If you’ve ever played poker, you know what a “Tell” is: The tiny little tics and quirks people unconsciously engage in when they are purposefully trying to deceive. For example, when “bluffing” during a hand of cards, you might always scratch your nose, and a perceptive opponent might notice this, and thus always know when you’re bluffing, or lying. The psychology behind the Tell has to do with the stress most people feel when deceiving others – stress that causes us to act out in little ways to relieve it.
As a professional who works in language translation I’m a little more sensitive to the ways language is used to deceive and commit crimes, petty or otherwise. In my informal experience, people tend to overestimate their ability to spot a lie. In a recent study conducted by Charles F. Bond, a Texas Christian University Psychology Professor, slightly less than 50% of Americans said they thought they could spot a liar just by observing them. In my experience the truth is much, much lower.
One thing I found fascinating about this study is the fact that while almost everyone in the world agrees that liars avoid eye contact and tend to shiftily look anywhere but right at you when they life, in Islamic countries about 30% of the respondents to the study stated otherwise: That a liar will make more eye contact. From my own personal experience, I do have trouble making eye contact even when I’m engaged in relatively innocent white lies, so this surprises me, but it may very well be cultural in nature.
Something else that’s interesting is that the poorer the nation is, the more its people think they can spot a liar. This makes some sense to me, actually, because the more money and resources you have, the more faith you have in your own authority and standing, and thus can’t imagine anyone would lie to you.
The Usefulness of Lies
What’s truly curious, if you think about it, is the fact that no one responded that they don’t lie ever – everyone just accepted the question and answered, which could mean everyone who participated has lied at some point. Maybe they merely experienced being lied to, but I doubt it; we all tend to have a comfort level only with the things we ourselves are familiar with.
I don’t really find this surprising. Lies are actually very useful. I’m not talking about destructive lies with evil intent – just the tiny lies that smooth the way and make life tolerable sometimes. Language in all its forms is useful, lies included – something else I’ve learned from my translation work – and tools are meant to be used. So while lying may be something worth discouraging, it’s probably better to spend your time and energy learning how to detect them better.
Image courtesy lifehacker.com.au