Chapter 4: Convincing Discourses

4.5.3 Application and detection of the discourse of deception (research essay)

Joseph Kopmeyer

English 102, November 2020

As the great linguist James Paul Gee wrote in his 1989 article “What is Literacy?”, human interaction is dependent on operating through many forms of discourse. “Discourse” the word being defined in terms of literacy, rather than everyday use, means “an ‘identity kit’ which comes complete with the appropriate costume and instructions on how to act and talk so as to take on a particular role that others will recognize.” (Gee, 1). While every person utilizes many different discourses throughout their life, each of which they have chosen to partake it, there are a few instances of natural discourse that are beyond any person’s control to involve themselves in. One such instance of a natural discourse that I would like to focus on for the purpose of this research paper is the discourse of deception.

The discourse of deception has everything to do with lies: including (but not limited to) the telling of lies, belief of lies, the physical gestures one makes when lying, and of course, the detection of lies. Throughout the course of our life, each of us have been on both the lie-telling and truth-detecting sides of the discourse of deception (though one could argue that the most righteous among us have never knowingly spoken a false word, I find that idea to be simply – and statistically – impossible).  Sure enough, you probably remember a time from your childhood when you snuck a cookie without permission, only to have your parent confront you about what you had done moments after you completed the consumption of that, frankly underwhelming, vanilla Oreo. At the time you may have believed that your mother or father possessed some horrible power of cookie-sneak-foiling truth detection, but looking back upon the event I’m sure you realize that rather than parental magic, it was your unfortunately lackluster attempt to wipe the cookie crumbs from your face that gave you away. The same process of deduction that your parent used during the vanilla Oreo fiasco of 2001 serves as the baseline of much higher stakes lie detection scenarios, although to many investigators’ dismay, adult suspects tend not to leave cookie crumbs.

In leu of said crumbs, people look to more sophisticated means of lie detection. The foremost form of truth detection available to the everyday man seems to be the recognition of physical and verbal cues that are commonly exhibited by a deceptive individual, but are these cues really indicative of the honesty (or lack thereof) of their exhibitor? First let us examine the claim that physical cues such as gait and mannerisms can be used to determine the truthfulness of an individual. Personal mannerisms have been proven to be expressive of one’s personality and mood (Randhavane et al. 3 ), so it is reasonable to suggest that a discourse as stress-inducing as deception may lead one to exhibit outward sign of that stress. A study involving artificial intelligence research has revealed that deceptive individuals tend to look around and place their hands in their pockets more often than truthful subjects (Randhavane et al. 15). It has also been long believed that more minor facial expressions such as a clenched jaw or quivering lip may betray the liar to his interrogator (Ekman and Friesen, 90).

Beyond non-verbal ques, some research suggests that verbal cues may be a much more reliable tell of the discourse of deception (Vrij, 3). The belief is that by using evidence based questioning, truthful suspects will not only tell a story that is detailed and coincides with the real evidence of the case, but will also stick to that story even when presented with evidence that seems to contradict their claims (Vrij, 8-9).  In contrast, deceptive suspects will create a vague story with few details, and when presented with refuting evidence they will go back on their story and try to edit it to fit with the evidence supplied by the investigator (Vrij, 8-9).

At first glance, this research seems to suggest there is truth behind the idea that liars exhibit subconscious physical and verbal cues during their deception. However, there is an important psychological effect that may discredit any potential research into this field at all: the Hawthorne Effect. The Hawthorne Effect is used to describe the altering of one’s mannerisms once one is aware that they are being observed (Levitt and List, 224). The implications of this phycological effect are simple, yet catastrophic to any experiment on human deception. If a subject is brought into the closed environment necessary to conduct an experiment, already the Hawthorne effect begins to alter their behavior. For instance, to conduct an experiment like the aforementioned research project involving deceptive gait, each subject must be placed into a situation where they have been instructed to either perform in a truthful or deceptive role (Randhavane et al. 6 ). The Hawthorne Effect suggests that each person in this situation is not even capable of acting in a natural way. Rather, each subject would subconsciously act in the way they believe to be indicative of their character’s deception. Furthermore, in situations of professional interrogation, not only is the situational stress level considered too high to yield pure results, but each suspect also suffers the Hawthorne effect by considering what actions or words may lead an inspector to think they’re lying, and consequently trying to act in an opposite, more truthful way (Vrij et al. 10). For this reason, I believe it is of utmost importance to keep potential contamination from the Hawthorne Effect in mind when considering the outcomes of studies mentioned in this paper.

Now, returning to the question of lie detection techniques used by the lay person in contrast to those used by law enforcement, I would like to recall the idea of “natural discourses” mentioned earlier. It is no question whether each of us partakes in a natural discourse. In fact, every one of us uses many, maybe even hundreds of natural discourses every day. To explain the nature of this form of discourse, I’d like you to think of your first language. Maybe you speak English or Spanish – a mute or deaf person may speak sign language – what is important is that within these language discourses exists an entire network of “natural discourses” that dictate intricacies of our primary form of communication. For instance, an Australian may speak English with an accent, or use certain words differently than an American would. This is the “natural discourse” the person takes part in that can lead others to deduce that he is an Australian, rather than an American. Natural discourses work “behind the scenes” to lend more information, sometimes even on a subconscious level, to the individual you are conversing with.  This is why the discourse of deception may be classified as a “natural discourse” – because on a minute level, lying tends to wreak havoc on our primary discourses such as verbal and physical language.

However, on the flip side of that coin, is it possible that our primary discourses can influence our natural discourse of deception and could that influence effect how likely others are to accurately detect our honesty? To answer this question, I turned to a study conducted in 2019 titled “looks like a liar?” The study conducted research to determine if an individual’s proficiency in the region’s native language has an effect on their perceived level of honesty (Leach et al. 1). Testing both laypeople and law enforcement officers, a secondary goal of the study was to determine if law enforcement training and experience has any effect on a person’s perception of a non-native language speaker’s honesty (Leach et al. 1). The conclusion of “looks like a liar” study shows no consequential difference between the laypeople’s test results and the police officers’ test results, however, the study does show that both laypeople and police officers were less trusting of non-native speakers in contrast to fluent native language speakers (Leach et al. 9). Perhaps this discrepancy is due to the generally cautious and untrusting nature of most individuals being heightened by the difficult language barrier. I believe that the natural discourse of deception, while mainly active on a subconscious level, is a discourse that each of us has learned to detect on our own through observation of the primary language discourses, to one degree or another. When those primary discourses are meddled with, as they are when someone is not a native speaker of your language, the “inspector” – whether it be a layperson or a law enforcement officer – immediately senses something is wrong about the interaction, and goes into defense mode, labeling the non-native speaker as untrustworthy. This shows just how complex, and inexact, truth detection through verbal and non-verbal communication can be. If a simple (and common) occurrence such as the person you’re questioning possessing a different first language than you throws off your interrogation results by a wide margin, one can assume that these forms of truth detection – however readily accessible and popular in the media they may be – cannot be a valid way to detect the discourse of deception.

Speaking of media popularity for lie detection methods, I would now like to examine what is potentially the most well-known lie detection technique in the world: the polygraph test. Famously featured in spy and crime themed media starting back in the 1950’s, the polygraph test is in fact, a real device. The test is a form of lie detection known as a “baseline test” (Vrij [2], 3). A baseline test simply functions in the way its name implies. First the subject is asked a number of control questions, or in some cases, they are engaged in low-stakes small talk so that the machine, or interrogator can record a “baseline” level of emotion, stress, voice fluctuation, and physical mannerisms to use in the future interrogation as a reference for truthful answers. At first glance, baseline tests seem to be an exceptionally reliable and scientific method for truth detections, but there are a number of problems that arise when baseline tests are scrutinized. The first issue with baseline tests is that their low-stakes questions are just that: low stakes. Just as stressful environments can taint results from a verbal lie detection session, stress inducing questions or accusations can contaminate results from a polygraph test (Vrij [2], 4). If someone were to ask you your name or favorite food, you would respond truthfully and calmly (at least I hope you would). But imagine if the same person were to ask you if you committed a murder. Even though you did not (again, at least I hope you did not) your heart rate would inevitably spike from just the simple suggestion that you would be capable of such a thing. This heartrate spike would serve as a false positive in a polygraph test and taint its results (Vrij [2], 4). Similarly, a criminal may be expecting to be subjected to a polygraph test, and lie during the baseline questions, so that lies in response to the high-stakes questions would result in a false negative. Therein lies the problem with baseline tests as a form of lie detection.

Up until this point I have focused this paper on the discussion of lie detection techniques, and the discourse of deception when it is utilized to deceive others, but as common as this practice unfortunately is, there is an even more common use for the discourse of deception: self-persuasion. Self-deception is, and always has been, a rampant, damaging form of this natural discourse, and it is utilized by every single self-destructive act that we perform. The lazy man persuades himself that his work does not need to be completed right away, or that he has enough time to hit the snooze button on the alarm in the morning. The arrogant athlete deceives themself into believing that they have won the race, only for the second-place runner to pass them at the last moment. And tragically, the addict convinces themself that their “habit” is not harmful, not an addiction, and hurts only their self. It is because of the widespread nature of these examples, and cumulative effect of each act of self-deception, that one may argue self-deceit is the most harmful form of the discourse.

Undoubtedly, each and every one of us has used self-deceit to one degree or another. It comes naturally to us, so naturally and subconsciously that we rarely recognize we have done it – even years later. Self-deception is “a label that we give to a particular kind of motivated human irrationality.” (Gibson, Hiroshi. 37). Notice the distinction made that self-deceit is motivated. One (at least not one of sound mind) does not fool themselves without a need, conscious or subconscious, to do so. That said, is there a common motivator that can be presented as the cause for self-deception? The answer is an obvious, yet no less frustrating, yes and no.

Self-deception, as with all personal matters is just that: personal. In order to present even somewhat in-depth explanations for this phenomenon, it would be necessary for me to engage in the “discourse” (Gee, 1) of psychology, which frankly neither I nor you have time to learn. To explain self-deception in non-psychological terms, let us look at the previously mentioned examples of individuals engaged in self-deceit. The lazy man may press the snooze button on his alarm, when he knows very well that sleeping in will make him late for work, simply because he worked late the night before and knows he can afford to be late to rise today. This is not an act of self-deception, and the lazy man is not (in this case) acting lazily. However, consider that the lazy man went back to sleep knowing that he did not work late the night before, and thus risked being fired from his job due to his tardiness. This would be an act of self-deception, as the man decided either consciously or subconsciously that five more minutes of sleep were more important than arriving to work on time. Even for this single example of the lazy man, there are numerous explanations as to why his mind made the decision to sleep in. Perhaps the man hadn’t slept well during the night, so on a purely physical level his mind decided it needed sleep more than the risk associated with being late to work. Or maybe the lazy man dislikes his position and is looking for a way out of the job without having to quit, so he practices tardiness with the subconscious hope of escaping his monotonous desk job.

On the opposite extreme, we have the elite athlete who is ahead in a race for a long while but slows down near the end, only to be overtaken by the second-place runner. The elite athlete may have slowed near the end out of pure exhaustion because she pushed herself too hard at the beginning of the race. In this case, the runner most likely deceived herself into thinking she would be able to maintain the high level of energy that she had at the beginning of the race, all the way to the finish line. Alternatively, the runner may have deceived herself into thinking that she was unbeatable near the end of the race and slacked off her pace, consequently allowing her opponent to pass her. Each of these examples may be individual to the person engaged in self-deception, but they all have a common motivating factor: self-preservation. In fact, self-preservation is considered an integral point in defining self-deception: “self-deception is an intrapersonal process that fortifies and protects the self from threatening information” (Smith et al. 2). Even in the latter example presented, the runner may have convinced herself of her victory as an excuse to slow down and protect herself from injury.

In my opinion, we have no greater example of self-deception as a form of self-preservation, than the abuse of addictive substances and their effect on the mind of their abuser. Granted, the psychology of addiction is far more complex than the previously mentioned examples, and the subject of self-deception in relation to addiction is expansive enough (and has been used) to fill entire books. I did not, however, want to pass on this extraordinarily important and unfortunately common cause for an individual to engage in self-deception. Generally, when addiction thought of, the thinker lands somewhere on a scale in between two extremes of approach to the psychological aspect of the problem. On one extreme, there is the notion that addicts are entirely responsible for their actions, and out of selfishness and moral weakness they refuse to do what they know is best for themselves and the ones around them. On the opposite extreme lies the idea that addicts are not responsible for their actions (at least not once they have acquired an addiction), and they should not be held responsible for their decisions because they have become mentally handicapped by their addiction (Gibson, Hiroshi. 99). I personally am one of the thinkers that believes the truth lies somewhere in-between, but to avoid any personal bias and to more thoroughly examine the repercussions of self-deceit when practiced by an addict, I will consider self-preservation as it relates to addiction not from the perspective of an outside viewer, but from the first-person perspective of the addict.

Many (if not all) addictions begin with a simple mistake, which turns out to be the first in a long line of self-deceiving actions. Whether the reasoning is stress, grief, or a multitude of other emotions, the first act of addictive self-deceit is the convincing of oneself that any single act or substance will help solve your problems. This is, in a way, a very similar decision to that of the lazy man who chooses five more minutes of sleep over arriving to work on time. In the end, the lazy man still needs to go to work, and the substance user still has not solved their problem. Where the substance user becomes an addict is after the continued use of the substance for temporary relief (eventually stemming from a dopamine “refueling”) despite the knowledge that the substance use will not solve, and will even add to their unfortunately growing list of troubles (Chiara et al. 69). This is the cycle of self-deception that builds the structure of addiction, but there are countless other uses of self-deception, all put to work in the mind of an addict. In general, with the territory of addiction comes denial of the very existence of one’s own substance abuse. This denial can stem from a number of moral, social, or personal motivations, but whatever the reasoning may be, the end to denial of addiction is always the preservation of one’s image (Smith et al. 5). Or, as it usually turns out, the preservation of one’s self-image – which the addict will usually protect at the expense (or destruction) of their public image.

Self-deception may seem at first glace to be less detrimental to society than interpersonal deception, as it seems to only effect oneself, but how sound is this belief when scrutinized? Yes, self-deception effects the lazy man directly, but if the lazy man was a doctor who slept in and was unavailable for an emergency surgery, suddenly tens, if not hundreds more lives are affected by the lazy man’s decision. Of course, this is an extreme example, but the widespread nature of self-deceit suggests that the cumulative effect of thousands of little “personal lies” could truly have a massive impact on the world. We may be drawn to the visual of government interrogations, criminals, and lie detector machines when we think of the “discourse of deception” but in reality, that is just a small piece that makes up one of the (if not the single) largest natural discourses. Every person may share a fascination with lie detection when it is applied to catch others in the act of deception, but unfortunately, we have yet to devise a reliable way of doing so. Far easier to achieve is the recognition of self-deception when one rolls over in bed and reaches for the snooze button. This is not to say that all uses of the discourse of deception are destructive. Indeed, many a person has been spared from embarrassment by the skillful use of a “white lie”, and taking a snooze break every once in a while is not as catastrophic as my previous examples have made it out to be. Still, I believe that there is quite a bit of opportunity for self-improvement in each of us if we learn to recognize our use of the natural discourse of deception. At the very least, if human nature runs its course, we’ll learn how to deceive ourselves more efficiently.

Works Cited

Randhavane, Tanmay, et al. “The Liar’s Walk: Detecting Deception with Gait and Gesture.” arXiv preprint arXiv:1912.06874 (2019).

Levitt, Steven D., and John A. List. “Was there really a Hawthorne effect at the Hawthorne plant? An analysis of the original illumination experiments.” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 3.1 (2011): 224-38.

Vrij, Aldert, Maria Hartwig, and Pär Anders Granhag. “Reading lies: Nonverbal communication and deception.” Annual review of psychology 70 (2019): 295-317.

Ekman, Paul, and Wallace V. Friesen. “Nonverbal leakage and clues to deception.” Psychiatry 32.1 (1969): 88-106.

Vrij, Aldert. “Deception and truth detection when analyzing nonverbal and verbal cues.” Applied Cognitive Psychology 33.2 (2019): 160-167.

[2] Vrij, Aldert. “Baselining as a lie detection method.” Applied Cognitive Psychology 30.6 (2016): 1112-1119.

Leach, Amy‐May, et al. “Looks like a liar? Beliefs about native and non‐native speakers’ deception.” Applied Cognitive Psychology 34.2 (2020): 387-396.

Gibson, Quinn Hiroshi. On the fringes of moral responsibility: Skepticism, self-deception, delusion, and addiction. Diss. UC Berkeley, 2017.

Smith, Megan K., Robert Trivers, and William von Hippel. “Self-deception facilitates interpersonal persuasion.” Journal of Economic Psychology 63 (2017): 93-101.

Di Chiara, Gaetano, and Valentina Bassareo. “Reward system and addiction: what dopamine does and doesn’t do.” Current opinion in pharmacology 7.1 (2007): 69-76.


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