Politicians Lying Research

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Researchers at Arizona State University have released a study that shows it may not be as easy as you think to tell if a politician is not telling the truth. Researcher Nicholas Duran says the normal physical signs of lying, such as lack of eye contact, are often just caused by emotional duress and are not signs of lying. Duran will talk about his research.

TED SIMONS: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon" -- we'll hear about new research on how to tell if someone is lying. Also tonight, a report on how small business owners feel about the economy and we'll learn about an organization helping at-risk girls for over 100 years. Those stories next on "Arizona Horizon."

VIDEO: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the friends of Arizona PBS, members of your PBS station. Thank you.

TED SIMONS: Good evening. Welcome to "Arizona Horizon". I'm Ted Simons. State lawmakers were scheduled to debate two bills today that would protect free speech rights of students on college campuses. One measure sponsored by Representative Paul Boyer would award $500 plus attorney's fees for students who successfully sued their university or college for a free speech violation. Another bill, this one from Representative Anthony Kern, would prevent institutions of higher learning from restricting free speech to particular zones on campus. The bills stem from the case of a student who sued an Arizona community college over a First Amendment issue. A new study at ASU shows that it may not be as easy as you think to determine if someone is lying. Here to talk about his research is assistant professor Nicholas Duran of ASU School of Social and Behavioral Sciences. Good to have you here, thanks for joining us.

NICHOLAS DURAN: Thank you for having me.

TED SIMONS: This is basically like body politics a little bit, right? Trying to figure out when someone is telling the truth or not.

NICHOLAS DURAN: That's right. And people aren't very good at it. Nonverbal cues that people think are associated with deception are probably outside the perceptual capacity of human awareness. So it's below the threshold of human perception.

TED SIMONS: So I want to get to some of the particulars here. Can you ever really tell if someone is lying?

NICHOLAS DURAN: In specific cases, certain contexts, you might be able to. But for that behavior to generalize from situation to situation, person to person, or even different types of lies it's unlikely.

TED SIMONS: So why are we so good at lying? How did we get to be so good?

NICHOLAS DURAN: Yeah! Well, there are certain evolutionary advantages to lying. It's a behavior that's evolutionarily designed to defeat detection. And if people were good at detecting deception, it wouldn't be such a problem. There's an arms race, evolutionarily speaking, for why we're so good at deception. As the person being deceived I have to get better at detecting it and as a deceiver I have to get better and on and on to where we are now, very sophisticated liars.

TED SIMONS: Let's talk about where we are now. How do people in general perceive the truth?

NICHOLAS DURAN: Ah, well, let me start with why people think that we can even detect deception to begin with, right, why there should be a difference from truth to deception. The idea is that deception is cognitively difficult, right? So when you're lying there's that pesky truth that interferes with the lie. And people that are good at lying, politicians, they are smart people, able to suppress or ignore that interference with the truth while they lie. Another idea is that deception is emotionally salient, right? Negative emotions, some might have positive emotions and that might leak out into the body. Because it's cognitively difficult, associated with strong emotion, it's unintentionally expressed in the body so we should be able to find those cues.

TED SIMONS: People lack eye contact, they're fidgeting. We all look at them, that person is lying. That's not necessarily the case.

NICHOLAS DURAN: That's exactly right. Exactly right. There are studies that find that in some context they may fit more. There are groups of people where if you -- you might find one group there's a little bit they blink more when they are lying but when you try to look for that behavior at the individual level, it doesn't predict very well. In that group some might blink a lot, some may not blink at all. These cues are not that stable. They are highly variable.

TED SIMONS: We're talking lying but this could be like -- it doesn't necessarily mean defiance or upset, does it?

NICHOLAS DURAN: That's exactly right. When people are anxious, when they are nervous, say they are being interrogated, they are going to display behaviors that might look a lot like what we might think, oh, associated with deception. Furthermore, people aren't -- these cues, the ideas that we can detect the cues and have a catalog of cues we can train people to become expert lie detectors. If they are so easily perceived by others deceivers can strategically control and manipulate them.

TED SIMONS: What about how someone speaks? Fewer verbal repairs or fewer verbal ticks, these sorts of things. The flow of conversation. How does that play into this?

NICHOLAS DURAN: Oh, probably one of the better nonverbal signals are these types of things that aren't semantic context speech but the rhythms of speech have been found to be better I should say at systematically being associated with deception. Yes, so the cues are rhythm and speech that co-vary with the rhythms of the speech and the body, and looking at that stability of that structure of rhythm, might be a better way of looking for deception.

TED SIMONS: You mentioned micro behavior. You can't even see with the naked eye. The only way you can tell about this -- what about cultural differences?

NICHOLAS DURAN: Cultural differences? Again, deception as expressed as a nonverbal cue is highly variable. From person to person, situation to situation, culture to culture. There's this belief avoiding eye contact is a sure sign of deception. Well, that's not the case at all. In some cultures looking directly at somebody while talking is seen as something negative so you would avert a lot of eyes in certain cultures. Does that mean they are lying? No.

TED SIMONS: Fascinating study but bottom line it's very interesting but I still can't tell when someone is lying.

NICHOLAS DURAN: Yeah. And that's for good reason. If deception is going to be expressed through the body it's going to be over these micro behaviors, these fluctuations from moment to moment structured over time. So in my research I look at people's behaviors hundreds of data point samples every second. I look for organization and variability of movement in that signal. That's just not something that people can do with the naked eye.

TED SIMONS: Would you be able to look at a presidential candidate knowing how they acted when they didn't tell the whole truth figure out whether or not they are -- ?

NICHOLAS DURAN: Probably not. Politicians are probably really good liars for lots of good reasons. Yeah.

TED SIMONS: Yes, they are. Very interesting stuff. Good to have you here. Thanks for joining us.


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