Eyes are an incredibly important part of emotional recognition, but what role do they have in allowing us to detect deception?
While conventional opinion tends to hold that failure to maintain eye contact is a tell-tale sign of deception, this is actually just a pervasive myth. However, because eyes are so important in reading emotions, they can also help us assess another’s truthfulness, or lack thereof.
Our fixation on the importance of eyes has justification. As followers of this blog will know, recent research indicates that we display emotions most clearly in our eyes.
While this intuitive emphasis on eyes led to the notion that observing eye contact is a reliable method of lie detection, this is simply not true. As a previous blog explained, multiple studies have found no relationship between deception and the avoidance of eye contact, despite the fact that, across cultures, this myth continues to be widely held.
As Dr. Wendy Patrick explains, eye contact or its avoidance may be due to differing personalities or cultural backgrounds that determine one’s tendency to make eye contact. Just as she explained in last week’s blog, it is necessary to analyze a given individual’s level of eye contact against their personal baseline.
However, eye contact is still a helpful tool in correctly identifying deception. For example, one 2012 study found significant pupil changes in lying participants. In this study, researchers asked participants to steal small sums of money, while leaving other participants crime-free.
Then, each participant was asked to answer a series of questions about the theft, without letting the test examiner know if they were guilty. While they were filling out these questionnaires, cameras tracked pupil size, finding an increase in pupil diameter amongst the guilty parties. Upon concluding the study, the authors pointed out that such an increase was consistent with previous studies in deception.
Similarly, from the perspective of those detecting deception, a separate 2016 study found that focusing on eyes provided a very effective tool for lie detection. In this study, participants attempted to detect lies from both individuals with their faces covered by a hijab, leaving only the eyes revealed, and those without any form of veil.
Surprisingly, participants were more accurate in detecting deception amongst those with hijabs. This conclusion indicated that a focus on the eye alone significantly aided lie detection, as participants were forced to focus on the eyes, rather than being distracted by other facial features.
While focusing on the eyes may be an important tool for detecting deception, it is often hard for us to know exactly what gives away a lie. We certainly cannot measure pupil size with a ruler!
This requires specialized training, such as Humintell’s evaluating truthfulness workshop
Parents and really anyone who works with kids can attest to many children’s tendency to lie.
While these might take the form of minor fibs of who hit whom, and that sort of common deception, it is not just our anecdotal impression that children are often dishonest. As Dr. Wendy Patrick explains, there is a significant amount of evidence showing that children are quite likely to practice deception. The upside to this is that childhood behavior serves as a great case study for understanding human deception practices.
For instance, Dr. Patrick cites a 2011 study which found that, while younger children lie frequently, dishonesty decreases as they grow towards middle adolescence. The authors speculated that this may be due to increased moral awareness or from a better understanding of the possible consequences of being caught.
Another similar 2016 study concluded that children do not just lie randomly but will select various forms of deception based on perceived social advantage. This conclusion led the authors to suggest that as children age, they begin to use more socially acceptable methods of deception, like white lies.
Perhaps most interesting is that this 2016 study also found that children with greater social skills tended to lie more. This is definitely in line with earlier research that explored a correlation between popularity and deception amongst teenagers.
In a 1999 study, for example, Dr. Robert Feldman interviewed a group of 11 to 16 year olds. While older children might lie less frequently, he found that they are better at it, both controlling nonverbal behavior and better verbalizing their fibs. He also found that more socially competent or popular children were better at lying.
Dr. Feldman concluded “convincing lying is actually associated with good social skills. It takes social skills to be able to control your words as well as what you say non-verbally.”
But how does all of this impact our relationships with children? Does monitoring childhood behavior make us better lie detectors?
Dr. Patrick contends that, while we may develop better skills at catching our kids in lies, these skills may be limited to those individuals, and our children develop correspondingly better abilities for telling us lies.
When we get good at detecting lies in certain children, it is not necessarily because we have unlocked universal skills of lie detection, but because we are better at comparing their mannerisms against possible divergent behavior. For example, a child that always makes eye contact gives themselves away when they fail to meet our gaze, but another child may simply be too shy to maintain similar levels of eye contact.
Moreover, while we can practice lie detection by analyzing divergent behavior, our children also monitor our behavior for similar deviations. In their case, they track signs of distrust or suspicion, learning what nonverbal behavior is leading to their possible detection and adjusting behavior in response.
While our social interactions may be poor guides for effective lie detection, there are universal behaviors and expressions that give away deception.
Emotional and facial recognition may be even more closely linked than we thought.
In past blogs, we have discussed how better understanding facial recognition may help us better understand emotional recognition, and we have also talked about how understanding emotions requires similar processes as those which identify faces.
During that discussion, we explained how recognizing faces is an often instantaneous process that synthesizes not only facial features but also assesses deviations from the norm to determine emotional states.
But we have not discussed how different emotions may make facial recognition harder! A recent study by Dr. Annabelle Redfern from the University of Bristol found that, with unfamiliar faces, different emotional expressions significantly hamper our ability to identify the faces.
Dr. Redfern exposed participants to images of actors in movie stills, monitoring how long it took them to learn how to identify that actor in subsequent images. While this seems straightforward, she also divided the participants into two experimental groups.
The first group was exposed to actors with generally expressionless or “neutral” faces. This first set of images didn’t show a particularly emotive face, while the second group was exposed to pictures showing distinctive emotional expressions.
The researchers found that participants had a harder time learning from the emotional images than from the neutral ones, both in terms of a lower level of accuracy and a slower response time. Similarly, when groups of respondents training to identify neutral faces were asked to apply this knowledge to more expressive faces, they faltered and were significantly less accurate.
As Dr. Redfern concluded, “The differences we found point to the idea that facial expressions and facial identity are not treated separately by our brains; and instead, we may mentally store someone’s expressions along with their faces.”
It is important to note that this was done with unfamiliar faces, as we almost instantaneously can recognize familiar ones. However, this results in important practical implications.
For example, witness testimony in legal proceedings often depends on facial recognition, but this can become difficult if a witness got a glimpse of a face with one expression and now sees that face with a quite similar expression.