How can you tell if the kangaroo is lying? (Photo: mcfarlandmo/Flickr)

This is a universal truth: human beings are terrible at spotting liars. Say you’re in a situation with two people, where one is making a statement—it might be true, it might be false—and the other person is trying to determine if that person is lying. The likelihood that you’re going to make the right choice is around 54 percent —just above what you’d get if you guessed randomly. Even tests for detecting deception—not just old-school polygraphs but scans for behavioral cues and newer, brain-scanning lie detectors—are questionably accurate.

“You could say that people are bad are detecting lies,” says Maria Hartwig, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who studies deception. “But one way to look at this rate is that it’s a very difficult task. The differences between liars and truth tellers are so small is that it’s very, very difficult to tell the difference.”

But some aspects of lie detection, especially those elements measured by lie detector tests, might be cultural. For instance, what if the person who might be lying is speaking a second language? What if she grew up in a different place than you, with different social norms? How difficult is it to spot a liar then? Is there any hope for a scientific approach?

Since their invention, lie detecting machines have been an “American obsession” according to Ken Alder, the author of The Lie Detectors, glorified during the years of the Cold War, when the country was obsessed with ferreting out spies and liars.  

But lie detection is not just practiced by Americans on Americans. In Turkey, a team of researchers recently created a polygraph customized to Turkish culture, since as Professor Nevzat Tarhan told the Hurriyet Daily News, “That which can be considered a ‘lie’ by regular polygraphs used in the West may not be considered a lie by Turkish people.” At border crossings, in business negotiations, in immigration hearings, and in criminal and military interrogations, people who come from all different places are trying to determine if people born and raised across the world are telling the truth or if they’re lying.

The people trying to make these judgments have few tools to work with, to understand how the place a person comes from might affect their behavior when they lie. “There may be things that are the same across cultures, but there hasn’t been enough research,” says Paola Castillo, a lecturer at Charles Sturt University who studies cross-cultural detection deception, to show what exactly those are. There are hints, though, that culture does matter—both in how a liar behaves and how accurately the lie detector can judge these situations.

“You can make mistakes by assuming that we all behave the same,” says Castillo. 

An early 20th century British polygraph (Photo: History of Medical Sciences/Flickr)

Nobody likes a liar. That schoolyard truism has been born out in research around the planet. In a 1960s study, subjects were given a list of 555 adjectives and asked to rate them on likability, liars came in dead last. In another study, when tens of thousands of people across the world were asked if lying in your own interest is ever justified, almost half said no.

And it turns out that there are some common behavioral patterns in what we think liars do. In 2006, when an international group of investigators, called the Global Deception Research Team, asked people 58 countries, “How can you tell when people are lying?” they found a remarkable degree of agreement.

“We were expecting to see all kinds of opinions,” says Hartwig. “The results were just incredibly consistent. The vast majority of cultures agreed that people look shady when they don’t look you in the eye, when they don’t move a lot and when they contradict themselves.”

In particular, people around the world agreed that liars would avert their gaze: 65 percent of the study respondents listed that as a sign of lying, and in 51 of 58 countries, they found that gaze aversion was “more prevalent than any other belief about lying.”

Too bad that all those people, across the world, are wrong about that: As the deception researcher David Matsumoto wrote a few years ago, “No scientific evidence exists to suggest that eye behavior or gaze aversion can gauge truthfulness reliably.”

Detecting a lie is much more complicated than noticing that someone won’t meet your eye. Many of the behavioral cues that we associate with lying are simply signs of stress: the actual difference in behavior associated with telling a lie is very small. That’s why, as Hartwig says, it’s not necessarily that we’re bad at detecting these shifts. It’s that they’re almost impossible to see.

What people can detect, though, is when a person they’re talking to acts differently than they might expect. And people who live in different places do act differently, in some ways. One study, for instance, showed that Japanese students smiled more frequently to express “social appropriateness” than actual pleasure. Another showed that people from the Middle East were more likely to touch each other and talk loudly. People from Suriname tilt their heads more than Dutch people, another study found. If you’re trying to judge whether a person’s lying, and they’re acting strangely, you might assume it’s because they’re lying.

A number of studies have shown that when people try to detect lies across cultures, they’re often throw off. One of the first studies to look at this problem, in 1990, had American and Jordanian students try to judge whether each other were lying. And while Americans could tell with some accuracy whether Americans were lying, when they tried to judge the Jordanians truthfulness, they did worse than if they had flipped a coin. And studies since have shown the same thing—figuring out if someone from a different place is lying is incredibly difficult.

“Indicators of lying in some cultures are indicators of truth in other cultures,” says Paul Taylor, a professor of psychology at Lancaster University. “We learn what’s suspicious behavior and what’s normal behavior, and we tend to associate the people who do the first with being slightly dodgy. And that’s a huge mistake if it’s with people from different culture.” 

An American polygraph from the 1930s (Photo: Public domain/Wikimedia)

At the same time, people from different places do lie differently.

While around world, there are rules against lying, what counts as a lie differs from place to place. As one polygraph operator who served during World War II and worked for the CIA wrote in 1987, “In most cultures, speaking truth is a virtue and lying is a vice,” but “the polygraph operator working overseas learns to modify his theory somewhat.” Other 20th century American polygraph operators reported that “the Russians value truth among their fellow citizens but will unhesitatingly lie if they perceived doing so as a duty to the state” and that “lying to prevent problems between people is acceptable in Arab culture.”

While this might be somewhat essentialist, research has born out the idea that cultural differences change how people lie.

“We’ve know that for quite a long time,” says Taylor. “What consists lying in other populations can be very distinct from what constitutes lying in western cultures.” In some places, little white lies that smooth social situations might not be considered lies at all, for instance. Or, says Castillo, “if you view lying as a way of protecting your family and if family is culturally important to you, you won’t be nervous lying.”

Cultural differences also impact how people lie, when they do lie. In “individualistic” cultures, like America, liars often try to distance themselves from the lie—they’ll use fewer first person pronouns. In “collectivist” cultures, where community is more important, the exact opposite is true: liars will try to distance the community from the lie.

All this doesn’t mean, though, that every country should be investing in its own place-specific lie detector. Rather, researchers are honing in on different strategies to detect lies to begin with—for instance, using interview to elicit facts that can be checked against their existing knowledge or researched later, rather than using a person’s body language to judge their truthfulness on the spot.

In the end, even the best, most culturally sensitive lie detector would have to deal with the variability of individual human behavior—and that can be confounding no matter where the person was born or raised, or how they happen to tilt their head while talking.