What does it feel like to be a walking lie detector? City News speaks to Paul Ekman, scientific consultant for the Fox television show, Lie To Me.
By Yong Yung Shin
There’s a scene in the pilot episode of Lie To Me where Tim Roth’s character, psychologist Dr Cal Lightman, catches a fleeting facial expression of contempt on the face of a suspect which ultimately leads him to solve an arson case. This telling piece of facial cue is based on a rich body of scientific work developed by Dr Paul Ekman, one of the world’s leading experts on detecting lies, also the consultant for the show.
Ekman, a world-renowned expert in emotional research and non-verbal communication and a professor emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco, specializes in the study of “microexpressions”—telltale facial expressions and body language that betray a person when he or she is lying. These clues usually escape the lay observer, but can be learned with some training. Naturally, his work has been widely used in anti-terror and law enforcement efforts and, as we found out, parenting as well. In Singapore recently for a series of talks at the National University of Singapore, the 78-year-old father of two shares with City News why, for all his skills in lie detection, he is far from being his children’s worst nightmare.
How does the ability to smell a lie affect your approach to parenting?
My wife and I make several things clear to our children: we draw clear boundaries, letting them know, without ambiguity, what the rules of disclosure are. I don’t need to ask if they got into trouble at school. If they are held back after class and sent to the principal’s office, that means they are in trouble and have to tell me. Another example—if my son were at a party and met a female friend who kissed him on the lips, he is not obligated to tell me, but if it was a long kiss and involved more than just a kiss, then he has to tell me.
Of course, everyone has their right to privacy; there are certain topics where they can say “that’s not something I want to talk about,” and that’s fine.
We also let them know what the high costs of lying are—the loss of trust, and the difficulty in reestablishing trust. Once our Tom threw a party in the house while we were out, despite knowing that unchaperoned parties were not allowed. A week or two later, a mother came up to us and said, “My daughter had a great time at your son’s party.”
Naturally, we were very upset—it was hard not to feel betrayed. We grounded him, and thereafter hired a babysitter every time we went out, usually a girl who was a year older than him, which was very humiliating. It went on for about four months, until both parties agreed that trust could be reestablished. The important lesson is that we always assume our children understand the concept of trust, but it’s not always the case; usually it’s only when they are between ages 10 to 12 that they start to grasp it.
By cultivating an environment of trust, we steer clear of situations that would encourage them to lie.
Why is there no merit in catching them telling a lie instead? Isn’t that a more “scary” deterrent?
The role of the parent is not to be a policeman but a teacher and a helper. The fundamental issue for parents is that at some point, your child is going to get into trouble. If you’ve been the kind of person who’d get mad and punish them when they get into trouble, they will not turn to you but to their friends, and that’s exactly what you do not want. You want to be the one they trust, the first person they run to in their time of need—I’m called by my son as Mr. Fix-It. Later on, you can then talk to them about avoiding getting into trouble.
Share with us a specific example of how you apply this approach.
We had a curfew for our then 15-year-old daughter, who was supposed to be home by midnight. One night, I heard her tiptoeing in at about 1:30 a.m. Now, the temptation was to ask what time she got home the night before or how the party was, to see if she’d lie. But I didn’t do that. Instead, I told her that I heard her come in about an hour and a half late, and said that there must be some good reason why she couldn’t make the curfew.
Research shows that one of the major reasons children lie to their parents is that they’re afraid they would get angry. I was implicitly letting her know that I was more interested in the reason behind her breaking the curfew than the fact that she broke the curfew itself, so that I would know if I should adjust the curfew or make an exception.
So all my expertise in detecting lies never got used with them; what was useful was my expertise in understanding why people lie, and how to raise your children so they don’t feel the need to lie to you in the first place. (one of the books authored by Ekman is titled Why Kids Lie: How Parents Can Encourage Truthfulness)
You sit on the editorial board of Greater Good magazine, which publishes scientific research into the roots of compassion, altruism and peaceful human relationships. What is one of the most surprising facts you have learned about human nature?
Although I have no scientific evidence to back this up, I do believe that when a person acts in an altruistic fashion in a way that does not give him credit, it feels good. There’s something within us that gives us pleasure when we do good for other people, and that’s an enormous asset we can build upon to enlarge people’s sense of responsibility and compassion for the under-privileged.
How can people use the skill of reading microexpressions to build more enriching relationships?
The quality of your relationships—whether it is an intimate or a strained one—will affect the choices you make when you pick up a sign that someone is concealing something from you. There are no simple generalizations other than this one: even if it’s strained relationship, you’re generally better off acknowledging the disappointment and joining with the other party in moving forward to resolve the issue.
Any tips for married couples?
It is harmful for resentment to build up. Usually, by the time a couple goes for counseling, too much damage has been done; so build in time at least once every week to settle any resentment that may have formed.
So … how useful are lie detection skills on the dating scene?
We have two choices in life—we can be trusting or suspicious. All the research thus far suggests that people who are trusting live longer, are more optimistic and happier, even though occasionally they get exploited. So my advice is, on the first date, be trusting; don’t worry about being misled. If trust does become a salient issue, then the relationship is probably not the right one for you.