WASHINGTON — As he lies, the young man shrugs, flutters his eyelids and shakes his head. Another, on a witness stand, grimaces for a millisecond as he answers a question.
Most people believe they could easily detect such lying behavior, but in fact most miss a good 50% of lies, said deception expert Maureen O'Sullivan of UC San Francisco.
But O'Sullivan said she had found a special group -- just 1% of those she has tested -- who catch a lie nearly 90% of the time.
"We call them wizards," O'Sullivan told a briefing sponsored by the American Medical Assn. on Thursday. "Wizardry is a special skill that seems magical if you don't have it."
These "wizards" have a special ability to ferret out little tics that show when a person is lying.
She and her colleagues have so far screened 13,000 people for their ability to catch a liar on videotape. "We found 14 people who we called ultimate experts," she said. They could tell when people deliberately lied about feelings or about committing a crime. Thirteen others were good at detecting specific types of lies. For example, she said, "There was a group of cops who got very good scores -- they got 80% or more on crime but none of them did well on the video about feeling."
Now O'Sullivan is trying to find out how they do it. She said they appeared to have little in common, except a motivation to catch liars. Some have advanced degrees, some only a high school education. About 20% had alcoholic parents.
"They are located all over the country. We sit down and go over the ... videotapes. I ask them to think aloud. I tape-record them thinking aloud," she said.
Although most people know to look for certain cues as a person lies, these wizards intuitively find an individual's peculiar cues. One may shrug when lying, and another may make fleeting expressions of disgust or even amusement. "There are lots of clues. The problem is how do you put them together and how do you make any sense of them?"
O'Sullivan said her findings could help train better lie detectors -- for instance, federal agents or therapists who need to know when someone is lying.
"We have made an offer to the federal government that it might be interesting to have them as a sort of panel when they have high-profile investigations," she said.