As I See It: I Think Therefore I Lie
March 7, 2011 Victor Rozek
In retrospect, the cultural fascination with lying probably started with House. The popular FOX series features Hugh Laurie as the redoubtable Dr. House, a scruffy, pill-popping diagnostician with a mind like Aristotle, and a personality like sandpaper. House predicates his practice–as well as the conduct of his relationships–on the assumption that “everyone lies.” No sooner does a patient assure him that he isn’t on drugs, than House dispatches his minions to search the patient’s home for contraband. Don’t trust, do verify, and mess with people in the process. It’s healthcare at its finest: most everyone is cured and no one is ever presented with a bill.
Then came Lie to Me, another FOX series, this one based on the work of psychologist Dr. Paul Ekman. (Although with a name like Lie to Me, it could be a spinoff of FOX News.) The show features a fidgety Tim Roth in the role of Dr. Lightman, a human lie detector. The good doctor solves crimes by discerning who is speaking the truth, and his methods rely more on observation than content. Lightman interprets a subject’s microexpressions and body language. Ostensibly, where veracity and emotional states are concerned, the body unconsciously betrays the soul.
The ability to recognize lies is a marketable concept, and Ekman’s field of study is finding broad application. Classes are available on the Internet and overnight anyone can become an “expert.” Increasingly, Lightman wannabes are incorporating microexpression translation in serious decision making. From interrogations, to business negotiations, to job interviews; questioners are looking for nervous twitches and pinched eyebrows and making up stories about what they actually mean.
Pop culture has been equally quick to embrace the possibilities. If you’re a man and you don’t understand women (and exactly who would that eliminate?), you can download an iPhone app to help you “decode female microexpressions.” God help us.
At the time Dr. Ekman began his research, little was known about how emotional states were conveyed. One school of thought, championed by Darwin, was that facial expressions were universal. A more recent hypothesis, posited by Margaret Mead, held that facial renderings of emotional states were culturally determined.
To discover who was right, Ekman concocted a simple experiment. He ventured to the culturally isolated highlands of New Guinea where he showed South Fore tribesmen six flash cards depicting basic emotional states such as anger and sadness. He asked the natives to identify and match the emotions they saw. They did, and Ekman concluded that Darwin had been right all along; expressions were universal, traveling across all time zones of human experience.
While congruent displays of emotion are easy to identify, microexpressions are useful when a speaker tries to disguise his true intention or emotional state. Microexpressions are brief and involuntary contractions of specific sets of facial muscles. They unconsciously appear during times of stress, or when stakes are high and the speaker has much to lose or gain. Unlike regular facial expressions, microexpressions are hard to fake, and even harder to detect, lasting only 1/15th to 1/25th of a second. Ekman began the tedious task of mapping them.
Initially, he identified seven universal emotions that, regardless of the speaker’s intent, were unmasked by microexpressions: anger, disgust, fear, sadness, happiness, surprise, and contempt. Since then, research has added more emotions to the list such as shame and embarrassment, among others.
When it comes to issues of trust, it may well be that what we think of as “intuition” is based on our unconscious recognition of microexpressions. But identifying a lie is one thing; understanding why someone lied is another.
Ekman offers several possibilities and “avoiding punishment” tops the list. But Ekman warns that unless the consequences are serious–that is, there will be “significant damage if the lie is discovered,” such as the loss of a job, a relationship, freedom, or reputation–the lie will likely pass unnoticed. “The threat imposes an emotional load, generating involuntary changes that can betray the lie.”
In the workplace, mangers deal with a number of emotionally charged issues that could benefit from the ability to read microexpressions. Gaging the impact of difficult performance evaluations; assessing a job seeker’s veracity about prior accomplishments; determining the truth when accusations of sexual harassment or racial prejudice are filed. But such expertise is hard-earned and will not be found in a weekend workshop.
In any event, most workplace lying is of a more pedestrian nature. Protecting fellow workers by covering for them; exaggerating accomplishments to win the admiration of others; maintaining privacy by deflecting direct questions; avoiding embarrassment by minimizing or denying mistakes; or simply being polite. “That’s a great outfit, Sally.”
Management most frequently lies by omission, keeping critical information from employees and investors. When the lies are explicit, such as falsifying earnings, they move into the realm of criminality. In many corporations the core premise of employer/employee relations and company/customer relations is based on a lie: the pretense of caring.
My personal belief, based on the coaching work my wife and I do, is that people lie to protect their core innocence. You can see it most clearly in children. For example, one sibling hits another and you ask “Why did you do that?” In a near panic, the child will deny having done it, even though he knows you saw him. It’s not the consequences of the act he wishes to avoid, it’s being thought badly of, being judged. He wants to maintain his goodness in your eyes.
In spite of what we’re told from early childhood about being “bad,” or that there’s “something wrong” with us, or that we’re “evil” or “sinners,” there’s an inviolate part in each of us where an innate goodness resides that cannot be destroyed. Often, I believe, lies are a misguided attempt to defend that goodness; a cry that says I am more than my behaviors.
Although being authentic is generally desirable, some jobs require neutrality and therefore emotional suppression. Law enforcement officers remain calm so as not to inflame a potentially volatile situation. Jurists and journalists hide their feelings to appear objective. Healthcare professionals affect neutrality so as not to alarm their patients. CEOs wear a mask of confidence so as not to alarm the market. But, over time, the cost of suppressing authenticity is profound weariness. And the energy it takes to appear detached is siphoned from the energy available to do the job.
Lies, even obvious ones, can be surprisingly persistent because people simply refuse to recognize the truth. Research suggests that beliefs are frequently not based on facts, rather “facts” are chosen because they support existing beliefs. Bill Moyers recounts a study conducted at the University of Michigan “which found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in new stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.”
Such studies, says Moyers, “help to explain why America seems more and more unable to deal with reality. So many people inhabit a closed belief system on whose door they have hung the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign.”
Unfortunately, the desire to create alternate realities is not limited to individuals. A compelling argument can be made that willful ignorance has become a standard corporate strategy: A workplace where truth is not valued will tolerate great harm in the interest of great profit.
The power of lies may explain our new-found fascination with lying as entertainment. We may not have the diagnostic genius of a Dr. House, or the people-reading capabilities of a Dr. Lightman, but we do have one terrible thing in common–a thing so powerful it can refashion reality, strip millions of their homes, and even bring down presidents.
Then again, it can convince your husband he’s every bit as handsome as the day you met him.
Well, maybe in some cases the truth is overrated.