Lying and Deceit - The Wizards Project

Can you spot a liar? Experts studying deception learn from the 'wizards' of lie detection.

WASHINGTON -- TV police drama detectives make it look easy but, in reality, most people simply can't tell when someone is lying or telling the truth. A small number of people, however, are extraordinarily good at spotting liars, catching deceit nearly 100 percent of the time, according to Maureen O'Sullivan, Ph.D., who has studied the science of lying and deceit for more than 20 years.

"We've now tested more than 13,000 people for the ability to detect deception, using three different types of tests," said Dr. O'Sullivan, professor of psychology at the University of San Francisco. "Of those 13,000 people we found 31, who we call wizards, who are usually able to tell whether the person is lying, whether the lie is about an opinion, how someone is feeling or about a theft." Dr. O'Sullivan spoke today at an American Medical Association's 23rd Annual Science Reporters Conference in Washington D.C.

"We hope that by studying our wizards, we'll learn more about the kinds of behaviors and ways of thinking and talking that can betray a liar to an experienced interviewer," Dr. O'Sullivan said. "Our wizards are extraordinarily attuned to detecting the nuances of facial expressions, body language and ways of talking and thinking. Some of them can observe a videotape for a few seconds and amazingly they can describe eight details about the person on the tape."

Even though people may try to control their expressions, most of us are not able to keep our feelings from showing on our faces, according to Dr. O'Sullivan. "Some of the muscles involved in expressions are not under conscious control," she said. "Especially when we feel strong emotions, those expressions appear on our faces, even if only for a fraction of a second. Our wizards are attuned to picking up on these 'micro-expressions.'"

"In our early work, we found groups of people who are consistently better at spotting deception, although most groups, including police officers, CIA and FBI agents, lawyers, college students and therapists, do little better than chance," Dr. O'Sullivan said. "By carefully analyzing the videotapes used in our test, we were able to find many objective behavioral measures that could have been used as clues to deception, but most people did not pick up the signals."

By working with secret service agents, trainers from ATF and LA Sheriffs , Dr. O'Sullivan and her colleagues were able to learn a great deal about how people can effectively use the behavioral clues that signal deception and develop training to help people become better lie detectors. "With 20 minutes of training, we are able to significantly improve someone's ability to recognize microexpressions which are involved in many kinds of lies," Dr. O'Sullivan said.

There are both emotional and cognitive clues to deceit, according Dr. O'Sullivan. The emotional clues arise because someone is unable tocompletely mask what he or she is really feeling. "There are usually emotions that are stirred up by lying," she said. "For most of us the emotion may be distress, but some people take real delight in duping people. The clue to the deception is the mismatch between what is being said and what the person seems to be feeling."

"In cognitive clues, we're looking for inconsistencies in the way people are talking," Dr. O'Sullivan said. "When someone is lying they may have to think more about keeping details straight and slow their speech or become more hesitant; work particularly hard to make the lie flow smoothly and speak more rapidly; use an odd phrase; or become tongue-tied. The inconsistency or the change in delivery is the clue that something is more going on. Of course, none of these things guarantee that someone is lying, but these clues can alert us to the possibility of deception."

"As we have studied our wizards, what we have found that they are highly motivated. They are really interested in being able to understand other people. One part of this understanding is whether someone is telling them the truth," Dr. O'Sullivan said. "Although they seem to have a natural talent, they practice and are always paying careful attention. They tend to be older, too, with a lot of relevant life experience."

"We hope the study of our wizards will enrich our understanding of how people communicate and provide information that we can use to detect deception more accurately," Dr. O'Sullivan concluded.

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