A Nice Gesture by Jeroen Arendsen

Various personal interests and public info, gesture, signs, language, social robotics, healthcare, innovation, music, publications, etc.

Lie to Me – Show me no signs and I’ll tell you no lies

On Dutch TV they will be starting to broadcast ‘Lie to Me’, a TV series (see Wikipedia). The series is founded on the idea that it is possible to tell a lie from seeing a few ┬┤tell-tale signs’. Watching downwards indicates you’re guilty. Biting your lip indicates lying. That sort of stuff. Paul Ekman and his colleague Friesen did research on this idea back in the 1970’s which is still the only evidence, as far as I am aware of, that the idea holds any real value.

Lie to Me

Lie to Me

Personally, I find it very hard to believe that people are such bad liars that they can be spotted so unambiguously. But then again, I have my doubts about physiological lie detection tests too. Even if everything is done properly (including additional testing to detect masking efforts) they will still have a 5% fault margin I’m told by a guy doing such tests. What then to make of a lip bite? There is a world of gestures and signs on our two lips, see for example this entry in the ‘nonverbal dictionary’ (here). I am not too fond of that dictionary, again because of its total lack of appreciation of ambiguity and human resourcefulnes. But it shows a nice collection of ‘lip signs’.

There is simple too little known about the usefulnes of behavioral clues to detect lies. To what extent can people control their behavior? Can they suppress it? Is it ‘unconscious’ or unwilling? Is it entirely beyond the will of a crook acting a saint? Can people mask the behavior? Or throw up a smokescreen of ‘tell tale signs’? Does everyone show these signs in the same manner? What about men and women? Children and adults? Japanese and Nigerian people? People from Boston or New York? Married or unmarried? Parents or not?

In addition, to what extent can observers, like the main characters in Lie to Me suppress their personal opinion. Will they not be influenced by the power of suggestion and spot that what they wish to see? If I think a man is guilty I will easily notice his every downward glance, won’t I. The eye of the beholder is not an innocent eye.

Please, good people of the world. Watch ‘Lie to Me’ for your entertainment, but do not think it is based on scientific evidence.


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  1. Thanks for your comments. Yes, I agree that nonverbal signs, signals, and cues may–like words–have different meanings and senses. I do think, however, that science (especially neuroscience) helps us understand what these meanings are. Thanks again. Best, David Givens (Center for Nonverbal Studies, USA)

  2. Jeroen

    Dear dr. David Givens. Fair enough. Your point about science helping us understand the meanings of ‘nonverbal behavior’ is taken. But in what context can we trust these insights? In casual onservation? In psychiatry? Or in lie detection?

  3. Good question, Jeroen. The nonverbal cues are indicators of unspoken agendas, emotions, and moods. When I see lip corners suddenly droop, for example, I detect what may be disappointment, sorrow, or sadness. I then probe–verbally–to see if something truly is wrong. Lip corners pull down through unconscious contraction of depressor anguli oris muscles, which link to emotion centers of the brain. I can always tell, at a glance, when something is upsetting my wife, and I try to fix it. Thanks again, Jeroen! Best, Dave Givens

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