photo by Faye Rollinson
We’re not nearly as good at spotting lies as we think we are…and that has grave consequences for our justice system.
False eyewitness testimony, mistaken witness IDs, and false confessions have put thousands of innocent people behind bars.
What can we do about it?
We’ve all experienced it: the rage and grief that follows a betrayal of trust. The worst of it is that we’re not only angry at the deceiver; we’re furious with ourselves — for being stupid enough to believe.
I should have known better, we tell ourselves. And we react by nurturing an unhealthy skepticism, the better to protect ourselves from the next brilliant snake charmer who sets his sights on us.
There’s one problem with that approach: It assumes that if we can just be careful and savvy enough, we can spot the next liar who comes along.
Unfortunately, we can do no such thing.
The Long Con
The best liars expend a great deal of energy setting out to deceive, more energy by far than we use in watching out for them. “Those who put all their ingenuity and energy into fooling us usually succeed,” writes Malcolm Gladwell in a New Yorker article about Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State coach who for decades got away with molesting vulnerable young boys. 
“Those who put all their ingenuity and energy into fooling us usually succeed.” —Malcolm Gladwell
Gladwell goes on to describe the former coach as a practical joker who went to extraordinary lengths to portray himself as a childlike goof, a high-profile authority figure who seemed to wield his power with self-effacing humor and a philanthropist who appeared to care more for underprivileged kids than ambition.
But it was all a giant ruse, constructed over a lifetime, to allow him to gain unchallenged access to his victims.
Accomplished swindlers take advantage of our best instincts — the belief that most people wouldn’t do that, a basic tendency to trust others that keeps civilization from spiraling into chaos.
Liars blindside us with a blitzkrieg of armaments designed to lower our defenses. They roll up to our door, a Trojan Horse teeming with practiced charm: steady eye contact, self-effacing humor, a winning smile. They mirror us, and in seeing ourselves in them, we come to trust them.
Diana B. Henriques, author of The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust, describes a conversation she had with Madoff after he was sentenced for pulling off the largest Ponzi scheme in history: “He is soft-spoken and intense, with occasional flashes of wit…Throughout, he seems unfailingly candid, earnest, and trustworthy. But then, he always does—even when he is lying. That is his talent and his curse.” 
“(Madoff) seems unfailingly candid, earnest, and trustworthy. But then, he always does—even when he is lying.” —Diana B. Henriques
Believing what liars tell us on occasion doesn’t make us stupid or gullible; it makes us human. After all, the only alternative to never being taken in is never believing in anyone. If everyone took that tack, families, businesses, laws, and society itself would cease to function.
There is a middle ground. Although there are no foolproof tells that betray the liar’s craft (as that would spell the death of marriage and poker for all time), we can train ourselves to see signs of stress that many people display when they’re trying to deceive us.
By observing changes in what people say, how they say it, and their facial and body movements, it’s possible to assemble a set of symptoms that may point to a diagnosis of deception.
You’ll notice I say “may.” Because if I promised you any more than that, I’d be lying.
But first, let’s dispense with a few myths about lie detection.
Up and to the Left
In an FBI Law and Information Bulletin of June, 2011, deception detection researchers describe a fictional (if fairly typical) interrogation scenario: During the interview, a suspect’s eyes dart up and leftwards; he lowers his eyelids and purses his lips.
“The investigator knows that a suspect displaying shifty eyes and gaze aversion and looking up and to the left when answering uncomfortable questions is exhibiting signs of lying,” the paper states. “This investigator would likely be wrong.” 
There’s no good science to support the oft-held belief that averting the eyes, fidgeting, or any other specific behavior can reliably indicate deception. Believing otherwise, says the FBI report, can “lead an investigator down dead-end paths” and even “have deadly consequences.” (FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, June, 2011.)
“In the 261 DNA exoneration cases I have looked at…100% of the investigators and the prosecuting attorneys could not detect the truth.” —Joe Navarro
“In the 261 DNA exoneration cases I have looked at…100% of the investigators and the prosecuting attorneys could not detect the truth,” writes former FBI counterintelligence agent and author Joe Navarro in a 2012 Psychology Today op-ed. “They were so arrogantly sure that the behaviors and protestations they saw were lies that they could not recognize the truth. That is the price of falsely believing we are good at detecting deception.” 
Humans, says Navarro, do no better than a coin toss when it comes to sussing out whether someone is lying — and that goes for people we assume are pros at lie detection, like law enforcement officials, DEA agents, TSA screeners, and judges.
Incredibly, this fact even holds true in the case of convictions that are based on false confessions — which Navarro claims are responsible for a full one-quarter of the DNA exoneration cases he mentions.
“It’s a funny thing about abuse and a coercive environment,” writes Navarro, citing a 2004 study about false confessions. “In time most people, even the innocent, will yield, and so they admit to crimes just to make the interview process stop.” (Psychology Today, March 15, 2012.)
“Even the innocent … admit to crimes just to make the interview process stop.” —Joe Navarro
If the U.S. justice system were really so adept at illuminating untruths, there would be very few innocent people in American prisons. Sadly, there are thousands.
Although no one can say precisely how many inmates in the United States are serving time for crimes they did not commit, the Innocence Project cites studies estimating that anywhere from 2.3% to 5% of all prisoners in the U.S. are innocent. Do the math, and we’re talking tens of thousands of people. 
Innocent people get convicted of crimes for all sorts of reasons — among them, lying witnesses, unethical prosecutors who withhold exculpatory evidence, and as previously mentioned, false confessions by the prisoners themselves.
Those are high-stakes lies and omissions with dire repercussions for the unjustly punished, and consequently, for our justice system itself. But what’s the remedy?
The remedy, says Joe Navarro, is a measure of humility and assiduous fact-checking.
“The only way to really know the truth is to verify and corroborate every single last detail of what someone says,” he writes. “And that is the truth about lie detection.” (Psychology Today, March 15, 2012)
This article is excerpted from “Deception Detection 101,” a new CE-approved course by PIeducation.com.
 Malcolm Gladwell, “In Plain View,” The New Yorker, September 24, 2012 (http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2012/09/24/120924crat_atlarge_gladwell).
 Diana B. Henriques, The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust (New York, New York: Times Books, 2011), XVIII.
 David Matsumoto, Hyi Sung Hwang, Lisa Skinner, Mark Frank, “Evaluating Truthfulness and Detecting Deception,” FBI Law and Information Bulletin (June 2011) (http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/law-enforcement-bulletin/june_2011/school_violence).
 Joe Navarro, “The Truth About Lie Detection,” Psychology Today (March 15, 2012) (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/spycatcher/201203/the-truth-about-lie-detection).
 Innocence Project, How many innocent people are there in prison? http://www.innocenceproject.org/Content/How_many_innocent_people_are_there_in_prison.php