Telling Lies by Paul Ekman Term Paper

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Paul Ekman is the Professor of Psychology at University of California, San Francisco.

This book distills 15 years of scientific study of nonverbal communication and the clues to deception. Mr. Ekman, a pioneer in emotions research and nonverbal communication, and could be most succinctly subtitled "Lies succeed because no one goes through the work to figure out how to catch them." Mr. Ekman's detailed research delves into the question of just how does a person go about detecting lies.

Building in the subject of body language, and the reality that a persons body will give clues to what is really going on inside their minds regardless of what is coming out of their mouth, Dr. Ekman goes beyond the standard inventory of non-verbal clues and looks into micro-gestures, micro-expressions. These, he says, are fleeting communications, often only distinguishable on the slow-motion replay of an event, much like an NFL referee reviews an disputed play.

Summary of book

This book is accurate, intelligent, informative and a thoughtful work. The tone and style, though slightly dry as many books are which arise from the results of academic studies is accessible to the layman and scientist. Mr. Ekman is not insensitive to the political and social implications of making the information in this book available to the public.... In his view, it is better that people act on fact rather than hunches and intuition. In any case, he suggests that his book should help lie catchers more than liars, since a manual for liars would not make sense -- natural liars don't need a manual, and the rest of us don't have the talent to benefit from one. Ekman could have been more speculative and suggested coherent patterns as indicators of lying, but his caution is more admirable in the face of such a complex issue as the detection of lying.

In essence this is a handbook based on his extensive researches into our apparently near universal inability to detect lying by means of observation. In test-situations (and, it seems, in many life-situations) most of us, most of the time, score little better than chance. The only groups he has found which score consistently high at lie-detecting are small minorities among those whose speciality it is, and he makes the alarming claim that in the existing training materials he has examined; 'About half the information... is wrong'. (p. 22)

Although large quantities of material on body-language are presented throughout the book, the author eschews this expression, preferring the term 'demeanor'. Topics dealt with explicitly include 'Lying, Leakage, & and Clues to Deceit' (ch. 2), and 'Why Lies Fail', (ch. 3), the effectiveness of polygraph tests (ch. 7); 'Lie Catching in the 1990s' (ch. 9); and - an extremely important chapter, (no. 10), 'Lies in Public Life'. The latter deals more with high affairs of state than with public life in general and is probably the most interesting and important part of the book. Of the final chapter, no. 11, he writes: "This... contains new theoretical distinctions, a brief summary of new findings, and a set of explanations for why it is that most people, even professionals are such poor lie catchers." (p. 7) The Index tells readers that the key concept, lying, is defined on pp. 26-7, but the material there turns out to be quite a diffuse essay; it is not until near the end of the book that we are given a concise definition, as follows. Telling a lie is an activity through which:

One person deliberately, by choice, misleads another person without any notification that deception will occur. It does not matter whether the lie is accomplished by saying something false or by omitting crucial information. Those are just differences in technique, for the effect is the same. (pp. 313-4)

The text overflows with specialist terms which I was at first tempted to describe as 'jargon'. But as I continued reading, virtually all the described patterns of behavior were those which I had observed, but were patterns which I would tend to think of in different ways from those intended by the author. One of these is the 'Pinocchio' problem, centering on the extending nose indicator: "People would lie less if they thought there was any such sign of lying, but there isn't." (p. 80)

Dr Ekman identifies that lying can also produce positive feelings. Liars may view their actions as an accomplishment, which feels good. The liar may feel excitement, either when anticipating the challenge or during the very moment of lying, when success is not yet certain. Afterwards there may be the pleasure that comes with relief, pride in the achievement, or feelings of smug contempt towards the target. Unfortunately, in an environment which cannot identify an environment with absolute certainly, the emotional and psychological high associated with lying can be a psycho-tropic reward to the liar.

Another 'jargon' used by the author to quantify specific lying behavior is what he calls the Othello error. Typical studies of nonverbal communications have in the past determined that a higher pitched voice can be a sign of deliberate deception. Dr. Ekman identifies the danger of relying on a higher pitch in the voice of someone denying dishonesty as evidence of guilt. Ekman agrees that while this symptom can indicate guilt, it can also stem from fear. (p. 94) third piece of jargon is what Dr. Ekman calls the 'Brokaw hazard', named after the well-known U.S. chat show host. He refers to Tom Brokaw's stated reliance on verbal clues to detect evasion and lying in his interviewees. Convoluted answers or sophisticated evasions of the direct answer to a direct question are often bold signs of deliberate mis-communication. One such example of the is a recent interview of Iraqian Deputy Foreign Minister, Tariq Azziz. During one of the many press appearances by Mr. Azziz prior to the war, he was asked if Iraq had any weapons of mass destruction. His answer betrayed his knowledge of the situation when he replied "There are no weapons of mass destruction possessed of stored within the territorial boundaries of the country of Iraq." While it could be inferred that he was saying that Iraq didn't have any of the banned weaponry, that is not what the minister said. When asked Ekman agrees that some studies support this approach to lie identification, he amidst that "others (studies) have shown [that]... most people are too smart to be evasive and indirect in their replies." (pp. 90-91)

Towards the end of the book Dr. Ekman examines the 'natural-born liars theme. ' After emphasizing once again how bad most of us are at detecting lying from behavioral clues, he states:

The question I pose is, why not, why can't we all do better at this? It is not that we don't care. Public opinion polls time and again show that honesty is among the top five characteristics people want in a leader, friend, or lover, And the world of entertainment is full of stories, films, and songs that describe the tragic consequences of betrayal.

My first explanation is that we are not prepared by our evolutionary history to be either very good lie catchers or lie perpetrators. I suspect that our ancestral environment was not one in which there were many opportunities to lie and get away with it, and the costs of being caught might have been severe.

There would not have been any selection for those... who were unusually adept at catching or perpetrating lies. (pp. 338-9)

At this point, the author reviews his personal experience in a 'Stone Age preliterate culture', Papua New Guinea more than 30 years ago. He points out that the group was small, members all knew each other, privacy was hard to come by, and survival depended on cooperation. In close communities which depend on each other for support and protection, the course of lying could endanger the well-being, or very life of another community member. Such cannot be said of industrial societies. Ekman compares this setting to modern life and comes to the conclusion that in our culture, the situation is nearly the reverse. The opportunities for lying are plentiful; privacy is easy to achieve, and we live in a culture where there are many closed doors. When caught in a lie, the social consequences need not be disastrous. We can change jobs... spouses... villages. A liar is not condemned by is reputation and earned lack of trust within a community because his mobility enables him to leave his reputation behind and begin a new one, if necessary.

This sounds like a strong case against the evolutionary hypothesis and yet Professor Ekman seems convinced that his findings show that somehow or other, our lie-telling skills have developed to a pitch at which they outweigh our lie-detecting skills. Unless most of us are actually taught to lie effectively - overtly or covertly - and/or to be incompetent and/or weakly motivated in the art of lie-detecting, this near universal and much practiced facility…

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