The Liar in Your Life: The Way to Truthful Relationships
by Posted Tue, Apr 6 2010
Robert Feldman has beeN research-ing deception for more than 25 years. A University of Massachusetts psychology professor, Feldman did not write a book about lying primarily as a primer for journalists. The journalists who read The Liar in Your Life, however, will benefit professionally (and personally) from almost every page. It turns out that a lot of what journalists think they know about lying sources is misguided.
Many journalists I know (okay, myself included) think they have become especially accomplished at detecting liars: They refuse to look journalists in the eye. They sweat. They stutter under pressure. Their voice shatters, their tonality alters. Their body language changes.
Sometimes, sure. But as Feldman demonstrates from information based on hundreds (maybe thousands) of research studies (some by him, some by others), accomplished liars often exhibit none of the so-called tell-tale characteristics.
The overarching theme of Feldman’s book—the global message—is that everybody lies to almost everybody else on a consistent basis. Many of the lies are interpersonal in nature and not meant to harm: “Your new haircut looks fine”; “You are a strong candidate for the job opening.” Those lies, in the privacy of a home or a workplace, probably carry little interest for journalists.
Other lies, needless to say, carry great interest for journalists and the members of the journalists’ audience. Lies by a commander-in-chief about the basis for declaring war, lies by a chief executive officer about why the corporation marketed a deadly product, and lies by a candidate for a job affecting society about professional training are by definition “news” if exposed.
My experience in 40 years as an investigative journalist is that perhaps 25 percent of individuals with important jobs lie on their résumé. My selective sample is validated by a passage in Feldman’s book:
“Jude M. Werra, the head of a headhunting firm in Wisconsin, conducts a biannual review of the high-powered résumés his firm receives. He checks the educational backgrounds of chief executive officers and vice presidents, then compiles what he calls the Liars Index—a statistic that represents the number of résumés with inaccuracies divided by the total number of résumés he has checked. In 2008, the Liars Index was nearly 16 percent. That’s down from the high of 23.3 percent reached in 2000.”
Journalists who fail to check the résumés of legislators, judges, executive branch officials, first-time candidates for government positions, corporate bosses and others with outsized influence (including, locally, school principals and classroom teachers) are at best negligent.
Feldman devotes a chapter to journalists who lie not only to obtain jobs, but also to their readers, viewers and listeners. Jayson Blair of The New York Times and Stephen Glass of the New Republic are recent, well-known examples. It is impossible to know how many other liars work for journalism organizations. As for bloggers and other communicators who have never been taught the overarching journalistic ethic of factual/contextual accuracy, lies spew forth from some of their postings. If “lies” sounds overly harsh, then “inaccuracies” can serve as a substitute. Whatever the terminology, Feldman urges consumers of news to check everything independently whenever practical.
In his book, Feldman discusses the research of Paul Ekman, a University of California-San Francisco professor interested in detecting deception from nonverbal behavior. Ekman is author of the book Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics and Marriage, first published in 1985 and recently available in an updated edition. Ekman’s research has reached an especially large audience in the past year because of the television drama Lie to Me, a weekly fictional program on the Fox network. The protagonist on the drama can look at facial expressions, body language and other nonverbal indicators to determine if somebody is lying. For the sake of the mass audience seeking entertainment, the protagonist is almost always correct.
In the real world, one of Ekman’s most important findings for journalists is the phenomenon of “duping delight.” It describes liars who find pleasure in deceiving others. Cracking the code of duping delight is not an easy task for journalists, who are usually generalists rather than highly trained laboratory researchers. That said, detecting lies and publicly exposing liars is an important mission for all journalists. Learning from Feldman’s book is a step in the appropriate direction.