher, if behaviors that betray one person’s deceit are also evident when another persons lies; but the signs of deceit might be peculiar to each person.

We designed an experiment modeled after Mary’s lie, in which the people we studied would be strongly motivated to conceal intense negative emotions felt at the very moment of the lie. While watching a very upsetting film, which showed bloody surgical scenes, our research subjects had to conceal their true feelings of distress, pain, and revulsion and convince an interviewer, who could not see the film, that they were enjoying a film of beautiful flowers.

Not more than a year went by—when we were still at the beginning stages of our lying experiments—before people interested in quite different lies sought me out. Could my findings or methods be used to catch Americans suspected of being spies? Over the years, as our findings on behavioral clues to deceit between patient and doctor were published in scientific journals, the inquiries increased. How about training those who guard cabinet officers so they could spot a terrorist bent on assassination from his gait or gestures? Can we show the FBI how to train police officers to spot better whether a suspect is lying?

I was no longer surprised when asked if I could help summit negotiators spot their opponents’ lies, or if I could tell from the photographs of Patricia Hearst taken while she participated in a bank hold-up if she was a willing or unwilling Introduction 19 robber. In the last five years the interest has become international. I have been approached by representatives of two countries friendly to the United States; and, when I lectured in the Soviet Union, by officials who said they were from an “electrical institute” responsible for interrogations.

I was not pleased with this interest, afraid my findings would be misused, accepted uncritically, used too eagerly. I felt that nonverbal clues to deceit would not often be evident in most criminal, political, or diplomatic deceits. It was only a hunch. When asked, I couldn’t explain why. To do so I had to learn why people ever do make mistakes when they lie. Not all lies fail. Some are performed flawlessly. Behavioral clues to deceit—a facial expression held too long, a missing gesture, a momentary turn in the voice— don’t have to happen.

There need be no telltale signs that betray the liar. Yet I knew that there can be clues to deceit. The most determined liars may be betrayed by their own behavior. Knowing when lies will succeed and when they will fail, how to spot clues to deceit and when it isn’t worth trying, meant understanding how lies, liars, and lie catchers differ. Hitler’s lie to Chamberlain and Mary’s to her doctor both involved deadly serious deceits, in which the stakes were life itself. Both people concealed future plans, and both put on emotions they didn’t feel as a central part of their lie.

But the differences between their lies are enormous. Hitler is an example of what I later describe as a natural performer. Apart from his inherent skill, Hitler was also much more practiced in deceit than Mary. Hitler also had the advantage of deceiving someone who wanted to be misled. Chamberlain was a willing victim who wanted to believe Hitler’s lie that he did not plan war if only the borders of Czechoslovakia were redrawn to meet his demands. Otherwise Chamberlain would have 20 Telling Lies had to admit that his policy of appeasement had failed and in fact weakened his country.

On a related matter, the political scientist Roberta Wohlstetter made this point in her analysis of cheating in arms races. Discussing Germany’s violations of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1936, she said: “. . . the cheater and the side cheated . . . have a stake in allowing the error to persist. They both need to preserve the illusion that the agreement has not been violated. The British fear of an arms race, manipulated so skillfully by Hitler, led to a Naval Agreement, in which the British (without consulting the French or the Italians) tacitly revised the Versailles Treaty; and London’s fear of an arms race prevented it from ecognizing or acknowledging violations of the new agreement. ”

In many deceits the victim overlooks the liar’s mistakes, giving ambiguous behavior the best reading, collusively helping to maintain the lie, to avoid the terrible consequences of uncovering the lie. By overlooking the signs of his wife’s affairs a husband may at least postpone the humiliation of being exposed as a cuckold and the possibility of divorce. Even if he admits her infidelity to himself he may cooperate in not uncovering her lies to avoid having to acknowledge it to her or to avoid a showdown.

As long as nothing is said he can still have the hope, no matter how small, that he may have misjudged her, that she may not be having an affair. Not every victim is so willing. At times, there is nothing to be gained by ignoring or cooperating with a lie. Some lie catchers gain only by exposing a lie and if they do so lose nothing. The police interrogator only loses if he is taken in, as does the bank loan officer, and both do their job well only by uncovering the liar and recognizing the truthful. Often, the victim gains and loses by being misled or by uncovering the lie; but the two may not be evenly balanced.

Mary’s doctor had only a small stake in believing her lie. Introduction 21 If she was no longer depressed he could take some credit for effecting her recovery. But if she was not truly recovered he suffered no great loss. Unlike Chamberlain, the doctor’s entire career was not at stake; he had not publicly committed himself, despite challenge, to a judgment that could be proven w r o n g if he uncovered her lie. He had much more to lose by being taken in than he could gain if she was being truthful. In 1938 it was too late for Chamberlain.

If Hitler were u n t r u s t w o r t h y , if there was no way to stop his aggression short of war, then Chamberlain’s career was over, and the war he thought he could prevent would begin. Quite apart from Chamberlain’s motives to believe Hitler, the lie was likely to succeed because no strong emotions had to be concealed. Most often lies fail because some sign of an emotion being concealed leaks. T h e stronger the emotions involved in the lie, and the greater the n u m b e r of different emotions, the more likely it is that the lie will be betrayed by some form of behavioral leakage.

Hitler certainly would not have felt guilt, an emotion that is doubly problematic for the liar—not only may signs of it leak, but the torment of guilt may motivate the liar to make mistakes so as to be caught. Hitler would not feel guilty about lying to the representative of the country that had in his lifetime imposed a humiliating military defeat on G e r m a n y . Unlike Mary, Hitler did not share important social values with his victim; he did not respect or admire him. Mary had to conceal strong emotions for her lie to succeed. She had to suppress the despair and anguish motivating her suicide wish.

And, Mary had every reason to feel guilty about lying to her doctors: she liked them, admired them, and knew they only wanted to help her. For all these reasons and more it usually will be far easier to spot behavioral clues to deceit in a suicidal patient or a lying spouse than in a diplomat or a double agent. But 22 Telling Lies not every diplomat, criminal, or intelligence agent is a perfect liar. Mistakes are sometimes made. The analyses I have made allow one to estimate the chances of being able to spot clues to deceit or being misled.

My message to those interested in catching political or criminal lies is not to ignore behavioral clues but to be more cautious, more aware of the limitations and the opportunities. While there is some evidence about the behavioral clues to deceit, it is not yet firmly established. My analyses of how and why people lie and when lies fail fit the evidence from experiments on lying and from historical and fictional accounts. But there has not yet been time to see how these theories will weather the test of further experiment and critical argument.

I decided not to wait until all the answers are in to write this book, because those trying to catch liars are not waiting. Where the stakes for a mistake are the highest, attempts already are being made to spot nonverbal clues to deceit. “Experts” unfamiliar with all the evidence and arguments are offering their services as lie spotters in jury selection and employment interviews. Some policemen and professional polygraphers using the “lie detector” are taught about the nonverbal clues to deceit. About half the information in the training materials I have seen is wrong.

Customs officials attend a special course in spotting the nonverbal clues of smuggling. I am told that my work is being used in this training, but repeated inquiries to see the training materials have only brought repeated promises of “we’ll get right back to you. ” It is also impossible to know what the intelligence agencies are doing, for their work is secret. I know they are interested, for the Defense Department six years ago invited me to explain to them what I thought were the opportunities and the hazards.

Since then I have heard rumors that work is proceeding, and I have picked up the names of some of the people who may be involved. My letters to them have Introduction 23 gone unanswered, or the answer given is that I can’t be told anything. I worry about “experts” who go unchallenged by public scrutiny and the carping critics of the scientific community. This book will make clear to them and those for whom they work my view of both the hazards and the opportunities. My purpose in writing this book is not to address only those concerned with deadly deceits.

I have come to believe that examining how and when people lie and tell the truth can help in understanding many human relationships. There are few that do not involve deceit or at least the possibility of it. Parents lie to their children about sex to spare them knowledge they think their children are not ready for, just as their children, when they become adolescents, will conceal sexual adventures because the parents won’t understand. Lies occur between friends (even your best friend won’t tell you), teacher and student, doctor and patient, husband and wife, witness and jury, lawyer and client, salesperson and customer.

Lying is such a central characteristic of life that better understanding of it is relevant to almost all human affairs. Some might shudder at that statement, because they view lying as reprehensible. I do not share that view. It is too simple to hold that no one in any relationship must ever lie; nor would I prescribe that every lie be unmasked. Advice columnist Ann Landers has a point when she advises her readers that truth can be used as a bludgeon, cruelly inflicting pain. Lies can be cruel too, but all lies aren’t. Some lies, many fewer than liars will claim, are altruistic.

A woman who has the paranoid delusion that she is Mary Magdalene is not a liar, although her claim is untrue. Giving a client bad investment advice is not lying unless the advisor knew when giving the advice that it was untrue. Someone whose appearance conveys a false impression is not necessarily lying. A praying mantis camouflaged to resemble a leaf is not lying, any more than a man whose high forehead suggested more intelligence than he possessed would be lying. * A liar can choose not to lie. Misleading the victim is deliberate; the liar intends to misinform the victim.

The lie may or may not be justified, in the opinion of the liar or the community. The liar may be a good or a bad person, liked or disliked. But the person who lies could choose to lie or “It is interesting to guess about the basis of such stereotypes. The high forehead presumably refers, incorrectly, to a large brain. The stereotype that a thin-lipped person is cruel is based on the accurate clue that lips do narrow in anger. The error is in utilizing a sign of a temporary emotional state as the basis for judging a personality trait.

Such a judgment implies that thin-lipped people look that way because they are narrowing their lips in anger continuously; but thin lips can also be a permanent, inherited facial feature. The stereotype that a thick-lipped person is sensual in a similar way misconstrues the accurate clue that lips thicken, engorged with blood during sexual arousal, into an inaccurate judgment about a permanent trait; but again, thick lips can be a pemanent facial feature. ‘ Lying, Leakage, and Clues to Deceit 27 to be truthful, and knows the difference between the two.

Pathological liars who know they are being untruthful but cannot control their behavior do not meet my requirement. Nor would people who do not even know they are lying, those said to be victims of self-deceit. * A liar may come over time to believe in her own lie. If that happens she would no longer be a liar, and her untruths, for reasons I explain in the next chapter, should be much harder to detect. An incident in Mussolini’s life shows that belief in one’s own lie may not always be so beneficial: “. . . in 1938 the composition of [Italian] army divisions had been reduced from three regiments to two.

This appealed to Mussolini because it enabled him to say that fascism had sixty divisions instead of barely half as many, but the change caused enormous disorganisation just when the war was about to begin; and because he forgot what he had done, several years later he tragically miscalculated the true strength of his forces. It seems to have deceived few other people except himself. ”

It is not just the liar that must be considered in defining a lie but the liar’s target as well. In a lie the target has not asked to be misled, nor has the liar given any prior notification of an intention to do so. It would be bizarre to call actors liars. Their audience agrees to be misled, for a time; that is why they are there. Actors do not impersonate, as does the con man, without giving notice that it is a pose put on for a time. A customer would not knowingly follow the advice of a broker who said he would be providing convincing but false information. There would be no lie if the psychiatric patient Mary had told her doctor she would be claiming feelings she did not have, any more than Hitler “While I do not dispute the existence of pathological liars and individuals who are victims of self-deceit, it is difficult to establish.

Certainly the liar’s word cannot be taken as evidence. Once discovered, any liar might make such claims to lessen punishment. 28 Telling Lies could have told Chamberlain not to trust his promises. In my definition of a lie or deceit, then, one person intends to mislead another, doing so deliberately, without prior notification of this purpose, and without having been explicitly asked to do so by the target.  There are two primary ways to lie: to conceal and to falsify. In concealing, the liar withholds some information without actually saying anything untrue. In falsifying, an additional step is taken.

Not only does the liar withhold true information, but he presents false information as if it were true. Often it is necessary to combine concealing and falsifying to pull off the deceit, but sometimes a liar can get away just with concealment. Not everyone considers concealment to be lying; some people reserve that word only for the bolder act of falsification. If the doctor does not tell the patient that the illness is terminal, if the husband does not mention that he spent his lunch hour at a motel with his wife’s best friend, if the policeman doesn’t tell the suspect that a “bug” is recording the conversation with his lawyer, no false information has been transmitted, yet each of these examples meets my definition of lying. The targets did not ask to be misled; and the concealers acted deliberately without giving prior notification of their intent to mislead. Information was withheld wittingly, with intent, not by accident.

There are exceptions, times when concealment is not lying because prior notification was given or consent to be misled was obtained. If the husband and wife agree to have an open *My focus is on what Goffman called barefaced lies, ones “for which there can be unquestionable evidence tht the teller knew he lied and willfully did so. ” Goffman did not focus upon these but upon other misrepresentations, in which the distinction between the true and the false is less tenable: “. . . there is hardly a legitimate everyday vocation or relationship whose performers do not engage in concealed practices which are incompatible with fostered impressions.

When there is a choice about how to lie, liars usually prefer concealing to falsifying. There are many advantages. For one thing, concealing usually is easier than falsifying. Nothing has to be made up. There is no chance of getting caught without having the whole story worked out in advance. Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said that he didn’t have a good enough memory to be a liar. If a doctor gives a false explanation of a patient’s symptoms in order to conceal that the illness is terminal, the doctor will have to remember his false account in order not to be inconsistent when asked again a few days later.

The husband can mention other matters concealing the assignation unless a directed inquiry forces him to choose between falsifying or telling the truth. Some lies from the outset require falsification; concealment alone will not do. The psychiatric patient Mary not only had to conceal her distress and suicide plans, she also had to falsify feeling better and the wish to spend the weekend with her family. Lying about previous experience to obtain a job can’t be done by concealment alone. Not only must inexperience be concealed, but the relevant job history must be fabricated.

Escaping a boring party without offending the host requires not only concealing the preference to watch TV at home but the falsification of an acceptable excuse, an early-morning appointment, babysitter problems, or the like. Falsification also occurs, even though the lie does not directly require it, to help the liar cover evidence of what is being concealed. This use of falsification to mask what is being concealed is especially necessary when emotions must be concealed. It is easy to conceal an emotion no longer felt, much harder to conceal an emotion felt at the moment, especially if the feeling is strong.

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