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WSJ: “Mindwise” – We are terrible at divining what’s going on in someone else’s mind.

Hmmm so we can’t detect lies after all… Fascinating exploration by Epley!

WSJ:  “Mindwise” is good reading for negotiators, the makers of public policy, heck, for anyone who interacts with other people, and that should be all of us.

As cognitive psychologist and professor of business Nicholas Epley points out in “Mindwise,” people’s ability to tell if someone is lying is “barely better than chance.” And this phenomenon isn’t restricted to meaningless experiments in some scientist’s laboratory—even people whose job it is to know the difference don’t do so well.

During the last decade, for instance, the Transportation Safety Administration embraced the nascent science of reading microexpressions (popularized on the Fox TV series “Lie to Me”). The idea behind this is that most liars aren’t good liars—that is, they make mistakes. These mistakes show up in brief, small changes in facial expression that reveal concealed emotions.

The TSA, however, abandoned the method when it turned out to be a bust. How much of a bust? In one experiment, Mr. Epley reports, 697 people were asked to look at photographs and either express their true emotion or conceal it.  

Only 14 microexpressions were produced—2% of the total—and half of those came from when the person was lying and half from when she or he was telling the truth. The microexpression lying-detection program SPOT (Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques), according to the Government Accountability Office’s report to Congress, screened two billion passengers between 2004 and 2008 and didn’t produce a single arrest for terrorism, guns, drugs or bombs. That sounds like an enormous waste of time.

Speed dating may also be a waste of time. Mr. Epley notes that speed daters are utterly unable to assess who wants to date them and who doesn’t. (So much for Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink.”) And Mr. Epley draws attention to the very modern problem of trying to detect a lie—usually in the form of sarcasm—in email, instant messages, Facebook posts and texts.

“We are barely better than chance in assessing how our friends and co-workers feel about us, or even whether they like us,” Mr. Epley writes. In study after study, intimately involved couples thought they knew each other twice as well as they did. Couples “were perfectly accurate a little over 4 out of 10 times” when predicting their partners’ thoughts.

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