Liar, Liar... Why Aren't your Pants on Fire?

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Detecting Fires
Detecting lies has become somewhat of a big deal to our society. Multiple systems have been developed to accomplish such a feat, but how reliable are these methods? Research tells us that there hasn't yet been a breakthrough that allows us to be completely successful, although some theorists have much faith in their own process.

Tim Roth - Lie to Me.jpg

Ekman's approach
Paul Ekman, a psychologist, wrote the book Telling Lies in 1985 that later was the basis of the Fox TV series Lie to Me. In this book, Ekman writes about his theory of micro-expressions as revealers of emotion. He believes that when people try to hide their emotions a very quick facial expression emerges. This video shows an example of Ekman explaining his theory through a real world trial.
It seems like Ekman's approach works, but research argues that verbal cues are more reliable that non-verbal cues (which is what Ekman uses) in detecting lies. If you'd enjoy delving deeper into Ekman's work, feel free to visit his website.

The Polygraph Test
A more well-known approach is the polygraph test or the "lie-detector". This test assumes that the Pinocchio Response is real which means people have a supposedly perfect physiological or behavioral indicator of lying. In other words, a person's body will react much like Pinocchio's nose reacted when telling a lie, but in a more realistic way.

pinocchio walker.jpg
This test, however, has its problems. It confuses arousal with evidence of guilt. For example, Sally is being tested because she has been accused of stealing a necklace. Naturally, Sally is anxious even though she is innocent. This anxiety or arousal could easily mislead the test to report Sally as being a liar, and hence guilty.

Polygraph simpson.jpg

Some Questions...
After watching Ekman's video, how do you feel about his approach? Do you think it's unreliable?
Although several methods have been developed, why do you think detecting a lie is so difficult?


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I think that Ekman's research is really interesting. I visited his website and watched several videos, etc. and there seems to be many points of interest in this "micro-expression" behavioral research. It does seem to be effective at detecting emotion, for the most part, but I did not find anything on the site citing a scientific certification or any sign that this method has been accredited by scientific research, while it's application and training is funded by the federal government (not to say that our government hasn't paid for some pretty big flops in the past). I think what's most interesting is the point at the very end of one of the videos--about the ethical concerns of bringing these micro-expression-reading techniques into video imaging and computerizing the identification. If these "micro-expressions" truly reveal our hidden expressions, should we really exploit them in this way? How can we know that this technology will be used for the "right" reasons,and not to creepily spy on anyone within range of a government camera?

Yes Darien, the polygraph is unreliable and you do a nice job of pointing that out. I also like Ekman's work very much and think he has done the best research to date that examines a measurable way to detect emotions and facial cues that might signal when someone is lying.

You mention some other research that verbal cues are more reliable but do not describe what this is exactly. I am not aware of it and would be curious to know more. It seems to me that the verbal cues are what prevent us often from knowing when a person is lying.

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This page contains a single entry by rusch107 published on April 1, 2012 7:53 PM.

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