The Legislature, Lingle And Lies

Larry Price
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Wednesday - May 13, 2009
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It was very interesting week at the Legislature. There wasn’t an abundance of transparent communication by those doing business with the governor’s administration other than an obviously adversarial relationship that has worsened over the years.

It could be the parties involved in trying to solve the state’s enormous budget shortfall were unhappy with the governor’s accusations that some of them were giving deceptive mixed messages (aka lying) about possible solutions, namely, the governor’s plan to furlough public union employees as a way to balance the budget. Of course, most of the public employee unions’leaders are saying the same thing about the governor’s plan.

The taxpayers, after months of dire economic news day after day, are showing signs of a form of carpal tunnel syndrome of the brain after a steady stream of depressing media coverage about the uncertainty of their jobs for the future. Now there is another dismal Council of Revenues report due in the third week of May and another in June, both of which are expected to show the state has a long way to go before its budget woes subside.


It may be time for journalists to add another tool to their arsenal when interviewing elected officials: Lie detectors.

Lie detectors, or polygraphs, were designed to measure changes in skin response, blood volume and breathing. The machine reads the individual’s autonomic nervous system’s responses. The reason it works is because lying is stressful. Polygraphs are about 90-95 percent accurate - not accurate enough to be admissible in a court of law, but certainly enough for a journalist asking tough questions about the state of the local economy. All it takes to start the lies is to ask a threatening question.

Since none of this will ever happen anytime soon, there are other ways to sense if someone is lying. For instance, some kinds of voice-recognition software used in call centers can detect big changes in pitch, timing and volume, all of which signal heightened emotion.

But Nancy Ercoff, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, has strong and convincing research that shows most people are astonishingly bad at detecting when someone is lying. Most people don’t do better than random guessing. The research shows that only individuals with damage to their brain’s left hemisphere, who are called aphasics, are exceptionally good lie detectors. They do it by reading facial clues.

You may have seen the very popular television show Lie To Me, which is making face-reading more popular than it has ever been.

Paul Ekman, who traveled around the world showing people photos of faces fixed in various expressions, found out that Asians and South Americans interpreted the expressions on his photos the same way Americans did. To cement his theory, he journeyed to the highlands of New Guinea and showed the same set of facial expressions photos to tribes-people who had never seen television or a Westerner before. They read the faces the same way all of Ekman’s previous subjects did. He dedicated his life to studying facial expressions and thanks to him, journalists really don’t need polygraphs, because just as the mode of the rational mind works, the mode of emotions is nonverbal. If you are interested in Ekman’s work, read his book Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communications and Emotional Life (Times Books, 2003).

It might be a good idea for some of our elected officials to read up on Ekman’s work, too, because it could inhibit their tendency to lie to the public about why they voted the way they did on important issues.

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