By: Chris O'Shea
Just how easy is it to tell when someone is lying or being misleading? You might think it's relatively simple, given all that we've heard about body language and techniques people employ when they want to be untrustworthy pieces of crap. However, some research has found that picking out liars or misleading people isn't easy at all. Which is sort of depressing news.
Looking for liars is part of everyday business at most American airports, where finding suspicious people who may be lying about their true intentions could be helpful for security. The feeling is that employees of the Transportation Security Administration can spot shady people, they can prevent another 9/11. The TSA is certainly trying its best: It spent about $1 billion training workers who are classified as "behavior detection officers," who are supposed to be able to read faces and body language in order to pick out would be terrorists. But (Surprise!) all that money hasn't resulted in any noticeable results.
In fact, according to an article published in The New York Times, when the TSA training program was reviewed by a federal team last year, they recommended that it get cut. Part of the reasoning was a study by two psychologists — Charles Bond and Bella DePaulo. The duo analyzed more than 200 studies and found that people simply cannot find a liar, no matter who the person was that was trying. In their notes, Bond and DePaulo explained that participants could only correctly find liars 47 percent of the time, which is a little less accurate than just flipping a coin. Not only that, but when the participants couldn't hear sound — and had to find the liars based only on body language — they did even worse.
"The common-sense notion that liars betray themselves through body language appears to be little more than a cultural fiction,” Maria Hartwig, a psychologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, told The Times. What about the famous "tell" of a liar — looking up when talking? Another study, by researchers at the University of Southern California, debunked that too.
Of course the TSA has defended its liar catching abilities. It even conducted its own test that found "a high-risk traveler is nine times more likely to be identified using behavioral detection versus random screening." That's not very surprising, because if the TSA admitted that they were basically helpless and left catching criminals up to random, pure luck, all hell would break loose.
While this research shows we have absolutely no chance of picking out liars, there was a recent study that showed we do know when someone is fake laughing. A study of people's brains as they listened to videos of people laughing and fake laughing showed that our brains shift functioning when we hear forced laughter. So maybe the best idea for the TSA is to tell jokes to flyers they suspect are terrorists and arrest the ones who seem like they're fake laughing. That seems like a better plan.
[Image via Flickr - Will Temple]