Little white lies are seemingly innocuous, but high-stakes lies can be a matter of life or death. Understanding the facial expressions of people who tell high-stakes lies (deceivers) could be crucial to aiding criminal investigations, and even saving lives. “High-stakes lies can be accompanied by powerful emotions—fear, remorse, anger, or even excitement—that must be inhibited or convincingly faked,” said Leanne ten Brinke of the Department of Psychology at the Centre for the Advancement of Psychological Science and Law at the University of British Columbia. “In particular for high-stakes lies, a deceiver must construct a consistently detailed story and communicate the deceptive information—via facial expression, speech, and body language communication channels—in a way that will maximize his or her apparent credibility.” Emotional leakage is a term used to describe the unconscious expression of suppressed emotions, and occurs when deceivers experience intense emotions. Additionally, lies are also associated with an increased blink rate and verbal deception.
Ten Brinke and her colleagues viewed 78 videos of televised pleas by people who had experienced the disappearance of a loved one. Nearly half of the people were later found to have murdered the missing person. “Pleas were exhaustively coded for behavioral (speech, body language, and emotional facial expression) indicators of emotional arousal, cognitive load, attempted behavioral control, and psychological distancing, related to several specific hypotheses,” said ten Brinke. She found that, overall, the deceivers expressed more disgust than sadness as opposed to the genuinely grieving family members, and they used ambiguous words in their pleas. “In this way, deceptive murderers acknowledge that the victim will not be found alive, avoid commitment to the lie, and mitigate the psychological conflict resulting from the discrepancy between their secretly held and outwardly expressed knowledge,” she said. The results of this study were presented to a group of licensed psychologists, and after a day of viewing the pleas and discussing the results, the group nearly doubled their accuracy in identifying the deceivers, from 46.4% to 80.9%. Ten Brinke added, “These findings offer an important and novel advancement of our understanding of involuntary human communication.”
ten Brinke, L., & Porter, S. (2011, December 19). Cry Me a River: Identifying the Behavioral Consequences of Extremely High-Stakes Interpersonal Deception. Law and Human Behavior. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/h0093929
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