Monday, February 23, 2015

Catching a Hoodwink (by Phillipa Norman)

Guest Post: Phillipa Norman

Some friends connect to such a degree that the distinction between family and friends melts away. I love the term family friends. The Blacks and the Normans were such friends growing up. I can remember watching Nelson Mandela's release sitting on one of their super awesome bean bags. I loved those things. Dad Norman used to wrestle us in the pool. He was a man mountain. Mom Norman made the most awesome milk tart in the world. Phillipa was young enough to reliably be called upon to expose her brothers hiding places when it came to hide and go seek. The Normans invaded the land of the long white cloud in the early 00's. In 2011, I ventured to that spiritual home of rugby to see the World Cup and catch up with the adult versions of my childhood buddies. It was there that I met Sam who will become Graham's wife shortly. I am heading out again on Sunday to join the festivities and then to hang around for a couple of months down under.

Phillipa has developed the art of hide and seek to a new level as part of the Judges' Research Counsel at the Christchurch District Court. She tells us some of her secrets...

With the Boks out, Pip & I chose Wales and Sam & Graham Australia in the fight for 3rd

Catching a Hoodwink
by Phillipa Norman

My friends and I are huge fans of the TV programme Broadchurch. On our weekly Sunday night views of Season 2, I regularly get told-off for pointing out the inaccuracies in criminal trial procedure and admissibility of evidence - "it's a TV show, suspend disbelief!"

A major premise of the show is that you as the viewer don't know who is lying and who is telling the truth (this also frustrates David Tennant). Watching actors try to convey the nuance of a character does actually reflect a major concern in the real world and the bread and butter of law courts, that is, whether someone is a liar. These impressions, whether they are in our everyday lives, professional or business worlds or in the jury box, can be high stakes, as in the case of a defendant's liberty, or comparably minor and domestic - has your child really finished their homework?

We have several tools to assess a person's truthfulness (veracity), credibility and ultimately the reliability of what they are saying. We listen, we assess for consistency, plausibility and we compare it with what we do know about that person or thing.

Likewise, for years we have been told by social scientists that the majority of human communication is non-verbal. So when it comes to deciding if someone is lying we tend to - consciously or unconsciously - interpret their facial expressions, body movement and vocal characteristics.

In a trial context this is referred to as witness demeanour. Conventional wisdom relates that liars look and sound shifty. We may think that we are quite good at telling when someone is lying. Certainly lawyers, Judges and psychologists think they are better than average at this. But an analysis of psychological studies of deception detection consistently shows that most people cannot do better than chance in discerning lies under laboratory conditions.

Many experiments have been conducted to gauge the extent to which observation of demeanour helps when assessing veracity. In one such experiment assessing the truth of respondents, half of the group was permitted to see and hear the interviews and thus assess the respondent's demeanour. The other half was restricted to reading a transcript of the interview.

The results were emphatic: behavioural cues popularly thought to be associated with lying - posture, head movements, shifty eyes, gaze aversion, fidgeting, and gesturing - have no correlation with dishonesty or lack of credibility. In fact, the study showed that visual information actually reduces observer accuracy and the ability to detect deceit. This appears to arise because popular liar stereotyping is primarily visual. The cues that do manifest with lying are so subtle that they are imperceptible to the ordinary person without sophisticated measuring equipment. Most people are nervous when they are being accused or interrogated. This increase the chances of "Othello error" - a false interpretation of stress and nervousness as lying (think poor Desdemona) and confidence and openness as truthfulness (think manipulative Iago). 

So what's the point? Should we never bother trying to accurately read a person's demeanour? Popular culture had picked up on the detection of micro-expressions which last for one fifteenth of a second (the TV show "Lie to Me" is one such example). However, only one person in 300 is capable of detecting micro-expressions without special training. Where we, as the average face-reading person, does better is at recognising a lite if it occurs in a predominantly truthful context. In a setting where virtually no lies are told, the rate at which the distinction between truth and lies is accurately detected rises to about 60 per cent. Social science also emphasises the importance of intuition and unconscious appraisal of veracity which allows the brain time to integrate a more complete judgement of subtle cues that our conscious mind cannot quite perceive. However, I am suspicious of this advice - "intuition" or talk about "gut instinct", don't forget, are social constructions and often borne from internalised preconceptions and stereotypes.

In sum, there are good reasons for caution at overestimating your ability to detect a lie from just looking at a person, particularly if your job or role requires you to make important decisions about facts. The implication is, pay attention to other cues to deceit and give someone the benefit of the doubt.


In writing a blog about several topics in which I admit to being a complete beginner, I am going to have to rely heavily on the people I am writing for who cumulatively know most of what I am likely to learn already. I would love it if some of you found the time to write a guest post on the subject of happiness or learning. The framework I use for thinking about these things is what I call the '5 + 2 points' which includes proper (1) exercise, (2) breathing, (3) diet, (4) relaxation, (5) positive thinking & meditation, (+1) relationships, (+2) flow. Naturally if you would like to write about something that you think I have missed, I would love to include that too. If you are up to doing something more practical, it would be awesome if you did a 100 hour project and I am happy to do the writing based on our chats if that is how you roll. Email me at 
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