A recent story about human lie detectors boasted one of the rarest — and most accurate — subheading ever written on the topic: “The death of the dead give-away.” So often, we hear instead about how this twitch or that manner or speaking or some other muscle movement is the new and shiny tell-tale clue to deceit. There are some clues to deception, but they are probabilistic cues, not dead give-aways.
That terrific article has inspired me to go off-script from this Living Single blog and start a list of everlasting truths about deception.
- There is no perfect clue to deception. There is no behavior that always occurs when people are lying and never occurs any other time. The dead give-away is a ghost of a phenomenon that never did exist and never will. Pinocchio, your nose is toast!
- There are no perfect human lie-detectors. There have been claims that some select people are “wizards” at detecting deception. Charlie Bond and I have cast some doubt on that claim. (See the note at the end of this post.) But there is one thing that even the believers in wizards will agree with me on: No one is right all the time about whether another person is lying.
- Neuroscience will not provide the magic bullet of lie-detection. Brain scans, fMRI, neuroimaging and such are all the rage, but they will not offer perfect deception-detection capabilities either. Lies are too diverse for that. The emotions, cognitions, and self-presentational goals of different kinds of lies are just too different to support a single tell-tale brain signature. Plus, it is not too practical to depend on this sort of expensive and unwieldy technology.
- There will always be cultural hand-wringing about liars and their lies. Plagiarism, big-time lying, even scientific fraud all seems rampant these days. But check out the cultural critics of bye-gone times and I bet you will find some of the same laments about casual attitudes toward the truth.
- People will never stop lying. Some people lie less often than others, and it is possible that overall rates of lying change some over time. But deception will never end. There are too many rewards for lying, and those perks are not just materialistic and they are not just self-centered, either. Most often, the rewards are psychological (rather than, say, financial), and in some (though not most) instances, the person who benefits most from your lies is someone else.
- The previous five seemingly-dismal pronouncements may actually be good news. Of course, there are domains in which we would love to see perfect lie-detection (in the pursuit of possible murderers, for instance). But perfect lie-detection for every kind of lie in every kind of situation? I think not. Would you really want other people to know – always – how you really do feel, regardless of what you say about how you feel? Would you want them to be able to discern the truth about all of the facts of your life? You can even flip that question: Would you want to know what other people really do think of you, all of the time and in every situation? Suppose you could magically make all lying disappear: Would you opt to use those special powers? Would you ban the reassuring lies people tell when the truth might be just too painful to bear (e.g., “no, your young daughter did not suffer in that tragic slaying”)? Many lies are heinous and cannot be justified in any way. But beware of the urge to find the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, always and forever. The cliché, “be careful what you wish for,” was written for yearnings such as that one.