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Catching Liars

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In this segment, Gordon Burghardt introduces us to a snake that plays dead. Then, from a highway median at John F. Kennedy Airport, Paul Ekman tries to teach Jad how to catch a liar the old-fashioned way: by reading their facial expressions. Because if you know where to look, he says, the truth leaks out. We learn more about this truth "leakage" from CIA interrogator Barry L. McManus and Steve Silberman, reporter from Wired magazine. We then return to Ekman for a peek into his personal effort to walk the path of the honest man.


Gordon Burghardt, Paul Ekman, Barry L. McManus and Steve Silberman

Comments [18]

Renee from Wisconsin

So we cannot read facial expressions correctly after a few times of getting it right. I think it's because we have to read facial expressions unconsciously.

In David Eagleman's Incognito, there was a poem (made either by him or someone else) about a frog who asks a happy centipede which of her legs will step forward first. The centipede couldn't walk anymore because she was made conscious of something she was supposed to do naturally.

We'll suck at trying to read facial expressions when we try to do it. But we'll do it well and respond to the facial expression intuitively when we don't try.

Apr. 26 2016 02:24 PM

I must say some of the sound effects I've heard in the shows has been very jarring in my headphones while working. Otherwise, you guys are great.

Jun. 17 2014 12:40 PM
Mic Hunter from St. Paul, MN

Hitler (I think) said, "People will believe a big lie more than a little lie." As an art project I have created "fossils" of angels and devils and then wrote "scientific journal articles" about their discovery. It has been amazing to watch people's reactions to this lie.

Feb. 09 2013 03:27 PM
Cidalia from New Jersey

It was very interesting to listen to these experts. I believe what they said made me think about my life and what makes sense.

Oct. 25 2009 07:17 PM
Eric Weiss from Pennsylvania

I just heard a re-broadcast of this show on my local public radio station.
I am studying all aspects of our (human) inclination towards religious belief - psychological,cultural,biological,parental....
The show raised the question of deception and religious belief. Those who hold strong or fanatical belief in any given belief system will most likely not exibit any sign of lying or self deception because they actually believe it to be true.
What about those people who don't attend regular religious ceremony or those who came to a belief later in life or a belief contrary to the one held by the people who raised them.

The best programs and articles are the ones that raise more questions than they answer.

Jan. 04 2009 09:10 PM
David Rinker from Nashville, TN

So if, as the show concludes, self-deception might be a crucial survival strategy, then what's to keep us from conclude that lying in general may also be advantageous? After all, if lying to yourself can sometimes be viewed as doing yourself a "favor", then lying to others could also grant the same advantage to them, to you or to both of you.

In that light, Paul Ekman's quest to never tell a lie would then seem all that more futile, perhaps even, the ultimate deception.

Apr. 14 2008 09:28 AM
Michael Crewdson from Brooklyn

Yo, that segment on Hope was good but it sounded a little too much like This American Life.
And what happened to those boops and bleeps? I love those sound effects.

Apr. 13 2008 06:51 PM
erika Lopez from san francisco

P.S. I think it's kind of a class thing. Idealistic middle class people don't know what it is to be more a part of the food chain--being looked at like prey or turning into predator out of necessity.

Anyhow, Instead of feeling scammed, and choosing to look at your own motivations, also add sympathy that someone has to always be ON like that. When you're lying and scamming, you're always in a subservient place asking for pity, and then figuring out escape routes.

It's an extremely stressful way to live, always being ON, never able to relax and just sleep anywhere. It's like living in a non-stop poker game.

Forget the "broken down car/need a few bucks" pity stories and look at the bigger reality: it's a LOT more pitiful than you thought.

Mar. 25 2008 06:43 PM
erika Lopez from san francisco

(part 5) continued...

So THAT's how you protect yourself from so many Hope Ballantynes. Truth is, she was like an emotional prostitute. Made so many people feel good about themselves.

I feel bad for her. Not THAT bad. But it's a really crappy place to be when your hand is always out asking and playing people. I just couldn't do it anymore. I think it's a lot like how exotic dancers come to despise their clients and the whole male human race.

You're really scamming yourself in the end. That's why I quit. But I use those talents in reading people. I avoid people who want to save, now. They're not intimate. They've got these God Complexes or something. And you can never just be yourself. It's very symbiotic. Everything is. It's not one-sided, the Hope story.

People are fascinating once you assume there's no real "bad."

And maybe people stop trusting because they know they needed what the Hopes were selling. THAT's scary to oneself. And unless you figure out what you'd wanted, yeah, you're susceptible to it happening again.

And so what? Like the end of the show, you could always choose to lie to yourself like a lot of us already do!

Mar. 25 2008 06:19 PM
erika Lopez from san francisco

part 4/4(continued from before)

To a middle-class outsider, I may seem rough. But I know they're trying to play me, and as a former player, I can't be played.

So look at your own reactions. I don't want someone to think I'll save them. Saving is more personal than we'd like to think. It takes an intimacy and honesty most "saviour tourists" don't want to really get involved in. Like the professionals who deal with runaways and drug addicts.

People who tell you too much right away give a sense
of false intimacy, and if you fall for it, it's about YOU and what you're needing.

In most friendships, it takes awhile to feel comfortable enough to ask for help.

(actually, still cont...)

Mar. 25 2008 06:18 PM
erika Lopez from san francisco

part 3/4 (cont.)

So Hope Ballantyne was able to prey on people who felt good around her and wanted to feel good for having their lives look so orderly next to hers, and then they'd "save" her. There's a symbiotic relationship, and the rescuer doesn't really respect the one in crisis; and the rescued has contempt for the rescuer's disrespect, and will do things behind the rescuer's back as part of the passive aggressive dance.

So don't worry about eyes and facial stuff at this point unless you're going into a game, like business or some play where you need to read people.

As one who used to be on the skids a lot, I let a lot of that professional manipulation stuff go, and worry about my own intentions. No one can sucker me into anything unless I, MYSELF, am looking for something for nothing.

And while I can have a lot of fun with an instantly charismatic person, there's a smell I'm aware of whenever I hear the first piece of track laid down about a problem. Whether I'm hooked as bait depends on my FIRST reaction: oh, your behind on your bills? yeah. it's hard to catch up. hey, what's on TV?

You change the subject. But if you start listening too much and go for the pitiful story and allow kitty cats and babies to make their way in, you're toast.


Mar. 25 2008 06:16 PM
erika Lopez from san francisco

part 2/4 (cont.)

I used to be a runaway with other "bad" kids and we could recognize and line up "rescuers" three crisis' ahead. And people who take care of us don't want us to be human. It's about them feeling good. Like rich people getting their names published for donations.

But those who rescue for anonymous goodness of it, are human and will treat you like equals and call you on your crap. They don't NEED anything from you, so they see you for who you are--good and bad---and can't be played. So they're respected and their help is the cleanest.

(continued in another posting because of 1500 character limit)

Mar. 25 2008 06:15 PM
erika Lopez from san francisco

part 1/4

It's easy to recognize a "Hope Ballantyne": charismatic people who instantly befriend you and start laying down track for when they'll need something.

It's a shame that the people who're stung refuse to trust anyone because it's really themselves they need to focus on now. If you find you're needy and want the good feelings of rescuing others, you're a great mark.

It's like the saying that only the greedy can get scammed.

(continued in another posting for the 1500 character limit)

Mar. 25 2008 06:14 PM
Serena from Netherlands

Great Show!

I had just finished reading "Blink" by Malcom Gladwell which mentions Paul Ekman and his work on deciphering facial expressions, and here it is mentioned again in a wonderful piece by radio lab. I find Ekman's work facinating. It is especially interesting how connected our emotions are to our expressions. I think all of us are "tuned" into this on some level, but Ekman has really turned it into an art form.
A note to "ian" in comment above. If you goggle "microexpressions" the first few sites have some examples, and even a test, on these expressions.

Mar. 21 2008 03:12 PM
ian from Atlanta

Another great Radio Lab show!

I was really intrigued by this first segment. Does anyone know of an article or website that shows example photos of the facial expressions that were described? I browsed through some of the articles on Paul Ekman's website, but couldn't find anything.

Mar. 19 2008 12:13 AM
saro from NY

This piece is not really bad, but it failed to answer laying when the person involved are speaking different language.

Mar. 18 2008 05:45 PM
Steven F

The folks at Radio Lab always give us lots to think about, and for that I am grateful. I can't think of a show I'd rather listen to. However, the show was more than a bit spotty this week. For example, the spot on micro-expressions, while interesting, was really not about deception at all. You guys surely realized this. I assume that's why you didn't mention that this method does not detect lying until the last minute of the piece. Also, the piece was weakened by not having the visuals of the facial expressions.

Mar. 17 2008 11:16 AM
Mark Jordan from St Paul Mn

It would be very interesting to hear comments from these experts on recognizing a Hope Ballantyne. I look at people (including myself) differently after reading several of Mr Ekman's books. The airwaves are not always full of lies. Thanks to Public radio and Radio Lab.

Mar. 11 2008 08:55 AM

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