Detecting Deception

By Laura Zimmerman, March 2016, Vol 47, No. 3, Print version: page 46

PinocchioResearch has consistently shown that people’s ability to detect lies is no more accurate than chance, or flipping a coin. This finding holds across all types of people — students, psychologists, judges, job interviewers and law enforcement personnel (Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2006). Particularly when investigating crime, the need for accurate deception detection is critical for police officers who must get criminals off the streets without detaining innocent suspects.

Traditional police practices in deception detection stem from early theories on lying that assume liars will exhibit stress-based cues because they fear being caught and feel guilty about lying. This theory led researchers to search for reliable behavioral indicators of deception. They examined behaviors such as posture shifts, gaze aversion, and foot and hand movements, without much success.

“There really is no Pinocchio’s nose,” says Judee Burgoon, PhD, a professor of communication at the University of Arizona.

Given these early findings, today’s researchers are exploring new methods of deception detection. Instead of looking at people for visual cues that they may be dissembling — such as a lack of eye contact or fidgeting — psychologists are now focused on developing proactive strategies that interviewers can use to elicit signs of deception, says Maria Hartwig, PhD, associate professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“The view now is that the interaction between deceiver and observer is a strategic interplay,” she says.

Such research has “enormous potential to revolutionize law enforcement, military and private sector investigations,” says Christian Meissner, PhD, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University, who studies the psychological processes underlying investigative interviews.

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