about this IVFrom The University of San Francisco
Psychology Professor Discovers Human Lie Detectors
Psychology Professor Maureen O’Sullivan’s long-term study of people especially good at detecting liars has discovered a new group: emotionally intelligent “geniuses.”
“It’s taken us about 15 years to find these people because there are only about one in a thousand who have these skills,” O’Sullivan said. O’Sullivan and her research partner, Paul Ekman, of the University of California, San Francisco, first began studying facial expressions related to lying in the 1980s. Today their work focuses on the skills of especially acute observers and how they got that way. To qualify as a “genius,” observers have to show at least 80 percent accuracy on O’Sullivan’s lie detecting tests.
Certain groups, such as Secret Service agents or arbitrators used to observing peoples’ reactions to their tactics, score better than average at discerning liars. But after testing more than 12,000 subjects, O’Sullivan has thinned her study group to about 29 super-human lie detectors.“People who are good have to have a devotion (to their talent),” O’Sullivan said. Her group includes artists, therapists, police officers, and a law student and faculty member of the USF School of Law. Some are introverted—the classic observer personality—but others are outgoing. One thing they all have is a drive to observe people and benefit from their observations.
“I had one expert who worked as a waitress and watched people because she wanted to discern who would tip well,” O’Sullivan said. “She was scientific about it. If she was wrong, she would ask herself why.”
O’Sullivan’s work has made her an expert in emotional intelligence. She is often asked to coach federal and local security personnel on detecting lying and she is applying her work to counter-terrorism practices. She is currently writing a mainstream book about her findings.
O’Sullivan tests her subjects by asking them to watch films of people lying or telling the truth and then evaluating what they saw. If the subjects are at least 80 percent correct on three tests, they are added to O’Sullivan’s list of acute observers and asked to undergo additional tests and interviews. She said there is no “Pinocchio nose” that can give away a liar. Odd or inconsistent changes in a person’s verbal or non-verbal behavior, increases in vocal pitch, or changes in hand and body gestures can indicate they’re feeling uncomfortable about what they’re saying, and perhaps lying.“
Although people talk about a ‘gut-reaction’ what they are really doing is paying attention to all kinds of palpable, non-verbal kinds of communication,” she said.