How to detect a lie – Paul Ekman’s way

Deception is one of the greatest strategies of survival on our planet. From animals to great nations – we all lie. Some dishonesties are even socially expected. Courtesy, white lies, half-truths or concealments are what keep our interactions on friendly level.

Let us imagine the world without these deceits: Your 5 years old niece comes to you with great shyness drawn on her face. She want to present her painting of you both being at the ZOO the other day. She thought it was great fun, you’re cool, and hence she put 3 hours of work to make this historical record with paints involved. Now, you turn your head and see a painting from a 5 year old – so of course it’s aesthetically terrible, technique is none to poor, and you definitely have more than three hairs on your head. You can’t lie so you tell something like this:

“I really appreciate the effort, but your painting is obviously appalling. The ZOO looks nowhere near as the one we visited. Oh, well – I would have to say that almost everything about it is wrong. You have only 5 years and to properly paint that scene you would have to train at least another ten to fifteen. That being said, come give me a hug! It is really sweet that you tried. ”

— Obviously honest and terrible aunt


Deception then is not negative in itself. It’s a tool like knives. You can use it in context of right or wrong.

There are lies of great impact. First coming to my mind is Hitler’s lies to force appeasement policies and put him in best position to eventually start his military aggression. If Chamberlain could call Hitler’s lies who knows how the present would be shaped.

Those kinds of deceptions are connected with great emotional states. The better liar the more concealed these emotions are. But unless you are psychopath – something will “leak”.


This is why we need Paul Ekman in this topic. He’s the one who decoded facial expressions and pointed out the existence of micro and subtle expressions that can disappear faster than blink of an eye. We tend to control ourselves with great effort not to leak any emotional reaction. Sometimes to the point when it becomes absurd and indicates that we’re lying. Like fear concealed under a smile. Yet, most of us are terrible at spotting liars. Or even at discriminating between real and fake smiles. Only after training in spotting those subtle and micro expressions our scores go up from around 50% (so as good as chance of coin flip) to even 70% and beyond.


There are certain hot spots we can investigate further. If someone is afraid of something while we’re investigating him/her it doesn’t mean that he or she is afraid that truth will come be discovered. That person can be afraid of not being believed. So we are always looking for changes in behavior and reactions. Those incongruences suggest that we’re on a fast lane to discover something concealed which is in relation to the whole context – not necessarily the matter itself.

So still, to some extent lie detection is still a bit of an art than the hard science. Especially in real life situations – fast, where contexts mash up and our cognitive biases are working hard. That being said, still it is viable tool in negotiations, strategic decisions, everywhere where information processed by humans are vital.

–          Przemek Kucia

So tell me, would you like to know whenever you are lied to? Even when white lie is making you feel good? Please, like and share if you liked it!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s