This is me at the ETaC course in Canberra. Picture: Supplied Source: The Daily Telegraph
My leg won’t stop bouncing and I wish I had something in my hands but they took my pad and coffee cup off me when I sat down.
Five things you think you know about lying that are wrong TOUCHING THE FACE
Not only is body language the least reliable way to predict if someone is lying, it’s something a lot of people know about. So it’s the first thing a liar will try not to do.
MAKING EYE CONTACT
Studies have shown people who lie actually make more eye contact. Turns out they want to see if you believe them or not.
WRIGGLING IN YOUR CHAIR
You might just be a naturally “wriggly person” or it could indicate you’re experiencing emotional strain. Which doesn’t necessarily mean
PAUSING, ‘UMMS’ AND ‘AAHS’
It’s all about baseline and context. Is this something they would normally have to think hard about? Are they under stress? Both things that can make someone sound as shifty as a 70-year-old’s kneecap.
LACK OF RECALL
If someone can’t remember something it doesn’t mean they’re lying. People forget things all the time. Traumatic events we “want” to forget can be especially hard to recall.
My interrogators sit around me in a circle. There is a private defence contractor, a policewoman turned “consultant”, a psychologist who speaks fondly of his time in correctional facilities and a public servant.
The last man is a fit-looking and well dressed Columbian who says he works “in IT” but I’m convinced he works for ASIO. He smirks at me and writes something down on a pad in his lap.
I crane my neck to try to see what he’s written but he angles the pad away. My voice shakes and sometimes I say too many words before I remember to breathe. I feel like I’m back in school.
Which I am – I’m in a class learning how to spot liars.
I’m doing a course called “Establishing Truth and Credibility”, or “ETaC”, a four-day intensive program run by EI Asia Pacific, a licensee of Paul Ekman International.
The course is based on the work of Dr Paul Ekman – whose work was made famous by the television show Lie to Me.
It is part of what has been a recent expansion of Ekman’s work – hoping to make a profitable global business out of what many have considered to be solely the domain of you-wouldn’t-believe-it shows like The Mentalist or Sherlock Holmes.
The training is delivered by Alan Hudson and Malcolm Anderson, who work like a good cop, bad cop team. An Oxford graduate, Alan is relaxed and friendly but behind that I notice he is constantly watching.
“Did you see that?” he asks us as we look at footage of a cold war spy taken the day before he defected to Russia.
“Quick little micro of sadness at the end there.”
He’s referring to a micro-expression – a tiny fleeting facial expression that lasts only a fraction of a second. We give him back blank looks. And when he slows the video down there it is – a moment where the man’s eyebrows and face turn down into an expression of pure sadness, vanishing a split second later.
“It doesn’t match what he was saying at all,” Alan says.
I feel like I’m watching a magician.
“This course represents a ‘new frontier’ of emotional skills. It takes the latest rigorous science and understanding about the nature of emotions, and the nature of trust and deception, into day-to-day workplaces, people’s lives and relationships. Translating this into the delivery of practical skills-based training.”
Doctor Paul Ekman, an expert in detecting suspicious behaviour. Picture: Renee Nowytarger
Source: The Daily Telegraph
And it’s not a trick – as Malcolm constantly stresses – this is a science.
Striding into the course with a goatee he says he shaved in after he realised his full face beard made him look like an “old fart” he comes across a bit like what Richard Branson would be like if he interrogated people for the CIA.
“What I want to see from you is some real rigour,” Malcolm says. “Never, ever, ever, jump to conclusions.”
Five ways to spot a liar GET A ‘BASELINE’
Know how the person behaves when not lying and look for deviations from that. It means something is going on.
LOOK FOR THE ‘LOAD’
Look for moments when the individual is working too hard or not hard enough for what they’re saying. Remembering shouldn’t be difficult if recent and should be harder if long ago.
FORGET EYES, LOOK AT THE FACE
Dr Ekman’s research shows the area most reliable for deception is the face. A lot of people will leak micro-expressions without realising it. The seven universal facial expressions are fear, surprise, disgust, contempt, anger, sadness and happiness.
LACK OF CONTEXT
Stories have lots of moving parts because they happen in real life. People remember strange things that are out of place and can usually remember things around the event. If the moment seems to exist by itself in space it can indicate a lie.
LOOK FOR ‘HOTSPOTS’
Pay attention to conflicting messages. Someone says they’re happy while they look sad? Something isn’t right. Likewise if someone moves a lot when you’re chatting with them, but stops when you ask about something particular.
What did we learn? In addition to embarrassing me the first hour quickly shows me everything I think I know about lying and liars is wrong.
Someone crossing their arms means they are feeling defensive. Wrong.
You can spot a liar because they touch their face or rub their nose. Wrong.
It turns out body language is the least reliable indicator of deception of all of the communication channels. People who are lying make less eye contact. Dead wrong.
They make more – they want to check to see if you’re swallowing their stories.
The first exercise we do is tell that embarrassing story while we are videotaped – an uncomfortable exercise considering I’ve only just met these people.
As a group which includes a prison psychologist, a former police officer who creates interrogation questionnaires, a defence contractor and a humble journalist we score roughly 50 per cent.
That’s the same score we would have gotten if we flipped a coin.
But we get better. Listening is the first step. We are taught to gather data from the five streams of communication and to construct and test multiple hypotheses.
Then you construct a “baseline”: What do you know about the person you’re talking to? What is normal for them? Once you know how someone normally acts you can know when they’re under stress or thinking harder than they should be.
Almost an entire day is spent learning how memory works: where certain memories are stored in the brain, how they are accessed, how to notice when something is a real memory being retrieved or when it is a false memory being constructed or imagined.
And the whole time practice, practice, practice.
After the theory is done we run through hours of videos.
Men and women who have bludgeoned their partners to death, cheaters, liars, thieves and – of course – innocent people thrown in to make sure we are evaluating our subjects and not simply crying “liar” every time someone speaks.
After the first day I’m wondering if I’ve wasted my money. The other people in the course seem far more able to apply the learning and I consider the possibility that I’m wasting their time as well.
But then a killer changes my mind. While I’m watching a video of a distraught husband plead for public help to find his wife’s killer I see a micro-expression of anger where it shouldn’t be.
That fifth of a second of wide open eyes and the tense set of his mouth are out of place as he tells a reporter how his wife’s murderer must have delivered the killing blow.
“By the end of the fourth day we are all much better at catching liars – and lying ourselves”
But later when he talks about the creature that murdered her he shows nothing at all, even speaking as the killer – speculating how he must have felt and his reasons for the crime.
He doesn’t even say the word “murder” or “kill”.
I decide that he is lying based on his emotional leakage not matching his story and I’m right. I walk out that night feeling like a genius.
I shoot a knowing smile at the waitress in the restaurant where I have dinner knowing that all of her secrets are laid bare on her face and all I have to do is look.
Back in class the next day I mess up the first three exercises in a row, two “false negatives” and a “false positive” – worse than pure chance. So it’s back to the drawing board.
That’s at the centre of the practice. Every time you think you’ve got it fixed and you know the key to telling liars you find someone it doesn’t work on.
And that’s the real key to telling if someone is lying – pay attention, get the context, get a baseline and notice when your subject does something that doesn’t fit.
Then think about why it doesn’t fit. Not just one reason. Think about many. Test those ideas. Then look again. If they normally touch their nose you can’t use that as an indicator of deception. If they are a naturally sad or angry person that won’t help you either.
“And that’s the real key to telling if someone is lying – pay attention, get the context, get a baseline and notice when your subject does something that doesn’t fit”
At the start of the fourth day Malcolm plays bad cop again, craning his head towards us yelling that today we have to show him “real rigour” today.
“Today’s the day you bring it all together,” he says.
When I first have coffee with him, Alan tells me the reason he was attracted to Ekman’s work was the rigour and the science behind it.
“Ekman training is only science based, practical skills building program available that builds emotional intelligence, leadership skills, and teamwork,” he says.
And businesses are starting to see the benefits.
“There has been an increased demand and interest from technology-centric professionals in ICT, engineering, computing etc. for science-based skills to help them manage their teams, clients, grow their businesses.”
The defence contractor tells me he deals with clients on a daily basis who he would like to be able to read quickly while the “contractor” tells me she already designs questionnaires and screening to detect deception and is hoping to learn some extra tricks to add to her arsenal.
I still think Mr “in IT” works for ASIO.
By the end of the fourth day we are all much better at catching liars – and lying ourselves.
“I don’t think we’ve had such a high-achieving group before,” Malcolm tells us on our last day.
“Or one quite so obsessed with bodily functions.”
I walk out of the course feeling like the work has only just begun. I buy a whiteboard for my bedroom and write the points from the four days on it.
Oh yes, envy the poor woman I bring home to that.
I buy Ekman’s METT and SETT online training programs for facial expressions and watch the seven universal facial expressions flash past me in fraction of a second intervals. Once a week I watch an interview taking down notes from each of the five communication channels.
It’s paying off – I’ve become more painful to be around. When I get a coffee on the weekend I ask the barista how she is and watch the inside of her eyebrows tighten up and in while the corners of her mouth go down in a quick puff of sadness.
“I’m great,” she says.
“Really? You look a little sad,” I say.
After some protest she tells me she’s had a argument with her boyfriend, all but ending the relationship.
My response is only natural: Hell yes, I’m Sherlock Holmes.