Maureen O'Sullivan

Maureen O'Sullivan Ph.D.


Are There Any "Natural" Lie Detectors?

Lie detection: practiced skill? Natural ability? Or both?

Posted Mar 23, 2009

Short answer: No

Long answer: It depends on what you mean by "natural." Are there any "natural" Olympic athletes? Or are they people with inborn talents and abilities that they have developed through motivated practice and feedback in a particular sport? For all his natural athleticism, Michael Jordan was a superior basketball player and a merely good baseball player.

Although a number of expert human lie detectors have been identified over the last twenty years, none of these experts (termed "truth wizards" in my research) could be described as "naturals." Most of them developed their lie detection abilities in response to a personal or professional need.

One wizard started his career as a motorcycle cop, with all the machismo that suggests. Later, as an investigator, he noticed that it took a lot of physical energy to get the results he did. Some of the older cops he worked with made it seem effortless. How did they do it? He watched them, talked to them, took classes. Eventually, he obtained an advanced degree in psychology. A good interviewer made himself into a great one.

Another wizard, an L.A. Sherriff was frustrated that he continued to have difficulty interviewing certain kinds of suspects and witnesses. They had something in common. But what was it? To find out, he apprenticed himself to one of the country's leading forensic psychiatrists. He now lectures on the role of personality in investigative interviewing.

Among the thousands of college students I have tested, no expert lie detectors were identified. In other research, I found that people under 22 years of age were significantly less accurate in lie detection than people in older age groups. If lie detection is natural, one would not expect mere aging to increase accuracy.

The idea of a "natural" human lie detector seems to bring with it a host of wrong ideas - that such people are "intuitive," or overly emotional, or uneducated.
In truth, however, the truth wizards I have studied are almost all quite logical and thoughtful, emotionally controlled, and highly educated. They include PhDs in literature, business and psychology, MDs, and JDs. The truth wizards are judges, arbitrators, artists, lawyers, therapists, and police investigators. It takes a lot of brain power to entangle the webs that are woven when people attempt to deceive.

What the expert lie detectors have in common is their motivation to understand others and to find the truth. The idea that this should happen with no effort, a mere blossoming of innate ability, boggles the mind. Even in the Harry Potter books, the nascent wizards attend Hogwarts Academy to develop their skills and repeatedly practice and test their already generous gifts. The equivalent of Hogwarts Academy for truth wizards may be the Academy of Life. Most expert lie detectors have had intense exposure to a wide array of humanity - by representing clients ranging from mentally retarded janitors to CEOs, or by working undercover, or by exploring the interstices of the psyche in therapy or in their art. They bring to this exploration a self-discipline and self-reflection that is rare, and certainly not "natural," given the prevalence of the positive illusion bias among most of us.

About the Author

Maureen O'Sullivan

Maureen O'Sullivan was a professor of psychology at the University of San Francisco.

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