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The Human Nature Review Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 264-268 ( 25 June )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/ekman.html

Book Review

Telling Lies. Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage
by Paul Ekman
New York & London: W.W. Norton & Co

Reviewed by Jack Parsons, Former Deputy Director, Sir David Owen Population Centre, Cardiff University, Wales.


(May be skipped by anyone anxious to get to grips with Ekman proper)

I volunteered to review this work because - during the writing of my own last book - I developed such strong revulsion for the wide prevalence, severity, and dysfunctionality of self-deception, dishonesty and outright lying over important matters, first in my own sphere of study (population and development) and then in public life generally, that for a time I had a bad writer’s block.

For a time pursuit of my current theme (competitive breeding and other forms of human population competition) appeared quite futile: the logical and ethical priority seemed to lie with a critique of dishonesty in academic and public life. In my case, the cure for this alienation took the form of adding to my original plan two extra chapters on ‘Ethical considerations’, one subtitled ‘cooking the books’, and the other, ‘the Kamikaze conscience’, the latter a critique of what I like to call ‘pseudo-liberalism’.

With the exception of the members of many, perhaps most, so-called ‘primitive’ or ‘traditional’ societies -- notably the Australian Aboriginals (who, before colonial interruption, seem to have managed to maintain approximate steady-state systems for upwards of 40,000 years: no population explosions there) -- we humans don’t seem to be too good at thinking hard enough and straight enough to build and maintain societies which can survive for long periods, a big part of the problem being a grievous lack of awareness and honesty about the basic economic and ecological realities.

I ended the Conclusions to the ‘cooking’ chapter with the words:

We must get our act together, learn how, and then practise honest brokerage with the facts, develop scientific, ethical, social, and journalistic and personal norms which as far as possible rule out cooked facts and figures, correct any which inevitably squeeze through the net, and pillory those who deliberately mislead. (1998, vol. II, p. 611)

Later, I gave honesty pride of place among the four survival values as I perceive them:

If we had to boil all this down to bare essentials for human survival with an acceptable quality of life, these would be honesty, rationality, realism, and farsightedness. At present in extremely short supply, these are the four basic tools for the continuance and improvement of the human race. (Vol II, p. 715)

Many other creatures have evolved sophisticated forms of deception, the cult film ‘Natural-Born Killers’ was in vogue at the time (1998), and so, in passing, I raised the possibility that the human capacity for lying is an evolved survival-tool, and that we may all be ‘natural-born liars’. If we are, then lie-detecting would also tend to be an evolved survival-tool so that - as in many other spheres - there would be an ‘arms-race’ between the two tendencies.

Hitherto, my own Bible on lying has been the powerful book of that name by Sissela Bok, of Harvard, and I was rather disturbed not to find any substantial mention of this classic work in the book under review. There are two very brief snippets in the Reference section but in both of these the author’s name is misspelt [in different ways] and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Bok’s work is not given due weight. However, there is a good deal of other matter.

To those readers who would have preferred to get straight down what the Ekman book is about I apologise for going on at some length about my own views and writings around the subject. I hope that at least some readers will be able to accept that my deep concerns about honesty and rationality on matters of the utmost importance to our future afford a reasonable rationale for this introduction.

Telling Lies

The author of this work, which devotes several pages to lying from an evolutionary perspective, is Professor of Psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, and the book is the updated 3rd edition of an eight-chapter work first published in 1985. Chapters 9 & 10 were added for the 2nd edition, published in 1992, and chapter 11 for this one. In his new Preface he remarks of the earlier editions; “I was relieved to find nothing that I considered incorrect.”

In essence this is a handbook based on his extensive researches into our apparently near universal inability to detect lying by means of observation. In test-situations (and, it seems, in many life-situations) most of us, most of the time, score little better than chance. The only groups he has found which score consistently high at lie-detecting are small minorities among those whose speciality it is, and he makes the alarming claim that in the existing training materials he has examined; ‘About half the information ... is wrong’. (p. 22)

Although large quantities of material on body-language are presented throughout the book, the author eschews this expression, preferring the term ‘demeanour’. Topics dealt with explicitly include ‘Lying, Leakage, & and Clues to Deceit’ (ch. 2), and ‘Why Lies Fail’, (ch. 3), the effectiveness of polygraph tests (ch. 7); ‘Lie Catching in the 1990s’ (ch. 9); and - an extremely important chapter, (no. 10), ‘Lies in Public Life’. The latter deals more with high affairs of state than with public life in general and is probably the most interesting and important part of the book. Of the final chapter, no. 11, he writes: “This ... contains new theoretical distinctions, a brief summary of new findings, and a set of explanations for why it is that most people, even professionals *are such poor lie catchers”. (p. 7) *[He means, of course, people such as police-officers and judges who are especially concerned with uncovering the truth]

There are, also, a six-page Epilogue; a 10-page Appendix (consisting of tables and check-lists setting out in great detail the various behavioural signs by which lying may be detected); 12 pages of reference notes; and 16 pages of combined Index.

The Index tells readers that the key concept, lying, is defined on pp. 26 - 7, but the material there turns out to be quite a diffuse essay; it is not until near the end of the book that we are given a concise definition, as follows. Telling a lie is an activity through which:

One person deliberately, by choice, misleads another person without any notification that deception will occur. It does not matter whether the lie is accomplished by saying something false or by omitting crucial information. Those are just differences in technique, for the effect is the same. (pp. 313-4)

The text overflows with specialist terms which I was at first tempted to describe as ‘jargon’, but they virtually all describe bits or patterns of behaviour for which most of us would either not have names at all, or would tend to think of in different ways from those intended by the author, and which all specialist lie-detectors need to know and understand as well as possible and constantly be on the lookout for.

One of these is the ‘Pinocchio’ problem, centring on the extending nose indicator: “People would lie less if they thought there was any such sign of lying, but there isn’t.” (p. 80)

Another is ‘duping delight’, analysed at some length on pp. 76-9;

Lying can also produce positive feelings ... [it] may be viewed as an accomplishment, which feels good. The liar may feel excitement, either when anticipating the challenge or during the very moment of lying, when success is not yet certain. Afterwards there may be the pleasure that comes with relief, pride in the achievement, or feelings of smug contempt towards the target. ... An innocent example ... occurs [when] ... kidding ... a gullible friend.

A third is the ‘Othello error’, signifying the danger of relying on a higher pitch in the voice of someone denying dishonesty as evidence of guilt. Ekman agrees that while this symptom can indicate guilt, it can also stem from fear. (p. 94)

A fourth is the ‘Brokaw hazard’, named after the well-known US chat show host. The problem here stems from Tom Brokaw’s stated reliance on verbal clues to detect evasion and lying in his interviewees; "convoluted answers or sophisticated evasions". Ekman agrees that some studies back up this approach while "others, have shown [that] ... most people are too smart to be evasive and indirect in their replies." (pp. 90-91)

There are references to important high level lying in many parts of the book, for instance, Chapter 2, Hitler (‘a superb performer’) lying to the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, and the Israeli Government lying to the Egyptian Prime Minister, Anwar Sadat, about more settlements, but Chapter 10 is devoted to this topic. This analyses in some detail the scandalous antics of Oliver North, Admiral Poindexter and others, lying to Congress about arming the Contras; Lyndon Johnson’s blatant falsifications vis-à-vis the Vietnam war; Jimmy Carter on the Iranian Hostage Rescue Plan; Richard Nixon on Watergate; and - in somewhat different mode, the huge and fatal campaign of deception leading to the space-shuttle Challenger disaster, followed by the cause-celebre, Judge Clarence Darrow v. Professor Anita Hill and Gorbachev’s monumental lies about Chernobyl.

Towards the end of the book Professor Ekman takes up my ‘natural-born liars theme’ [on his own account, of course, not as a critique of my speculations of which he could not have heard], and - after emphasising once again how bad most of us are at detecting lying from behavioural clues -- he states:

The question I pose is, why not, why can’t we all do better at this? It is not that we don’t care. Public opinion polls time and again show that honesty is among the top five characteristics people want in a leader, friend, or lover, And the world of entertainment is full of stories, films, and songs that describe the tragic consequences of betrayal.

My first explanation is that we are not prepared by our evolutionary history to be either very good lie catchers or lie perpetrators. I suspect that our ancestral environment was not one in which there were many opportunities to lie and get away with it, and the costs of being caught might have been severe. ...

There would not have been any selection for those ... who were unusually adept at catching or perpetrating lies. (pp. 338-9)

Here the author brings to bear his personal experience in a ‘Stone Age preliterate culture’, Papua New Guinea more than 30 years ago. He points out that the group was small, members all knew each other, privacy was hard to come by, and survival depended on cooperation, so that;

being caught in a high-stake lie might be deadly ... one could not change spouses, jobs, or villages with any ease. ... To summarize ... our ancestral environment did not prepare us to be astute lie catchers ... In a cooperative, closed, small society ... the reputational costs to the individual [of lying] would be high and inescapable.’ (pp. 340-41)

This, the first of his three possible explanations, is followed by the argument that in ‘modern industrial societies’;

The situation is nearly the reverse. The opportunities for lying are plentiful; privacy is easy to achieve, there are many closed doors. When caught, the social consequences need not be disastrous ... one can change jobs ... spouses ... villages. A damaged reputation need not follow ...

We live now in circumstances that encourage rather than discourage lying; evidence and activity are more easily concealed, and [though] the need to rely upon demeanour to make our judgements [about potential lying] is greater ... we have not been prepared by our evolutionary history to be very sensitive to the [relevant] behavioural clues. (p. 342)

This sounds like a strong case against the evolutionary hypothesis and yet Professor Ekman seems convinced that his findings show that somehow or other, our lie-telling skills have developed to a pitch at which they outweigh our lie-detecting skills. Unless most of us are actually taught to lie effectively - overtly or covertly - and/or to be incompetent and/or weakly motivated in the art of lie-detecting, this near universal and much practised facility has to have a source somewhere in our biology.

The author does briefly examine this ‘teaching’ hypothesis in the words:

One possibility ... my second explanation, is that our parents teach us not to identify their lies. Their privacy may often require that they mislead their children ... sexual activity [being] ... one obvious focus of such lies. (p. 342)

His third possible explanation of our alleged near-universal lie-detecting incompetence is that;

We generally prefer not to catch liars, because a trusting rather than a suspicious stance enriches life, despite the possible costs. To always doubt, to make false accusations, is not only unpleasant for the doubter but undermines much chance of establishing intimacy, in mating, friendships, or ... work relationships. (p. 342)

While granting that there is probably some truth in these contentions, I have to say that I find them somewhat overstated and confusing. Why, for instance, would a higher lie-detecting capacity require us to doubt ‘always’, or to ‘make false accusations’. Surely, the more effective we are as lie-detectors, the more confidently we can behave and the fewer false allegations there may tend to be. Could it be that the 50/50 rule of thumb (half of our lies swallowed, the other half detected) means, as one might perhaps have expected on commonsense grounds, that -- except in the case of highly trained and experienced specialists at lie-detection who can sometimes attain a score of 85% -- the ‘arms race’ between deception and detection skills is still neck and neck.

Professor Ekman opens his Epilogue with an acknowledgement that his work - designed to further truth and honesty - can also help the dishonest, though;

What I have written should help lie-catchers more than liars ... it is easier to improve one’s ability to detect deceit than to perpetrate it. (p. 347)

Although in my opinion this book - in both theoretical and practical terms -- is a sound work on a vital subject, I suspect that Sissela Bok will remain my own principal mentor in this sphere as she deals mainly with the facts and consequences of widespread lying rather than the psychological/physiological details of the lying and lie-detecting processes themselves.

It seems to me that most of us, most of the time, have to try to navigate our way through such a fog of half-truths, quarter-truths and downright lies about matters of the greatest importance, financial institutions, environmental protection, war and peace, and a host of others, that it behoves us to demand -- and then endeavour to live up to -- much higher standards of integrity in most spheres of human activity.

Notes - If interested in the subject, see:

Bok, Sissela. (1980) Lying. Moral Choice In Public And Private Life. London, Melbourne, & New York. Quartet Books.

Lachmann, Gregor ‘Question about gender differences in cheater detection.’ Evolutionary Psychology Group, 9 May, 2002.

Parsons, Jack (1998) Human Population Competition. A Study Of The Pursuit of Power Through Numbers. Lewiston, NY. The Edwin Mellen Press. 2 vols. This is now out of print but an updated 4th edition is just being published in interactive form on CD under the new title, Population Competition For Security or Attack. A Study of the Perilous Pursuit Of Power Through Weight of Numbers.

Tallis, Raymond ‘The truth about lies.’ Review of The Liar’s Tale: A History of Falsehood by Jeremy Campbell Times Literary Supplement, 21 December, 2001.

Intuitive people worse at detecting lies.’ New Scientist News Service, 19 March, 2002 

Most people lie in everyday conversation’. EurekAlert Press Release, 11 June, 2002 

The chapters mentioned in the review of the Ekman book, above, contain a lot of material, much of it factual, on lying and deception.

Buy Telling Lies. Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage from Amazon United States of America Amazon.com  Amazon United Kingdom Amazon.co.uk  Amazon France Amazon.fr  Amazon Deutschland Amazon.de  Amazon Japan Amazon.co.jp Amazon Canada Amazon.ca

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© Jack Parsons.


Parsons, J. (2002). Review of Telling Lies. Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage by Paul Ekman.  Human Nature Review. 2: 264-268.

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