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Can we accurately spot a liar?

If every time you arrive at home from work, your mother is in the kitchen cooking dinner. You will probably be surprised when you cannot find your mother in the kitchen one particular evening. It turns out that your mother is sick and resting in her bedroom. When your brother comes home slightly later that evening, you will probably guess that your brother will go straight to the kitchen to find your mother. However, if you are someone without the “Theory of Mind”, you will think your brother expects your mother to be in her bedroom that evening. Guessing your brother expecting your mother to be in the kitchen as usual is because you know that your brother is ignorant about mother’s sickness. This is the “Theory of Mind”, our internal theory about the mind of others.

Since childhood, we start to develop theory of mind for us to survive in our social world. We have theories about the difference in desires and beliefs of our own and others. We formulate that someone have the knowledge about something and others are ignorant. We also gradually figure out that our inner thoughts are not known to others. We depend on the theory of mind to read the minds of others. Of course, our mind-reading ability is not totally reliable because we may have false beliefs sometimes. In fact, it is our theory of mind enabling us to be able to gossip, lie and keep secrets.

If most of us develop the theory of mind, we may think that we also have theory for us to detect lying behaviour of others. Can we spot liars with our theory of mind? Many of us think that when people tell lies, they tend to be nervous and tense. We think that liars frequently avoid eye contact and fidget. However, our theory of mind of people who lie are inaccurate. Research showed that most people, including experts such as the police, cannot successfully differentiate people who lie and who tell the truth. Actually, our theory of mind of how liars behave could be misleading. In fact, lying doesn’t necessarily lead to shifting eye movements or fidgeting. This means that our theory of mind is only a theory, not a fact. Sometimes, people who tell the truth also avoid eye contact or fidget.

Our ability to detect liars is only slightly greater than chance according to research. The message here is that despite we develop theory of mind to help us to navigate ourselves in the social world, our theory of mind could sometimes be wrong. With this in mind, we need to be more mindful of our automatic interpretation of others’ intention, inner thoughts or behaviours. We need to have our theory of mind for survival but at the same time we need to be cautious of the possibility of using our inaccurate theories for interpretation.

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