The Face of Lying

UCSF's Paul Ekman, a national expert on the science of lying, helps police (and journalists) determine whether perps (or presidents) are practiced prevaricators

"I hope," said the lady, "that you have not come to cross-examine me again?"
"No," Holmes answered, in his gentlest voice, "I will not cause you any unnecessary trouble, Lady Brackenstall, and my whole desire is to make things easy for you, for I am convinced that you are a much-tried woman. If you will treat me as a friend and trust me, you may find that I will justify your trust."

"What do you want me to do?"
"To tell me the truth."
-- Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of the Abbey

I'm sitting in the book-cluttered front office of a converted railroad flat in the Parnassus Heights neighborhood, knee-to-knee with the world's foremost scholar on lying.

And I think I feel my face twitch.
"I don't know what kind of story you're going to write. Are you going to make me seem like an evil or foolish person, or not? There's no way I can tell," says Dr. Paul Ekman, UCSF psychologist and perhaps the most quoted man in America on the subject of deception. "Either way, you'd tell me the same thing."

Ekman has spent decades peering into faces like mine, dissecting every muscular ripple and seeing through every phony smile, to chart a map of telltale expressions.

Ekman is the most prominent student of Charles Darwin's studies into the link between emotions and body language. Oxford University Press just published a "definitive edition" of Darwin's book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, edited and annotated by Ekman. Ekman has cataloged 7,000 subtly different facial expressions that now serve as a standard template for computer animators. By evolving Darwin further still, Ekman has helped parent a new school of police work, in which interrogators are kinder, gentler, more devious, and more effective than ever before.

The premise is simple. The retired cops who advise producers for the interrogation scenes on television shows like NYPD Blues don't know what their modern peers do: Bashing and hollering at suspects is for morons. If you're a smart detective, you cozy up to them; you become their friend; you get them talking; you wait for the lies. And, if you've been trained in the Ekman method, you watch their faces roil.

A scowl emerges -- for a moment only -- before it is smothered by an embezzler's tight smile. The terrified murder witness blinks for 3/4 of a second -- much too long -- before saying, "My back was turned." A child molester's flaccid neck strains for a moment, then the muscles around his eyes twitch as he hears this question: "Do children find you attractive?" Ekman has given seminars to law enforcement agencies all over the country and has advised police executives in England, Israel, and Australia. His progeny interrogate suspects at most Bay Area law enforcement agencies, including the SFPD.

As I spent several weeks in Ekman's lying world -- attending a 40-hour police interrogation class taught by an Ekman disciple; reading books and articles about his work; chatting with a dozen cops trained in his method; and interviewing and reinterviewing Ekman and his academic peers -- I came to realize that the trick to unveiling untruth is one every serious journalist knows. It takes a deceptive person to catch a liar.

Like the cop, the lawyer, the diplomat -- and everyone else who knows how to get a dissembler to give up the goods -- journalists are con men. They charm, seduce, and then betray their sources with the dedication of smooth-talking lounge lizards. And if they succeed, journalists reach the reporterly equivalent of a climax, that Linda Tripp moment when the new confidant starts to say things he or she really oughtn't, and lets loose words to be fashioned by the writer into a tale of human failing.

While it didn't seem so at the outset -- I first learned about Dr. Ekman from a Scientific American review of the new Darwin book -- the more I spoke to him and his law-entranceway disciples, the more it seemed he might be ripe for journalistic seduction and betrayal.

First, Ekman is a rather aggressive self-promoter. His answering machine includes a special line for journalists. He's been in dozens of newspaper and magazine articles, and appears regularly on television. He is the expert newswriters call for quotes about possible high-profile liars: Thomas/Hill; Poindexter/North; Clinton ... you get the idea.

And there are fewer things more delightful for a journalist than pulling one over on a self-promoter.

What's more, Ekman is a practitioner of one of the most dubious sub-genres of an already-suspect field: the Psychology of Deception. It's a field where professors at Brandeis University and Claremont Graduate School spend years proving ground-breaking theories such as these: People lie to avoid punishment; liars tend to act nervous.

Finally, there's what would appear to be Ekman's greatest vulnerability, at least from a journalistic perspective: He's a well-mannered academic claiming influence in a bare-knuckled world. "Kinder and gentler police interrogations?" I asked myself. This I had to see.

So I did what I always do in cases like these: I went through a process that journalists consider ordinary source cultivation, but most laymen would probably judge to be a bare-faced con. I deluged Ekman with e-mails praising his work, eulogizing Darwin, and expressing my intention to lionize them both. I sent him a pile of lengthy SF Weekly articles I had written about the nature of scientific revolutions and America's waning appreciation of scientific discovery. I committed to spend at least a month immersing myself in his ideas.

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