Telling Lies by Paul Ekman

Paul Ekman’s Telling Lies is a serious, important work in the field of psychology. It’s readable by a lay audience, but it’s not hawking ‘ten simple FBI tricks that anyone can use to detect lies at home and at work’. In fact, the answer Ekman gives as to whether a certain behavior is a clue to lying is always: it depends. There are as many ways to lie as there are people, and as many ways to tell the truth. Furthermore, as you may have guessed from watching spies outwit them in movies, even polygraphs are not reliable lie detectors. Turns out—surprise!—people are complicated.

Continue reading to find out more about Ekman’s approach and findings, what I thought of the book, what I learned about lying, and what else I’ve read on the subject.

Ekman’s research does shed light on clues to deception. He has categorized facial expressions representing core human emotions, and those emotions do reveal themselves in ways that can be learned. He has much to teach about what makes it harder and what makes it easier to lie and to catch a liar. He also says some people are just good at lying and others just aren’t (p. 359).

Ekman’s approach is mostly anthropological rather than ethical. He accepts that lying is a permanent fixture of human life, and points out that even the strictest moralists find lies acceptable or necessary in some circumstances (p. 360). Ekman approves of the kind of lie that is told by a leader to a foreign enemy to gain a military advantage (p. 305).

He’s interested in the truth as a kind of puzzle, rather than because truth is an absolute good (p. 361). He says, in fact, that lies serve an important function because sometimes truth would unnecessarily harm a relationship where a lie would not (p. 360–61), and that to avoid this harm, such lies should be and typically are believed (p. 343, p. 362). The refusal, due to propriety, to admit having detected a colleague’s lie is a big theme in the TV show Lie to Me. With great power comes this somewhat counterintuitive responsibility.

Another interesting aspect of Ekman’s approach is that he defines concealment as a kind of lie. In his definition, deception by omission of information is a kind of lie just as actively misrepresenting information is a kind of lie. He acknowledges that omission and misrepresentation are seldom grouped together in this way (p. 28).

I got a bit tired of political examples, especially since the same ones are repeated in several places (Carter and the Iranian hostage crisis, Nixon and Watergate, Hitler and WWII). I understand that lying by politicians, especially in high-stakes situations, is an important subtopic when lying is considered, but political history does not fall within my core areas of knowledge and interest. Lies in the lives of private citizens and abstract notions of truth are of more interest to me personally than political lies.

Ekman quotes a CIA agent on the subject of suspicion, saying that it is all too easy to believe someone is lying, even if he or she isn’t. The temptation is the same as the temptation to ascribe unexplained events in nature to supernatural beings or to ascribe unexplained events in society to government conspiracies. We like to think that everything has a tidy logical explanation, even when it doesn’t (p. 173).

It’s worth noting the meaningful distinction (which I suppose hitherto escaped my notice) between an interview with a law-enforcement officer and an interrogation. Interviews presume innocence and are for producing facts, whereas interrogations presume guilt and are for producing confessions (p. 251).

Thieves and con artists sometimes draw attention to the very thing their victims might be nervous about as a way of calming their victims’ anxiety. Apparently this is called ‘mirror play’, but to me it sounds a lot like lampshade hanging in fiction (p. 247).

Ekman identifies nine motives for lying: avoid punishment, obtain reward, protect someone from punishment, protect self from physical harm, to win admiration, to escape awkwardness, to avoid embarrassment, to maintain privacy, to exercise power over others (p. 329–30).

I’m glad that Ekman acknowledges the large-scale corrosive aspects of lying. Though it’s not a focus, he says that governments where those in power create a culture of ignoring the truth cannot govern effectively (p. 314) and that societies mired by unfair, bureaucratic rules  teach their citizens that everyone should be sneaky and no one should be law-abiding (p. 323).

In contrast, the Sam Harris book on lying takes the negative consequences of lies as central and argues convincingly from the ethical stance that we should lie as little as possible in daily life. This is the argument that telling the truth is increasing the efficiency of the feedback mechanisms of life; if someone is dishonest with you, then you can’t accurately assess the situation or react appropriately. The point is that problems swept under the carpet don’t necessarily get fixed, addressed or even noticed.

Although it doesn’t gel with most social mores, the frank approach appeals to me. I tend to think politeness is a form of insincerity, and that ignorance is never bliss.

When and why I read it

I don’t remember when or how I heard of Paul Ekman and his groundbreaking research. It may or may not have been because I watched the TV series Lie to Me.

Genre: Non-fiction (psychology)
Date started / date finished: 22-Feb-2016 to 29-Feb-2016
Length: 374 pages
ISBN: 9780393337457 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2009 (earlier version in 1985)
Amazon link: Telling Lies
Author’s website:

“Related” books

There is a HUGE and hugely fascinating web of books in philosophy, psychology, cognitive science, behavioral economics, management, and self-improvement on interrelated subjects such as lying, truth, knowledge, error, crime, intelligence, decision-making, optimism, happiness, humor, logic, rationality, thinking, cognition, consciousness, free will, ethics, integrity, character, honesty, identity, emotions, friendship, personality, career, theft and cons, stage magic, illusions, vision, perception, and back to deception.

The non-fiction books I have read that relate strictly to lies and lying are:

  • Lying by Sam Harris
  • Lying by Sissela Bok
  • Liespotting by Pamela Meyer
  • Why We Lie by Dorothy Rowe

But these seem relevant, too:

  • On Bullshit by Harry Frankfurt
  • On Truth by Harry Frankfurt