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How Neuroscience Can Teach You To Lie

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The human brain is a pretty amazing for a wet, grey sponge. It has all the tools to predict what’s going to happen in the future, as well as generating completely fictional worlds. These two things go hand-in-hand to give us the ability to plan ahead and create great works of art. It’s also the reason we are made to lie.

Common Lies About Lies
If you’ve ever watched any cop show on TV then you have a pretty good idea of how people behave when they lie. That is as long as the people we are talking about are actors on TV shows with their directions written by a team of writers. If we’re talking about the real world, then we’d better start from scratch by dispelling some common misconceptions. 


Lie 1#: When you lie you end up talking more and faster as well as showing signs of vocal tension and nervousness. This is a great description of someone on cocaine. It also describes my nephew when he gets excited playing with his Wii. While cocaine users and my nephew might tell the odd fib, these are not concrete markers of someone lying. 


Lie 2#: While lying you tend to fidget, and go out of your way to avoid eye contact or make it way too much. This could be a textbook description of an introvert. If any of this was really true then nearly every computer programmer I’ve met was lying like there was no tomorrow. Really they’re just shy little flowers. 


So that’s it then? There are no behaviors that really give you away? Not quite. The big thing about lying is that it’s hard work. How much work is different for everyone, but it’s always more than telling the truth. And a hard working brain makes mistakes.

The Busy Brain: Let’s Concentrate on Lying
Maintaining an artificial reality is hard work for the brain; it’s just so much easier to process the world around us as it is and file that away in our memories.

Though the analogy isn’t perfect, let’s think of the workload on the brain as much higher when it’s reading a book, having to create all the images in your mind’s eye, than when it’s passively taking the story in when watching the movie version. Now imagine how much more concentration you’d need to write that book in the first place.

The reason passively taking it in is so much easier than creating reality is probably related to the evolutionary need for the brain to operate efficiently. For instance, if one morning you get to work late and your tardiness was due to the traffic being backed up because there was an accident involving a exotic red car, then it doesn’t take a lot of effort to explain. In fact, you’ll probably just launch into casual conservation about it over lunch with your co-workers without even thinking about the details. The processes of memory recall and communication are automatic, precisely so you don’t have to exert a lot of effort.

It’s really a great evolutionary survival tactic so that it makes it difficult for us to confuse reality with what you’ve made up. Back in the Stone Age, you don’t want to spend a long time concentrating on remembering that you should be running away from saber toothed tigers instead of them being cuddly little cereal box mascots.

But let’s say you are late to work because you slept in and you decide to tell your co-workers that you are late because of a fictional exotic red car accident. If you are flat out lying, then your brain has to work a lot harder. Not only do you have to synthesize the details of your lie, you are simultaneously checking that what you’ve imagined is believable. On top of this, you then have to talk and think about what you’re going to say next instead of it just flowing.

Inevitably, since you know that you’re lying you are simultaneously trying to monitor and control your facial and physiological reactions, to try and come across as what you think is natural. Trying to control expressions and behavior, you aren’t normally fully aware of, during normal conversation.

I say “what you think is natural” because it’s unlikely that you have an accurate picture or remember exactly how your body behaves from someone else’s point of view. So you’re trying to lie, thinking about what to say, all the while also thinking “Do I make eye contact? Maybe a little? Whoa! Was that too much? What am I usually doing with my hands when I talk? Hang on are they on to me?”

And this last thought means you are also trying to monitor what your audience’s reaction is: Did that last thing I say give me away? Wait, do they normally look at me like that when we’re talking? Is that the same expression they normally have when I talk to them?

But that’s not all, it gets worse. Even when the immediate lie is over, your long-term memory now has to keep track of two realities. What you experienced, and what your coworkers believe you experienced. Every time you interact with them in the future you’ll need your neurons to recall the exact details about what you said, and what the person you spoke to responded with, in addition to the actual events of that day.

And that’s where lies go wrong and you get busted. Not because of the behavioral myths I mentioned at the start, but because your behavior has changed from what it is normally.

How Can You Lie Your Pants Off
Everyone is different. Some people are always nervous and rarely make eye contact. Lies can only be detected by comparison to what the truth looks like. The only thing that you’re looking for is a change in behavior.


1. Know your own behavior. Plan ahead and start consciously observing what you do during normal conversations. How does your voice sound? Where do you look normally? The biggie though is facial expressions. This is a tough one to monitor, since you don’t ever see your face when you’re talking to someone. Talking at yourself in a mirror isn’t natural either, so the least intrusive method here is a Web cam conversation where you can see your own feed. 


2. Avoid previous contact. The longer you’ve known someone the easier it is to spot changes from normal. This is a no-brainer. People have a lot longer to “collect” information on how you behave under normal circumstances. Slight deviations from the norm often register as an intuition like “that’s odd.” This is the subconscious processing what it’s just heard/seen and it not conforming to what it’s seen before even if they can’t put their finger on it. Since it’s not always possible to have avoided.


3. Practice. Actors are great liars. They have to make what is to them an unnatural behavior, believable. If you lie you’re acting differently from your normal behavior so you’ll need to be acting normal. This is much harder than it sounds. 


Unfortunately, if you were hoping to conquer the world, you’re going to need a lot more help than just these three points. As you can see from the three tips, the only way to effectively lie is to prepare each one well in advance. This is all going to take a lot of time and in the end it’s really just much simpler to be truthful. Of course now you’ve read this you also have all the ammunition you need to spot a liar. But what the points I’ve outlined can really be practical for is the fine art of playing poker.

So would any of you like to play? I’m not very good, honest. 


By Patrick from VeryEvolved, originally published at DumbLittleMan

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