Telling Lies: Fact, Fiction, and Nonsense, by Maria Hartwig

Should you believe Paul Ekman, world's most famous deception researcher?

Posted Nov 26, 2014

Bella's intro: The most famous deception researcher in the world is Paul Ekman. You've probably read about him or his work and seen him on TV, either as himself or Tim Roth, the actor who played him on "Lie to Me." Here's something you may not know: A growing list of deception researchers has become increasingly skeptical of Ekman's claims. (I'm one of them, though, as you know, I identify more as a singles researcher than a deception researcher these days.) A reporter took on the challenge of looking into the skepticism, and wrote about his findings in the Chronicle of Higher Education in "The Liar's 'Tell': Is Paul Ekman stretching the truth?". I have been asked repeatedly what I think of the article. Instead of answering, I asked the person who currently really does do the very best and most important research on deception if she would write a critique as a guest post. Fortunately for all of us, she agreed. Here is what Professor Maria Hartwig, from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, has to say. It is what the Chronicle article should have said. Many thanks, Maria!

 Telling Lies: Fact, Fiction, and Plain Nonsense

 Guest Post by Maria Hartwig, Ph.D.

Recently, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a piece on the work of Professor Paul Ekman, "The Liar's 'Tell': Is Paul Ekman stretching the truth?". Ekman is a famous emotion researcher whose work on deciphering clues to the mind based on the expressions of the human face has had a wide impact on the scientific study of emotion, as well as on popular culture. Few psychologists have had a tv-show on a major network based on their life’s work, like Ekman did (“Lie To Me”, running on Fox for three season). He has been a consultant to various government entities, perhaps most famously through his involvement with the nation-wide aviation security program entitled SPOT (Screening Passengers Through Observation Techniques).

I applaud the Chronicle’s ambition to examine Paul Ekman work. However, the article in the Chronicle adopts an unnecessarily ambivalent stance to the scientific status of Paul Ekman’s work on lie detection. The subheading of the article “Is Paul Ekman stretching the truth?”. The answer to this question is yes. In order to understand why there is little need for ambivalence about the claims Ekman is making, it may be helpful to take a closer look at some of the basic premises of Ekman’s views, as well as assertions made in the Chronicle piece. I will articulate the core ideas that Ekman is promoting, and then compare these to the findings from the scientific literature on deception detection. I will then offer some possible explanations as to why Ekman’s story is so compelling, despite the vast body of literature that shows that it is not scientifically tenable.

The Claims vs. the Scientific Findings

Claim 1: Lying is an emotionally charged enterprise, and may leave behavioral traces

As the Chronicle piece makes clear, Ekman’s work originated in the study of emotion. It is uncontroversial to state that humans experience and display emotions, and that the face is a particularly rich source of emotional expression. The problem with linking emotions to deception lies in making clear exactly what it is that a person might feel when they are telling lies. If you ask the average person, they often reply that liars feel negative emotions, such as nervousness, anxiety, and fear of failing to act convincingly. In fact, this appears to be a near universal belief. It is true that people may feel such emotions when they are lying. But it is crucial to recognize that truth tellers might experience similar feelings. How would you feel if the police suspected you of a crime that you did not commit? What emotional experiences would you have while truthfully denying your guilt in the context of a police interrogation? It seems reasonable that you might experience a host of negative emotions - perhaps nervousness, anxiety and fear, in addition to anger about being wrongfully suspected. We do not need to invoke criminal investigations to understand the general logic behind this reasoning. Anyone who has been in a social situation where his or her truthfulness is questioned knows that it can be an unpleasant and stressful experience, even if one is telling the truth. Bella DePaulo has articulated a scientific theory called the self-presentational perspective on deception that emphasizes these similarities between lying and truth telling. The basic premise of the theory can be summarized in a relatively simple fashion. While lying is different from truth telling in the sense that liars’ claim to honesty is bogus, the behaviors may be similar in important respects: Liars and truth tellers share the goal of being perceived as honest. Consequently, to the extent that they care about being believed, both liars and truth tellers might invest effort in presenting themselves as honest, and might experience negative emotions at the prospect of failing to reach this goal. In short, the emotional approach to lying is simplistic and fails to recognize the emotional processes that may be experienced by truth tellers.

Claim 2: Lies can be detected through behavioral observation

Ekman has stated numerous times in the media that lies can be detected with impressive degrees of accuracy. In the Chronicle article, he claims the following: "The face is the most powerful indicator of deception. […] But it only gets you to 70-percent accuracy. That’s not a useful figure. In order to get over 90 percent you need to involve gesture, voice, and nuance of the content of speech.” Before examining the merit of these claims, let me briefly explain some of the basic features of the deception literature. Deception scholars use a variety of methods. Most often, they induce people to lie or tell the truth in laboratory situations. Sometimes, they study the characteristics of lying in non-experimental, real life situations – for example, when a person is lying or telling the truth during a police interrogation. At times, deception researchers compile meta-analyses. These are statistical summaries of an entire body of scientific work. Meta-analyses can be very informative, because they provide a condensed picture of a vast body of work. Charles F. Bond, Jr. and Bella DePaulo conducted a meta-analysis of over 200 samples examining human lie detection accuracy. They found an average accuracy rate of 54% - only slightly higher than what one would expect from guessing. Importantly, this accuracy rate varied very little from study to study. In other words, it is unusual to find studies where people perform much different from a near-chance hit rate. The assertion that observing the face alone yields a 70% accuracy rate, and that considering other indicators can yield accuracy rates over 90% is clearly not supported by the scientific literature.

Ekman appears unimpressed by this meta-analysis. In the Chronicle article, he argues that the lie-catchers in the meta-analysis had received no training in behavioral cues, and that comparing the 54% accuracy rate with what trained experts can do amounts to comparing apples to oranges. Actually, this is simply not true. The meta-analysis included studies where people with training and presumed expertise in lie detection (e.g., professionals such as law enforcement officers) made judgments. Bond and DePaulo carried out a statistical comparison of the hit rates obtained by people with and without expertise. Their results showed that experts did not outperform non-experts. In other words, both lay people and trained experts achieve a hit rate only marginally higher than chance, and there is no evidence that experts perform any better than lay people.

Perhaps what Ekman means when he complains that lie-catchers in the accumulated literature had received no training in behavioral cues is that they had not received his particular program of training. That is, perhaps he means that it is his training method, not general on-the-job training or professional expertise, that generates accuracy rates over 90%. It is true that the meta-analysis on lie detection accuracy did not examine the performance of people who had received Ekman’s training. The explanation for this is simple: To the best of my knowledge, there is not a single published study in which Ekman has tested the effectiveness of his training. Based on the available literature, which shows that the effects of training programs are small to moderate, accuracy rates over 90% as a function of training seem plainly implausible.

Claim 3: Lies are easier to detect when the stakes are high

Ekman has long argued that one of the main findings from lie detection research - that people obtain hit rates just slightly above chance - is a laboratory artifact. More specifically, he claims that stakes of the laboratory are not sufficiently high to generate strong emotion, which in turn may result in what he calls leakage. Simply put, his view is that lies that have serious consequences and involve strong emotions are easier to detect. Let us see what the literature on lie detection shows about this claim. First, the meta-analysis on lie detection accuracy discussed earlier compared studies where liars and truth tellers were motivated to be believed compared to when they were not. The studies in which people were motivated included people telling serious lies about crimes. If Ekman is right, accuracy rates should be higher in the body of studies where people were more motivated to be believed. This is not what the comparison showed. Actually, accuracy rates were similar across these two conditions – just slightly above what could be expected from guessing. However, the analyses showed that both liars and truth tellers who are motivated to be believed appear more deceptive. As suggested earlier, it may be that when the consequences of failing to convince are serious, both liars and truth tellers experience distress, which makes them look suspicious.

Second, a more recent meta-analysis focused on the question of whether laboratory research generates results that do not apply to real-life settings. In this analysis, we were interested in how detectable lies were across different settings – for example, whether lies were more obvious when liars were motivated, when the statement involved strong emotion, and when they were told by people other than college students. The results showed no evidence that there was more leakage of signs of deception when the circumstances were more similar to real-life, high-stake settings. It seems that Ekman’s claim that laboratory settings are artificial is baseless – instead, the findings are robust and translate to different contexts and situations.

Perhaps the reader wonders how it is possible that lies that involve strong emotion and considerable consequences are not easier to detect than lies told in more trivial circumstances. In some ways, this insults our intuition. It seems very plausible to think that a serious lie will be accompanied by more effort and distress than a trivial lie. In all likelihood, the latter is true. But it is important to realize that accurate lie detection in high-stake situations means not simply being able spot distress told by a liar, but also being able to distinguish this distress from that displayed by an innocent person. This is not an easy task. Imagine that two professional athletes who have both been accused of doping appear on national television. Imagine further that they are both proclaiming that they are innocent, but one of them is lying and the other is telling the truth. It is not hard to imagine that both athletes might experience some form of distress in this situation. Lie-catchers who watch these two statements face the very difficult task of deciding whether the signs of affect they see are indications of deception, or of an innocent person’s apprehension of the situation they are in. As I have discussed in some depth, the scientific literature clearly shows that people do not perform well at this task. The reason seems to be that contrary to Ekman’s claim, liars and truth tellers do not display very different behaviors, even when the stakes are considerable.

The Lure of Fiction about Deception

The notion that lies might be evident in behavior is part of our cultural mythology. Perhaps the most iconic depiction of this notion is found in the tale of Pinocchio, whose nose grew when he was telling a lie. It would be very convenient if Pinocchio’s nose was not mere fiction – if we could tell when others lied to us, we would not be betrayed in our private or professional lives. Moreover, if there was a metaphorical Pinocchio’s nose, many of the fundamental problems faced by the legal system would be moot. Guilty people would always be convicted, and innocent people would always be acquitted (unfortunately, it is increasingly clear that this is not the case).

People seem to believe in the existence of a sort of Pinocchio’s nose. That is, there seems to be a pervasive, pan-cultural belief that lies ‘show’, particularly in signs of discomfort and stress. Yet, I have argued here that research does not support this belief. How can it be that so many people are misguided about the psychology of deception? This is a complicated question for sure. Ekman’s response seems to be that half a century of research is wrong. I favor a different explanation. I believe that the reason that Ekman’s story is so compelling is precisely because it fits with common sense. More specifically, I think we want to believe that liars betray themselves. It is disturbing to think that people can lie to us and get away with it. Conversely, it is unpleasant to think that innocent people might face consequences for actions they did not commit. Social psychologists have found that people have a belief in a just world – a profound faith in the fairness of the world. According to this belief, people get the outcomes they deserve. That is, bad things happen to people who do bad things. Of course, inspecting the world from a rational perspective, it is not hard to generate examples that show that the world can be a very unfair place. Atrocities may go unpunished, while innocent people may suffer terribly due to no fault of their own. Why would people believe that the world is fair, when it is so easy to provide evidence that it is not? It seems that people cling to the belief in a just world because it provides some degree of psychological comfort. It might be difficult to face existence in a capricious world. Believing that justice will be done might be a way to cope with the uncertainties of life. Hence, it may be that people believe that lies show because it fits with a general view of how the world works – that it is a place where people face consequences for bad actions.

Concluding remarks

At the end of the Chronicle article, Ekman is asked what it feels like to continue to face criticism about his life’s work. He states that he does not pay attention to it anymore. This strikes me as a peculiar attitude toward concerns raised by a number of highly reputable scholars in his own field. More remarkably, Ekman describes an anecdote in which an unnamed critic of his work told him that he or she loves his work, but attacks it simply because it is a way to advance his or her career. It thus appears that Ekman believes that his critics’ motivations are dubious and that their criticism is intellectually disingenuous. Unsurprisingly, I do not share this belief. I believe the reason why Ekman’s work has long been under attack is because deception scholars genuinely care about the facts derived from their domain, and because they dislike the propagation of myths. The concern about the validity of Ekman’s claims does not come from a few vocal critics. Instead, some of the most prolific researchers in the area of deception have questioned the evidence supporting Ekman’s assertions. There is consensus in the literature that nonverbal behaviors are unreliable signs of deception, and to my knowledge, no other deception researcher claims that accuracy rates over 90% are possible based on training in observational techniques.

In summary, Ekman’s claim that the face is the most powerful indicator of deception is not only stretching the truth; it is fictional. The truth is that the face is a highly ambiguous canvas, and interpreting the expressions displayed in the human face is a treacherous enterprise. To the extent that there are traces of deception, they are most likely to be found in the accounts spun by liars—that is, the cues are in what people say – their words, not their nonverbal cues. Moreover, the claim that people can reliably obtain lie detection accuracy rates over 90% has simply never been demonstrated. To the contrary, there are hundreds of studies on human lie detection ability showing that such hit rates are in all likelihood out of reach, especially on the basis of sheer observation of behavior. If Ekman wants to silence his persistent critics, he needs to subject his claims about outlandish accuracy rates in lie detection to the standard process of scientific peer review. Until then, his claims should be met with the skepticism they deserve. The truth is that lie detection is a very difficult task. This may not be a pleasant truth to accept, but then again, not all truths are.

About the Author

Maria Hartwig is an Associate Professor of Psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. She conducts research on the psychology of deception, particularly in the context of interviews and interrogations. Her research on interviewing to detect deception has attracted the attention of law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the United States and Europe. In 2011, she testified before the United States Congress about behavioral science and airport security.

Postscript from Bella: Thanks again, Maria! And to readers: In her post, Professor Hartwig linked to numerous journal articles. I discussed many of the relevant points in other blog posts and books; you can find the links in "Here's what I know about lying and detecting lies." Plus, one more side note: "Telling Lies" was the name of the very first paper I ever published on deception. My advisor and co-author, Robert Rosenthal, loved the title because of its three meanings. A few years later, Ekman used it as the title of one of his books. Somehow, it just seemed perfect to use it again as the title of this post.