A successful persuasive campaign usually ends with another person acting against his or her own interests in favor of yours. Since most people are naturally selfish, getting them to act against their interests requires deception. Rare are the times when all the facts will be on your side, rarer still will be the times when you need to persuade someone to act selfishly, and rarest of all are the people who won’t use deception when trying to persuade you. Basically, if you’re not deceiving, you’re probably not persuading; attempting to influence someone without deception is like trying to win a war without bullets.
So far, our Dark Triad project has kept us busy with one kind of deception: creating false impressions. But the project we’re opening up with this post will, hopefully, make another form of deception safer and more efficient for you. It’s something you do hundreds of times each day, with little or no thought: lying.
You’re probably very good at lying already. In fact, you’re probably such a good liar that you don’t notice yourself doing it until you get caught. Also, you’ve lied so much for so long to so many people, that by now, you’re just going through the motions. If you had a shitty weekend, you lie to your coworkers on Monday and say, “It was fine.” If you’re running late, you say, “I’ll be there in five minutes,” even if you have no idea how the long the traffic jam you’re stuck in will last. If you have an engagement ring in your pocket and your girlfriend asks why you look so nervous, you say, “I’m not nervous, why would I be nervous, why, do I look nervous to you, I swear, everything’s fine, I’m not nervous, I swear!”
Ever wonder if anyone actually believes you?
We do. We want to help you to become a better liar. That’s why we’re here.
The first step in putting a beneficial habit (in this case, your lying habit) under conscious control is to breakdown the behavior into parts. Once you can control each individual aspect, you can control the whole behavior much more easily. Thankfully, lying has already been broken down for us by none other than Paul Ekman, the world’s leading expert on emotions, body language, facial expressions, and, of course, deception.
In 1969, Ekman and co-author Wallace Friesen published, “Nonverbal Leakage and Clues to Deception.” This article initiated decades of research on deception and non-verbal behavior, changed the way law enforcement and security specialists handle interrogations and screenings, pioneered the discovery of micro expressions (involuntary facial expressions that occur without conscious awareness), and inspired a short-lived TV crime drama on FOX.
For us? Well, for now, we just want it to change the way you think about lying. The article is mostly theory, designed to provide definitions and concepts to assist in the research that came after it. In that spirit, we will keep the analysis to a minimum. Think of this post as a glossary you can refer back to as our project progresses.
Usually, we lie on the fly, and then forget about it. We want you to look at each lie more carefully. Every one has characteristics common to all lies that affect how easy the lie will be and the odds that you will get away with it. Ekman calls these characteristics deceptive dimensions.
Deceptive Dimensions – Characteristics of specific social situations where lying is involved.
Deceiver – The liar or the person thought to be lying.
Detector – The person being lied to or who thinks he is being lied to.
Stakes – For the deceiver, the stakes are the incentives to lie and to avoid being caught. For the detector, the stakes are the incentives to catch the deceiver in a lie.
Salience – The degree to which deception is an explicit focus of conscious concern.
Salience is determined by how much lying is expected in a situation. High saliency occurs in situations where everyone involved is acutely aware that deception is happening; the deceiver knows he is lying, and the detector knows she is probably being lied to. Car sales, contract negotiations, and pick-ups are all situations of high saliency. Low saliency usually occurs when lie detection is not a priority; job interviews (where the interviewer is primarily focused on qualifications) and low-stakes game-play are examples of low saliency. Saliency is also affected by personal history, stereotyping, or personality. For example, a repeat philanderer explaining why he’s coming home late is in a situation of high saliency when lying to his wife. A straight-laced high school student is in a situation of low saliency when lying about cheating on a test.
Symmetry – The relative degrees of saliency between liar and detector.
Every lie has either asymmetrical or symmetrical saliency. Asymmetrical saliency occurs when one person, either the deceiver or the detector, is less aware than the other that a lie is occurring. Usually, the detector has lower saliency than the deceiver, but sometimes the deceiver has lower saliency. Examples of this latter situation are when a person is delusional (he is lying to himself), and when the detector is paranoid or is making false accusations (the “deceiver,” in this case, is actually being truthful.) Symmetrical saliency almost always occurs in situations where the stakes are extremely high for both deceiver and detector. Car sales, contract negotiations, and pick-ups fit this description. Symmetry also describes situations where one or both persons are occupying the role of deceiver and detector. In labor/management disputes, for instance, the role-play is symmetrical: both parties are deceivers and detectors simultaneously.
Leakage – Involuntary behaviors (usually non-verbal) that indicate information is being concealed.
Sending Capacity – The relative ability of different regions of the body to convey messages.
Sending capacity is measured in speed, variety, and visibility. In the 1969 article, Ekman considers three general regions of the body: the face, the hands, and the legs. The face has the highest sending capacity in all three categories; the hands rank second and the legs rank third. (Later on, Ekman’s work will help us look at these regions in greater detail; for now, these three general categories are sufficient.) Each region’s sending capacity is affected by anatomy and culture. The face’s sending capacity, for example, is high because it’s highly innervated and has an intricate musculoskeletal structure, enabling it to form many expressions very quickly. It’s also highly visible because most people are trained to look at the face during conversation. The legs, on the other hand, are not highly innervated, contain just a few very large muscles compared to the face, and are usually hidden from view under a table or desk. Furthermore, it isn’t culturally permissible to look at a person’s legs (especially a woman’s) during conversation, so even if the legs are visible, you couldn’t watch them for leakage without getting slapped.
Feedback – The information a deceiver uses to determine if his or her lie is being believed or if he or she is lying well.
Feedback and leakage originate in the same degree from the same regions of the body; the face provides the most, the hands the second-most, and the legs the least. Feedback is mostly external; it comes back to the deceiver from the detector. Internal feedback is rarer; it is only received by the deceiver if he is aware of his or her own facial expressions and body language during deception.
Understanding saliency and symmetry is crucial for effective lying and lie detection. Lying is hardest under symmetrical, high-salience conditions where the liar is both deceiver and detector. Lying is easiest under asymmetrical, low-salience conditions where the deceiver is not expected to be a detector. If you have time to plan before telling a lie, try to figure out the salience, the symmetry, and your expected role. If you’re heading into a symmetrical, high-salience situation where you’ll be expected to lie and be lied to, you might want to stall for time, find an alibi, and collect evidence undermining the other person’s lies. If you’re heading into the opposite situation, don’t sweat it; save yourself the time and energy. Most likely, though, you’ll be dealing with something in between these two extremes.
Leakage, feedback, and sending capacity (according to Ekman’s hypothesis) are interrelated. The greater the sending capacity a region of the body has, the more a detector will focus on it, and the more the deceiver will try to control it. When lying, the deceiver will do his best to control his face; when being lied to, the detector will do her best to watch the face of the deceiver. As a result, something strange happens; the legs and hands (the poorest senders) leak more deception clues than the face (the best sender). But nobody – neither deceiver nor detector – notices it. When the face leaks, it’s imperceptibly fast, and neither person is likely to notice. This is great news for a liar like you. You’re already good at controlling your facial expressions from years of practice, and the people you’re lying to are trying to catch you by looking at the one area of your body that leaks the least. They probably wouldn’t know how to interpret leakage from your hands or legs even if they did look. But even better news is the edge you could have on them when they try to lie to you; watch their legs and hands. Learn how to read leakage from these poorly-monitored body regions, and you will catch them.
Ekman, P., and Wallace, Friesen V. (1969). “Nonverbal Leakage and Clues to Deception.” Psychiatry Journal for the Study of Interpersonal Processes, 32(1), 87-106.
Next Post in Series: Intro to Deception – Deceptive Dimensions