The Science of Lie Detection: Background information when reading The Man in the Rockefeller Suit

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The Man in the Rockefeller Suit

The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Imposter

by Mark Seal

The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2011, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2012, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jo Perry

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Beyond the Book:
The Science of Lie Detection

Print Review

You can't read The Man in the Rockefeller Suit without wondering if Rockefeller would have conned you too. While Seal notes that a few people failed to believe Rockefeller's stories or personas, the majority of people Gerhartstreiter met were more than happy to call the eccentric aristocrat friend, neighbor, business partner, club member, or even "uncle" and were generous with their time and money as well.

People in the business of detecting lies have offered various theories about how liars give themselves away. Widely recognized signs that a person is lying, such as shifty eyes, unusual speech patterns or inflections in the voice, awkward body language, and sweating, are all useful tools in identifying possible liars, however these "tells" aren't always reliable; they are often present in people who are nervous but also telling the truth.

In his blog for the Association for Psychological Science, Full Frontal Psychology, writer Wray Herbert notes that, "detecting deceit... is maddeningly difficult. Most of us can spot barely more than half of all lies and truths through listening and observation," and that, "a half-century of research has done little to polish this unimpressive track record."

But cognitive psychologists such as Aldert Vrij at the University of Portsmouth, UK are using one very valuable discovery to help change that. "The human mind... has limited capacity for how much thinking it can handle at any one time. So adding demands for additional, simultaneous thought - or cognitive 'load' - compromises normal information processing. What's more, lying is more cognitively demanding than telling the truth, so these compromised abilities should show up in detectable behavioral clues."

In an article entitled "Outsmarting the Liars: Toward a Cognitive Lie Detection Approach," Vrij suggests that liars can be outsmarted by making interview settings more stressful and/or by asking questions in ways that require more mental effort, which in turn produces "more cues to deceit." Vrij suggests that interviewees be asked to "tell their stories in reverse order" and to "instruct interviewees to maintain eye contact." He explains that, "When people have to concentrate on telling their stories - like when they are asked to recall what has happened - they are inclined to look away from their conversation partner... because maintaining eye contact is distracting." In this way, Vrij contends that by using this "strategic-questioning approach," scientists can better detect "the most differential respsonses between truth tellers and liars."

If you want to try your hand at lie detection, watch some of the uncut F.B.I. interview with Clark Rockefeller or scrutinize the images of him in the Boston Globe interview below, and see if you can detect any "cues to deceit."

Article by Jo Perry

This article was originally published in June 2011, and has been updated for the April 2012 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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