Cry Me a River – Lies, Leaks and Not-so Lowly Tales
Adelaide Manley

We all deceive. In fact, we’ve evolved to do so in our day to day lives.

Most research investigating deception in the lab has involved irrelevant or petty lies. Conversely, researchers ten Brinke and Porter at the University of British Columbia conducted a study examining the behavioural consequences of exceptionally high-stakes, real-life deception.

Liars and deceivers face various challenges when orchestrating a high-stake lie: the story must be extremely detailed and communicate the false information using the appropriate beharioural indicators in order to be perceived as truth. This includes facial expressions, speech, and body language. Strong emotions are also involved and the proficient liar is constantly aware of how he displays himself and delivers the content.

Of course, the liar needs to be simultaneously contemplating the risk of getting caught. Any “leaked” signals of increased cognitive load, emotional arousal, impression management, and psychological distancing could catch him in a lie.

Cognitive load simply refers to the difficulty of constructing and maintaining a consistent lie, all the while monitoring speech, body language, and facial expressions.

Emotional arousal suggests that we are unable to perfectly feign emotions all the time, especially for more negative, intense situations and even more so during fake versus genuine expressions.
Impression management refers to the physical attempts at controlling one’s overt actions. However, it was Darwin who stated that some facial muscles are out of our control.

Lastly, psychological distancing revolves around the language used. Other studies have established that liars use more emotionally laden terms, rarely use first-person pronouns and are more hesitant. Interestingly, these characteristics are beyond the liar’s conscious awareness.

The researchers, in the current study, examined a Western sample of people pleading for the return of a missing relative on various news agencies and their behaviours were coded by professionals. Of the 78 videos examined, about half were honest pleaders while the other half involved guilty pleaders who were later convicted for murder. It is predicted that the deception would be revealed during the direct appeal.

What did these researchers find?

The deceivers expressed upper face surprise and displayed lower face happiness consistently more often than the honest pleaders. These deceivers were unable to genuinely appear sad and smirking incidences were a dead giveaway (no pun intended) of deception.

The guilty pleaders also used fewer words, were more psychologically distant, used more tentative words, and blinked twice as often as the truth tellers. Fewer words suggest the liars were attempting to provide minimal details to help maintain consistency in their stories. Similarly, the murderers used more tentative words to detach themselves from their transgressions.

It is important to note that no significant differences were found in the use of personal pronouns and negative or positive emotional words compared to the genuine pleaders.
What does this all mean?

People may actually leak uncontrollable behavioural cues during high-stake interpersonal deception. The deception was revealed during the direct appeal, the time when guilty pleaders ask for others’ help for the safe return of their relative, and at the same time, understand that this will never happen.

People communicate, both overtly and covertly, in subtle ways. The higher the stakes, like when life or death is on the line, the more uncontrollable our behaviour and body language may be.

About the Author: Adelaide Manley is an undergraduate student studying psychology and family & child studies at the University of Guelph. After graduation, she is hoping to pursue a Master of Social Work.


ten Brinke, L., and Porter, S. 2012. Cry me a river: Identifying the behavioral consequences of extremely high-stakes interpersonal deception. Law and Human Behavior, 36(6), 469-477.