“I’m Fine” – How you can sense when someone is lying


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Have you ever spent time with someone who said they were fine, when they tell you that everyone was OK in their life, but after you left you had a nagging feeling that everything really was not fine?

I’ve felt that on several occasions, usually with a friend or family member, and I’m sure they have felt the same in my presence too when I’ve tried to pretend that I was better than I really was.

We should rely on our senses more often. Part of the intuition equation is how the brain ‘reads’ emotion from facial expressions. It’s quite automatic, and relies on the mirror neuron system (MNS).

When you’re around someone who is happy, your brain copies, or mirrors, the movements of their smile muscles. Similarly, when you’re with someone who is sad, your brain mirrors the movements of the muscles that convey sadness. But your brain doesn’t stop there. It also replicates the movements of their smile or sadness muscles in you (why you smile around happy people, for instance) as well as the emotion that goes along with it (why you feel happy around happy people). It’s called ‘Emotional Contagion’.

When a friend says, “I’m fine” and she or he is really not, your brain picks up the tiny movements of the muscles that convey stress and sadness, ultimately causing you little, momentary, flashes of stress or sadness. So when they keep on saying everything is great, it results in you just getting a feeling that something isn’t right.

One of my favourite studies in this area was done in 1992. Researchers at the University of Hawaii asked volunteers to watch videotapes supposedly of Polish factory workers being interviewed at high school reunions. (View a PDF of the paper here)

Ensuring that none of the volunteers could speak Polish, they dubbed the voice and played an audio of the supposed translation, spoken by an actress who simulated a computer-like voice to ensure that she wasn’t conveying any emotional information; you know, like when you’re happy and your voice goes up. Of course, it wasn’t the real translation they played.

The volunteers were shown four clips:

a) The Happy-Happy clip. This is where the voiceover fake ‘translation’ had the worker describing a happy event and this was true; she was describing a happy event.

b) The Happy-Sad clip. This is where the voiceover fake translation was describing a happy event, but the worker was actually describing a sad event.

c) The Sad-Happy clip, where the voiceover was saying the worker was sad, but she was actually happy, describing a happy event.

d) The Sad-Sad clip, where the voiceover was saying ‘sad’ and she was, indeed, describing a sad event.

If there was no emotional contagion and we just took what people said at face value, we would just rate people’s emotional state according to what they tell us. But I think you know what’s coming.

The volunteers were asked to rate the emotional state of the factory worker in each clip on a simple scale. If there was no emotional contagion, the volunteers would give the same scores in videos (a) and (b), because the voiceover was of the worker describing a happy event. But, in actual fact, they rated her happiness much lower in clip (b), because the facial expressions betrayed how she was really feeling.

What’s more, through emotional contagion, their own emotional state also moved in the direction of sadness when they watched clip (b), according to measurements taken before and after. In other words, despite what the voiceover was saying, the people watching the clip actually ‘caught’ her real emotion.

The same kind of thing was found looking at clips (c) and (d). The voiceovers described sad events, yet in (c) the worker was really describing a happy event. Indeed, the volunteers rated her happiness higher than they did for video clip (d), and their own emotional state was happier than it was after watching video clip (d).

So, in other words, the study suggests that if you watch someone say they’re happy but really they’re not. Their facial expressions will give away how they really feel. Even though they try to make their faces appear happy, muscles ‘flash’ with emotion faster than the conscious mind can usually override them.

Usually, the flashes last no more than a few one thousandths of a second. But that is more than enough for the rather sophisticated mirror neurons in your brain that literally work ‘faster than the eye can tell’.

So, I guess, my advice would be to trust your intuition more.

Reference: C. K. Hsee, E. Hatfield, and C. Chemtob, ‘Assessment of the emotional states of others: conscious judgments versus emotional contagion’, Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 1992, 11, 119-128

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