Growing up as a kid, I had this one wish that nature will bestow me with the telepathic ability to read other peoples’ minds. I wished I could instantly tell a liar from a truth-teller. In the society where I come from, believing everything you hear is dangerous. Some people make a living out of telling lies, sycophancy and outright deceptiveness. What you see or feel may not be as it seems. For this reason, we ought to be extra-cautious.

People, in general, are not good at detecting lies and deception. Most people have developed inaccurate beliefs about cues to deception. The average person relies on cues such as “nervous behavior”. Liars have also developed better strategies, and non-verbal cues have lately become the least common signs to signify a person doesn’t mean what he or she is saying.

Tilburg University’s Mariëlle Stel and Leiden University’s Eric van Dijk (2018) notes that, “people may not be wrong in their assumptions about liars, but that instead, the behavioral cues suggesting someone is lying are just not that strong”. They discovered this after testing the hypothesis that facial expressions signifying emotions might provide a more reliable set of cues than the liar’s behaviors.

Facial Expressions

Stel and van Dijk point out that the literature needed to detect lies is complicated by the fact that judging true vs. posed smiles differs from determining whether a person who’s smiling is lying or not.

When a sales representative waits on you and offers to help with a broad smile, you probably don’t have to consider whether this smile is genuine or not.

It is natural to expect clients to treat you in a friendly way, and even if the person is acting, it wouldn’t really matter.

However, if you’re being smiled to by a stranger asking pertinent questions about your private life, you’ll know there is something unpleasant brewing beneath the surface.

Researchers have found that negative emotional expressions present a difficult challenge for liars. For example, liars are not so good at intentionally seeming angry, unhappy, or afraid.

Negative emotional expressions

“although deceivers are less successful in faking negative emotions, naive observers do not seem to notice”

The Dutch authors observed.

In spite of these difficulties, Stel and van Dijk believe that observers could easily distinguish between the emotional expressions of liars and truth-tellers if given the right training and instructions.

Perhaps it is possible that a reasonable percentage of people lie for any other reason. So rather than asking people to state whether someone is lying or not, it would be better, to train people to learn to decode the facial expressions of others when they talk.

The study proposes to ask them to rate the extent to which a person is feeling the emotion purportedly shown on the face.

The two approaches to detecting deception were compared and the indirect measure in which participants rate the extent of an emotion was chosen believing that it would provide greater accuracy than just asking participants to state whether the person they’re rating is lying or not.

In the first of two studies, undergraduate participants were made to view videos of the faces of people who were lying or telling the truth. The videos were watched without any audio.

The videos were created by asking the “actors” to either lie or tell the truth about the way they were feeling after having watched a film fragment of either “Jungle Book” (positive emotions) or “Sophie’s Choice” (negative emotions).

The participants watching the videos were then asked to provide direct ratings of lying vs. truth-telling and indirect ratings of the extent to which the person felt the depicted emotion.

As earlier predicted, participants were unable to provide accurate categorical judgments. However, when it came to rating the extent of the portrayed emotion, participants were more accurate in rating negative than positive emotional faces.

This finding supports the idea that it is harder for people to tell a lie by faking a negative emotion.

People lie for any other reason

In the second study, a larger number of participants were used. Also, more video fragments and a broader set of emotional ratings from the videotaped faces were employed.

This time, the researchers made sure to include more items in the negative emotions scale that are relevant to deception, such as penitence, regret, guilt, sadness, anger, and worry.

The results of the findings further confirmed those of the first study. It showed that participants couldn’t tell whether the people in the videos were lying or not, but could rate whether the people in the videos were feeling bad or not.

Interpreting this effect, the authors concluded that people are not just good at transmitting a lie especially when it involves a negative emotion.

Susan Krauss, an author on Psychology today explains that it is also possible, though, that observers change their approach when they’re rating the emotions of someone who seems sad, angry, hurt, or remorseful.

“It’s well known that people are better at making cognitive judgments when they’re in a bad mood. You remember more details, for example, of an important sports match when your team loses than when they win. When seeing someone who seems sad, emotional contagion sets in and you feel bad as well. At that point, you’ll be better able to judge the nuances of what someone seems to be feeling. Good moods make you more global and hence, less accurate in your judgments”.

Summarily, it is hard to be an expert lie detector. Some people are excellent lies and it becomes confusing when they are telling the truth. However, do not use the direct approach, rather, take a step back and see if you can gather which emotions the person you’re judging is actually experiencing. Try to compare the emotion you think the person is feeling with the person’s words. Ask yourself a different set of questions other than if they are telling a lie or not, and you will surely drive closer to the truth.