Noah Brier | July 2, 2021

The Lying Edition

On crime, cues, and patterns

Noah here. There’s a scene towards the beginning of Usual Suspects where Dave Kujan, played by Chazz Palminteri, is explaining to Verbal (Kevin Spacey) how to spot a murderer:

First day on the job, you know what I learned? How to spot a murderer. Let's say you arrest three guys for the same killing. You put them all in jail overnight. The next morning, whoever's sleeping is your man. You see, if you're guilty, you know you're caught, you get some rest, you let your guard down.

It’s a theory we hear a lot from cops in movies and TV shows: all it takes to spot a liar or a criminal is being tuned into facial cues or behavioral patterns. The only problem? It doesn’t actually work. Here’s a bit from a very good article on the science behind lying from JSTOR Daily:

Psychologists have long known how hard it is to spot a liar. In 2003, psychologist Bella DePaulo, now affiliated with the University of California, Santa Barbara, and her colleagues combed through the scientific literature, gathering 116 experiments that compared people’s behavior when lying and when telling the truth. The studies assessed 102 possible nonverbal cues, including averted gaze, blinking, talking louder (a nonverbal cue because it does not depend on the words used), shrugging, shifting posture and movements of the head, hands, arms or legs. None proved reliable indicators of a liar, though a few were weakly correlated, such as dilated pupils and a tiny increase — undetectable to the human ear — in the pitch of the voice.

Why is this interesting?

The consequences of this kind of misperception are incredibly high. The article opens with two stories of wrongly incarcerated individuals: one who the police thought was too calm in the face of his mother’s murder and another who was believed to be too distraught after a classmate was found dead. 

It also brings to mind David Grann’s New Yorker piece on Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed by Texas in 2004 for the murder by arson of his three children. One of the key pieces of evidence was “crazed glass”—thousands of tiny cracks—found on a broken window in the charred home. “Forensic textbooks had long described the effect as a key indicator that a fire had burned ‘fast and hot,’ meaning that it had been fuelled by a liquid accelerant, causing the glass to fracture.”

Like the theories on lying that are passed from generation to generation, Grann explained how the ideas behind “crazed glass” also turned out to be far from accurate:

In November of 1991, a team of fire investigators had inspected fifty houses in the hills of Oakland, California, which had been ravaged by brush fires. In a dozen houses, the investigators discovered crazed glass, even though a liquid accelerant had not been used. Most of these houses were on the outskirts of the blaze, where firefighters had shot streams of water; as the investigators later wrote in a published study, they theorized that the fracturing had been induced by rapid cooling, rather than by sudden heating—thermal shock had caused the glass to contract so quickly that it settled disjointedly. The investigators then tested this hypothesis in a laboratory. When they heated glass, nothing happened. But each time they applied water to the heated glass the intricate patterns appeared. Hurst had seen the same phenomenon when he had blowtorched and cooled glass during his research at Cambridge. In his report, Hurst wrote that Vasquez and Fogg’s notion of crazed glass was no more than an ‘old wives’ tale.”

There’s no shortage of these types of tales in culture—my grandma always told me to wear a hat or I’d get a cold—but thankfully many don’t cause much more than a bit of inconvenience. When it comes to deciding the fate of someone’s freedom or life, however, we have to demand that higher standards are held. (NRB)

Chart of the Day:

I have to admit I stared at this breakdown of paper sizes for about 10 minutes after Ryan Anderson shared it. (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) 

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