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August 15, 2004

Missing the Point?

Science News Online published a very interesting article on "Deception Detection" - i.e. human lie detectors - those people that seem to have a special ability to spot others telling lies. There's a lot of good material in the article, and food for thought.

My initial take, however, is that they are missing the whole point - or at least missing a major opportunity. For example:

  • Why limit the scope to detecting lies?
  • Why not broaden it to detecting emotions, or detecting mindstates?
  • What special skills or abilities do the successful human 'lie detectors' have?
  • More importantly, are those skills and abilities trainable?
  • Can we train others to model their behavior and become more effective communicators?

In a now-famous study from more than a decade ago, about 500 Secret Service agents, federal polygraphers, and judges watched 10 1-minute video clips of female nurses describing the pleasant nature films they were supposedly watching as they spoke. Half the women were instead watching what Ekman calls "terribly gruesome" medical films. The legal-system professionals were asked to determine the truth by reading the women's faces, speech, and voices.
Ekman and his coauthor Maureen O'Sullivan of the University of San Francisco motivated the women to lie by telling them that because nurses shouldn't be bothered by gory images, their believability related to their future career success.
Most of the observers uncovered lies at only about the level of chance. One group, however, outperformed the others. The Secret Service group had a better-than-chance distribution, with nearly one-third of the agents getting 8 out of 10 determinations correct, the San Francisco psychologists reported in 1991.
O'Sullivan now says that her further studies of federal agents, forensic psychologists, and other groups of professionals indicate that a very small percentage of people are extremely good at spotting a phony. "We always found one or two people who were very good," she says.

Deception Detection: Science News Online, July 31, 2004

August 15, 2004 | Permalink

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