Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Truth About Lying

By Stephen Luntz

Reality TV shows and YouTube videos are providing insights into lying and arguing.

After completing a degree at the Australian National University, Edward Reynolds spent some time assessing people for security clearances. “In the training courses they trotted out tired, old psychological theories about lying I knew from my undergraduate degree were bunkum,” Reynolds says.

Despite this, the courses contained some useful tips. “For example, if you suspect someone has not answered a question properly simply don’t respond,” says Reynolds. “Eventually they will continue and answer the question.”

Reynolds was puzzled by the combination of useful practical advice apparently based on discredited theory. He chose to go back to ANU to complete a Masters in Linguistics on lying.

Rather than using laboratory studies, with all the artificiality and expense involved, Reynolds turned to TV programs Cops and The Jeremy Kyle Show to seek examples of people who were subsequently revealed to be lying. He found these people did indeed show many of the traits said to be associated with lying, such as pauses while answering questions.

However, truth-tellers showed the same traits when under pressure. He found these so-called cues to deception were simply not reliable indicators.

The Jeremy Kyle Show is a UK offshoot of Jerry Springer in which guests are pushed to air their personal secrets. Often they lie, for example about having had affairs, and are then subjected to polygraph tests.

Reynolds acknowledges that the participants are not acting under normal circumstances. “However, I’m confident that, unlike some of the US equivalents, the people are not actors.” For his study he only used cases where, after failing a polygraph test, those involved admitted they had previously been lying, leaving aside cases where a polygraph result might have been wrong.

Reynolds notes that Cops is heavily edited, and reactions when faced with a camera close to one’s face may be atypical. However, he notes: “Any situation has particular aspects to it. There is no magical context that can be generalised to every other part of our lives.”

Reynolds says that the theories of “cues to deception” seem to have arisen from studies of bad liars. He says that when someone lies ineffectively, and the person they are speaking to starts to get suspicious, these cues start to show up. However, that does not mean they are a good guide in the absence of other factors that might create suspicion.

Pauses are a great example. “It takes two people to create a pause: one to stop speaking and one to not start,” Reynolds notes.

Suspicions arise, Reynolds says, not from the verbal cues but from the substance of what the person is saying. Inconsistencies within a story, or a description that does not tally with how the interviewer knows people behave, trigger doubt. Once it becomes clear that a story is not being believed, the cues become more frequent.

Reynolds says he is “quite sure people have been wrongly convicted overseas because they displayed what were thought to be cues to deception”. Presumably more accomplished liars have walked free because they avoided the verbal behaviour thought to indicate dishonesty.

A particular problem is accusatory interrogation techniques, where the interrogator assumes guilt no matter how credible the person being interviewed may be. “The problem is you get a sort of Stockholm syndrome where people have sued police because will say anything after a long enough interrogation. It’s not torture but coming close to it.

“There’s lots of debate amongst police forces as to the reliability of these cues, with differences between different regions.” Reynolds adds that Australian and UK police forces have been more resistant than their US equivalents to fads such as linguistic techniques to spot dishonesty.

While polygraph tests can be beaten with a little training, Reynolds says that talented operators use them as a tool to create a social environment in which they can more easily draw inconsistencies or errors from those being tested.

Commercial operators also offer functional MRI scans, which claim to reveal whether the lit-up parts of the brain reveal dishonesty. “The issue with fMRIs is the artificiality of the situation,” Reynolds says. “You’re lying down in a tube in a hospital, with an experimenter on the other side of a plate. It’s very artificial. It might work when we have fMRIs that operate while you are sitting up having a conversation.”

Reynolds traces his research interests to childhood, when “I was interested in other people’s patterns of behaviour. I was the quiet one watching what others did.” This led to studies at ANU in linguistics and sociology as well as social psychology.

Now at the University of Queensland, Reynolds has, at least temporarily, put his work on lying behind him. He is doing a PhD thesis on the techniques people use when arguing. The internet has offered him a wide array of data from sites such as YouTube, using heated conversations between people on opposite sides at protests and counter-protests. He is also working on a paper on children’s collaborative storytelling.