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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Detecting Deception

Air Date: Week of

Honesty may be the best policy, but according to one psychologist, most of us are pretty easy to fool. Host Steve Curwood talks with Maureen O’Sullivan about her surveys of some 13,000 people, and about the thirty individuals who were able to spot a lie with 100 percent accuracy.


CURWOOD: Honesty may be the best policy, but according to one psychologist who’s studied the science of deception for more than 20 years, most of us are fairly easy to fool. Only about one percent of the population can spot a lie nearly all the time, says psychologist Maureen O’Sullivan.

She discovered nearly 30 of these rare individuals—whom she calls “wizards” because of their uncanny insight—during surveys of some 13,000 people over the past ten years. She writes about how she found these truth-detectors in a forthcoming book: “The Detection of Deception”, due out this fall from Cambridge University Press. Maureen O’Sullivan joins us now from San Francisco. Hello.


CURWOOD: Now, you have identified what you call “wizards” – people who are pretty expert at understanding when somebody is lying to them, if they can see them. That is, these are folks who must literally spot a liar. Do I have that correct?

O’SULLIVAN: Yes, although some of them pay more attention to the kind of words the liars use, and how they say those words. But we did find them by having them watch videotaped interviews of people both lying and telling the truth.

CURWOOD: Now of the people who became your “wizards” at detecting lying, what, if anything, do they have common?

O’SULLIVAN: I think that the one thing that’s the same about all of them is that they’re highly motivated to be good at understanding others, and they’re highly motivated to understand what’s going on with other people. For some of them, for like a small group, like about a third of them, it’s based on childhood need to do so. They either had an alcoholic parent, they had an odd living situation. And so they developed an acute emotional sensitivity early in childhood.

Another group is a group in mid-life. And this is unusual, because most expertise develops early in one’s career. But some of these wizards said that mid-career they just kind of decided they wanted to be really good at what they were doing – whether it was interviewing, you know, witnesses, or interrogating people for business contracts – that they really wanted to get good at it. And they made a concerted effort to really improve their skills in this area.

CURWOOD: Now in your research you found that people who we would think should be pretty good at ferreting out liars – police officers, FBI agents, lawyers, therapists – often they do little better than chance in your testing.

O’SULLIVAN: I know, isn’t that shocking?

CURWOOD: So, just what is it that your wizards do to catch someone who’s telling a whopper? That police and therapists don’t know to do?

O’SULLIVAN: I think that when we see somebody we tend to make an instantaneous judgement about them, and generally those are pretty good decisions. The problem is once we make those decisions it’s really hard for us to change our mind. The wizards, however, are not like that. They are able to switch off from those first impressions they make. The other thing that they have, most of them, is an acute sensitivity to non-verbal clues. They can see things that would escape the attention of most of us, including micro-momentary facial expressions. So they see more, they remember it better, and they’re able to evaluate what it is they’ve seen.

CURWOOD: Okay, tell me about this micro-momentary behavior.

O’SULLIVAN: If a strongly felt emotion happens it is very difficult for all of us – for most of us – to suppress it completely. And so what you will see is leakage of part of the facial expression. Either a little bit in one part of the face – like a tightening of the lips in anger, or the furrowing of the brow in distress. Or what can happen is you’ll have a full-flown facial expression that is just on the face for less than a second; it can be on for a fifteenth of a second, a thirtieth of a second. And the wizards are able to see these very, very quick facial expressions.

CURWOOD: So a basic kit to improve our lie-detection ability – though we’ll never be the superstars perhaps of your wizards – but just to do a little bit better than average, can you give me just a few basic rules here to follow?

O’SULLIVAN: Yes. You want to pay attention to what a person’s baseline behavior is, and you want to look for changes from that baseline.

CURWOOD: What do you mean by that?

O’SULLIVAN: Well, like if somebody is somebody – they wave their hands around all the time, all of a sudden they stop waving their hands. Why? It doesn’t mean they’re lying, but something has changed for them. If somebody is highly articulate, all of sudden they’re stumbling for words. So at the point where their behavior changes, that’s the point that one would want to examine further to see whether or not they’re telling the truth or something else has happened that’s of interest.

CURWOOD: Okay. Now let’s get down to the nitty-gritty here.


CURWOOD: We need your help. It’s the political season. So who – what do we need to know? There’s the politician on our television screen, he or she is making these claims, making these representations –


CURWOOD: How can we tell if our candidate for office is telling us the truth?

O’SULLIVAN: That’s very difficult because there are natural performers who just do not leak any kind of clues. And I think politicians, salesmen of various sorts, are like this. What you do is you pump yourself up to believe what it is you’re saying at the moment that you’re saying it. And so these – many politicians, particularly successful ones, can convince themselves that what they are saying they really mean it at the time they’re saying it. So I think it’s very difficult. I think you have to pay attention to the track record of the people and look at what they actually did say and what they actually did do. That a lot of the nonverbal behavior that we talk about, most politicians would be better trained and wouldn’t ordinarily show many of these clues.

CURWOOD: Well, Maureen O’Sullivan is a professor of psychology at the University of San Francisco, also has a clinical appointment at the University of California at San Francisco Medical School. Thank you so much for taking this time with me today.

O’SULLIVAN: Not at all, thank you very much.


CURWOOD: Just ahead: why some of the folks who put on dolphin and whale shows may not want you to take a look behind the scenes. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

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