Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Here’s how you know when someone’s lying to your face
When someone is lying to you personally, you may be able to see what they're doing.
- A study uses motion-capture to assess the physical interaction between a liar and their victim.
- Liars unconsciously coordinate their movements to their listener.
- The more difficult the lie, the more the coordination occurs.
Lying one-on-one is hard when done correctly. Some people lie compulsively, with little regard to getting caught — for them it's a no-brainer. But concocting a believable lie, selling it, and maintaining it without inadvertently tripping oneself up takes effort. According to a new study, it takes a little too much effort — your brain is so occupied by the lie that your body is at risk of giving off a universal "tell" to anyone who knows to look for it.
The study, by Dutch and U.K. researchers, is published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.
Someone who is lying to your face is likely to copy your motions. The trickier the lie, the truer this is, according to experiments described in the study.
The researchers offer two possible explanations, both of which have to do with cognitive load. In a press release, the authors note that "Lying, especially when fabricating accounts, can be more cognitively demanding than truth telling."
The first hypothesis is that when someone is lying, their brain is simply too occupied with the subterfuge to pay any attention to the control of physical movements. As a result, the unconscious part of the liar's brain controlling movements defaults to the easiest course of action available: It simply imitates the motions of the person they're lying to.
The second possibility is that the liar's cognitive load deprives a liar of sufficient bandwidth to devise a clever, effective physical strategy. Instead, while lying, their attention is so laser-focused on their listener's reaction that the liar unconsciously parrots it.
Credit: Niels/Adobe Stock
The phenomenon is referred to as "nonverbal coordination," and there is some existing evidence in deception research that it does occur when someone is under a heavy cognitive load. However, that evidence is based on observations of specific body parts and doesn't comprehensively capture whole-body behavior, and little research has mutually tracked both parties' movements in a lying scenario.
Nonetheless, say the authors, "Nonverbal coordination is an especially interesting cue to deceit because its occurrence relies on automatic processes and is therefore more difficult to deliberately control."
To track nonverbal coordination, pairs of participants in the study's two experiments were outfitted with motion-capture devices Velcroed to their wrists, heads, and torsos before being seated facing each other across a low table.
In the first experiment, a dynamic time-warping algorithm analyzed participants movements as they ran through exercises in which one individual told the truth, and then told increasingly difficult lies. In the second experiment, listeners were given instructions that influenced the amount of attention they paid to the liar's movements.
The researchers found "nonverbal coordination increased with lie difficulty." They also saw that this increase "was not influenced by the degree to which interviewees paid attention to their nonverbal behavior, nor by the degree of interviewer's suspicion. Our findings are consistent with the broader proposition that people rely on automated processes such as mimicry when under cognitive load."
There is, it must be said, a third possible reason that a liar copies their target's behavior: Maybe liars are subconsciously reinforcing their credibility with their victims using "mirroring."
As Big Think readers and anyone familiar with the art of persuasion knows, copying another person's actions is called "mirroring," and it's a way to get someone else to like you. Our brains have "mirror neurons" that respond positively when someone imitates our actions. The result is something called "limbic synchrony." Deliberately mirroring a companion's movements is an acknowledged sales technique.
So, how can you tell when mirroring signifies a lie and not benign interpersonal salesmanship? There is an overlap, of course — lying is one form of persuasion, after all. Perhaps the smartest response is to simply take mirroring as a signal that close attention is warranted. No need to automatically shout "liar!" when someone copies you. Just step back a little mentally and listen a bit more carefully to what your companion is saying.
- Parents who lie to their kids raise adult liars ›
- Here's How Good Liars Get Away With It – Research Digest ›
- How to read body language like a poker player | Liv Boeree - Big Think ›
An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.
- A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
- A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
- Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.
The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.
Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .
The Barry Arm Fjord
Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach
Image source: Matt Zimmerman
The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.
Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest
Image source: whrc.org
There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.
The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.
"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."
Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.
What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord
Moving slowly at first...
Image source: whrc.org
"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."
The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.
Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.
Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.
While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.
Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."
How do you prepare for something like this?
Image source: whrc.org
The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:
"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."
In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.
What makes some people more likely to shiver than others?
Some people just aren't bothered by the cold, no matter how low the temperature dips. And the reason for this may be in a person's genes.
Eating veggies is good for you. Now we can stop debating how much we should eat.
- A massive new study confirms that five servings of fruit and veggies a day can lower the risk of death.
- The maximum benefit is found at two servings of fruit and three of veggies—anything more offers no extra benefit according to the researchers.
- Not all fruits and veggies are equal. Leafy greens are better for you than starchy corn and potatoes.