Sunday, 14 June 2015

A White Lie Can't Hurt......Right?

On Wednesday 10th of June at Birmingham Skeptics in the pub, Dr Mike Drayton graced us with his presence in order to give a fascinating talk on the psychology of lies and lie detecting.

Dr Mike Drayton is an organisational development consultant, a clinical psychologist and expert in negotiation.  He has a Doctorate in Psychology from the University of Birmingham and a BSc in Social Psychology from LSE.  He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine and an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, and spent 20 years working in mental health within the NHS before working as an independent consultant psychologist.

Dr Drayton ran through some common misconceptions about the nature of lying and how good (or rather how bad) we are at detecting lies – it seems we underestimate how good we think we are at lying, and conversely overestimate our abilities to detect lies.  This addressed the commonly thought ways of detecting when someone is lying to us – things such as avoiding eye contact (he tells us that in fact, a person lying will hold an unnatural degree of eye contact as a form of overcompensation), the person in question shifting in their seat and other subconscious cues like scratching of the head, placing their hand over their mouth and so forth.  It turns out that these aren’t so much signs of deception but more signs of anxiety – likely to be experienced by anyone undergoing interrogation regardless of whether they are telling the truth or not.  Better ways of determining if a person is being truthful or not are by asking seemingly irrelevant questions relating to the matter, since a liar has formed a storyline and timeline in their mind and this will throw them off their course, as will asking the person to recount the events in reverse order.  He discussed the motivations for lying – self gain, making others feel better, the so called “groupthink” whereby in order to avoid tension and conflict a group of people may accept lies at face value without employing any form of critical evaluation.

The effectiveness of devices such as the polygraph machine –which measures heart rate, blood pressure, respirator rate and galvanic skin response – was called into question.  Whilst the basis under which they detect lies seems plausible – establishing a baseline response to fairly normal questions such as name, place of birth, mother’s maiden name etc – there is actually very little established evidence with regards to their efficacy.  He also raised an interesting point in that psychopaths would pass such a test with ease due to their lack of empathy or emotion, and as such would not exhibit the typical responses we might expect to observe in someone trying to be deceitful.

What does have more credence is the analysis of what are termed Microexpressions – tiny, fleeting facial expressions that occur in 1/25 to 1/15 of a second so as to be barely perceivable in normal conversation.  Research into this field was pioneered by Dr Paul Eckman in the 1990s.  The process generally relies on catching these microexpressions  (usually be means of slowed down video footage) which seem to betray what a person is saying, as if the real story is told on the subconscious level.  As an example of this put into practice, a short video clip was shown which related to the story of Karen Matthews who in 2008 faked the kidnapping of her daughter.  In the video shown, when the footage is slowed down, we can see moments where she very momentarily smiles during a press conference relating to the disappearance of her daughter – not the sort of behaviour one would expect from a mother whose daughter was missing and her status unknown.  Other examples included video footage of Ted Haggard – an American evangelical minister who was recently accused of purchasing and using crystal meth as well as having homosexual relations with a male escort (relevant due to his condemnation of homosexuals as part of the beliefs that he preaches) and how his facial expressions contradicted his statements regarding the allegations.

Other examples of patterns exhibited during the telling of lies included head movement directly opposite to what was being said (a politician stating he would be happy to take paternity tests to determine the legitimacy of a child he was alleged to have fathered whilst shaking his head the whole time) and the language patterns used to distance oneself from the event in question (Bill Clintons classic “I Did.Not.Have.Sex with that woman” – note the emphasised words that don’t flow like normal conversation and the use of “that woman” as opposed to “Monica” or “Miss Lewkinsy” as would typically be expected when referring to a person).

Another interesting point brought up during the discussion was the question of whether it is ever ok to lie, by which we mean so called “white lies”.  I had read an essay by neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris (whose works and books I thoroughly recommend) and the subject of white lies.  In the essay, Harris argues that, when given some thought, it is actually quite hard to really justify any white lie.  Take for example a wife asking her husband if she looks fat in particular dress – now; any man alive knows he is in for a rough night in the doghouse should he respond with anything other than “You look wonderful dear”.  But let’s think about this for a moment – if indeed the wife is perhaps a little overweight, and you informed her so (in a nice manner of course) then this may prompt her to take action – maybe start eating more healthily, taking up exercise and generally improving her lifestyle.  In turn she can expect to lose weight, generally feel better about herself and reward herself with better health and improved health prospects – diabetes and coronary heart disease are no joke – perhaps more so if the couple have a family who they want to see grow up, and the children surely don’t want their mother to pass away at an early age.  So here we have to ask ourselves – are we really doing our partner any favours by lying to them?

Another example that Harris gives is when a friend produced a screenplay for him to read and review.  The screenplay was of significant length and clearly the friend had put a lot of time and effort into it.  Any good friend might be economical with the truth if they thought it was not good and severely lacking in some departments, but not wanting to hurt their friends feelings told them they thought it was ok and worth presenting to some Hollywood big shot who might turn it into a production.  But again, let’s think about this.  This friend might have one shot at presenting their work to the big director, and if they come forth with relative garbage, the director might turn them away, and disregard instantly any further work that person brings their way, effectively ending this persons career before it has even started.  Would it not be better to give an honest opinion, so that the friend may then go back and work on the shortcomings, to make it the best possible piece of work that they can produce, and then submit it to the director?  In the grand scheme of things, you are being far kinder to the friend by being honest than you are by saving them a short moment of embarrassment and disappointment that they will need to go back and rework their piece.

When Dr Drayton asked the audience for examples of where a white lie might be acceptable, one audience member replied “Santa Claus” – after all, it’s just a bit of fun right?  Well, we could argue that the inevitable revelation of the non-existence of Santa Claus might lead to a certain building of mistrust between the child and their parent – a lie ongoing for years without much justification that a child can comprehend.  It’s worthwhile taking the time to try and think of ways in which a white lie would be acceptable and then try to find reasons why, actually, they might not be, though implementing this into your daily routine would be no mean feat I’m sure.

This brings me back to the discussion of microexpressions – I recall reading an article in New Scientist where Dr Eckman said one of the pitfalls of being able to do this is that you can’t really turn it off once you have turned it on, so you can never effectively be lied to again – he gave an example of asking his wife if she enjoyed the dinner he had prepared, whereby she responded that it was wonderful, whereas her microexpressions told a different story.  This begs an interesting question in my mind – would we want to live in a world where we couldn’t be lied to?  Maybe sometimes we are content with the answers we are given, regardless of whether they are sincere or not.

There was nowhere near enough time in the evening to tap all of Dr Draytons wealth of knowledge and experience and I don’t think I would be alone in hoping to hear more from him in the near future.

Be sure to check out the Birmingham Skeptics webpage for details of the next upcoming talk which is sure to be as intringuing and thought provoking as that given by Dr Mike Drayton.

You can follow Dr Mike Drayton on Facebook here
And on twitter here: @mikedrayton

You might also be interested in looking up an Infinite Monkey Cage podcast from January 19th 2015 entitled “Deception” that covers many of these point.

This blog post was written by SitP regular Phil Walsh


Mike Drayton said...

Thanks Phil! This is a really interesting, well written and thoughtful review. I like the addition of the Sam Harris stuff and additional info on Paul Eckman - Mike

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