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Detecting Truth and Deception

Social perception can be tricky because people often try to hide or stretch the truth about themselves. Poker players bluff to win money, witnesses lie to protect themselves, public officials make campaign promises they know they can’t keep, and acquaintances pass compliments to each other to be polite. On occasion, everyone tells something less than “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Can social perceivers tell the difference? Can you tell when someone is lying?

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, once said that “no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore” . Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen later revised Freud’s observation by pointing out that some pores “ooze” more than others. Ekman and Friesen proposed that some channels of communica- tion are difficult for deceivers to control, whereas others are relatively easy. To test this hypothesis, they showed a series of films—some pleasant, others disgusting—to a group of female nurses. While watching, the nurses were instructed either to report their honest impressions of these films or to conceal their true feelings. Through the use of hidden cameras, these participants were videotaped. Others, acting as observers, then viewed the tapes and judged whether the participants had been truthful or deceptive. The results showed that judgment accuracy rates were influenced by which types of non- verbal cues the observers were exposed to. Observers who watched tapes that focused on the body were better at detecting deception than were those who saw tapes focused on the face. The face can communicate emo- tion but is relatively easy for deceivers to control, unlike nervous movements of the hands and feet. Clearly, there is nothing like the wooden Pinocchio’s nose to reveal whether someone is lying or telling the truth.

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