Day 6

How to spot lies on the campaign trail

As Canadians prepare for a marathon federal election campaign, we ask Queen's University professor David Skillicorn whether it's possible to separate politicians' lies from the truth.
From left, Canadian political party leaders Thomas Mulcair, Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau and Elizabeth May. (Reuters)

Politicians are notorious for their ability to tell lies. Some might even say deception is part of their job, especially during an election campaign. And the federal party leaders were certainly not shy to point an accusatory finger during Thursday's debate. But just how easy is it to spot lies on the campaign trail?

David Skillicorn is a professor of computing at Queen's University. He analyzed deception in political speeches during the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign. He spoke with Day 6 guest host, Laura Lynch, on Friday.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Laura Lynch: We know politicians don't always tell the truth, but just how often do politicians lie?

David Skillicorn: Well, the bottom line is that politicians lie all the time. There's really two different kinds of lies that come into play in election campaigns.. One is simply factual lies, and as far as we can tell, the voters just bake that into their assessment of candidates and pay absolutely no attention to it.

The second kind is more interesting; and that's when politicians try to present themselves as better, more wonderful, more skillful than they really are. That's a form of deception as well; but the evidence suggests that the candidates who are best at conveying a persona which is not their own actually tend to be the ones who win elections. It's like a date; you're trying to present yourself in some ways as much better than you are, because nobody's actually all that good at leading a country and yet you want to look better than all your competitors.

LL: OK... So the most deceptive politicians are the most successful politicians.

DS: That seems to be what the evidence suggests.

LL: Based on that, then, who do you think is the most successful politician of all time?

DS: Well, I think Bill Clinton probably leads that stakes, but Ronald Reagan comes a close second.

LL: I'd like to you to walk us through how voters can spot a lie. Are there visual cues that people can use to catch a liar?

DS: There are, but they're very subtle and difficult to handle. Mostly, the reliable ones come from so-called micro expressions: those tenth-of-a-second changes in people's faces that give away what they're really thinking. But you have to have a significant amount of training and often you have to have high speed video, in order to actually pick things up.

The other body cues that people tend to think give away lying don't actually have very much reliability. Lots of people think somebody who's being deceptive is fidgety. But other people think somebody who's being deceptive is unnaturally still. So you can't really draw very many strong conclusions from those kind of rules.

LL: You prefer verbal cues, and you have four ways to detect deception in political speech. The first focuses on the pronouns they use... Can you give me an example?

DS: If somebody is being deceptive, what they tend to do is to reduce the number of times they say 'I' and 'me' and 'mine,' and so on. The guess is that it's because they're trying to distance themselves from what they're saying in some sense.

If you look at the debate last night, for example, when the politicians came out with their prepared policy statements, they were very abstract. They didn't talk in terms of themselves as the individuals driving those policy decisions.

If you say, 'I have this great plan to solve a problem,' then you invite the hearer to think: 'Well, do I really believe that that person can solve the problem?' If you change it even slightly and say, 'We have a great plan to solve this problem,' it's much harder for a voter to say 'I can't imagine anyone in that party who could solve that problem.'

LL: The second tip-off relates to the use of simplified language. Explain that one to me.

DS: When you're trying to tell a complicated story and it's deceptive, you just don't have enough mental energy to come up with all those refinements, so the story tends to simplify. It was striking in last night's debate how little of that kind of refinement there was in the statements of policy.

LL: So the less nuance, the more deception.

DS: That's right.

LL: Your third tip-off is about the verbs politicians use. What should voters be looking out for?

DS: Increases in action verbs tend to be a signal of deception. Again, that's because they're trying to keep the story moving and to stop people thinking, 'Hang on a second — that doesn't quite make sense.'

LL: And finally, you say to look out for negative words. How does that indicate deception?

DS: Whenever you're being deceptive, you're at some level — maybe very subconsciously — aware that you're doing something that's not socially appropriate. That negative mindset seems to leak out in an increased use of negative words of all different kinds.

LL: And that use of negative words is subconscious . . .

DS: Oh yes. In a political debate context, of course they are being negative about the other parties, because they think that's a good strategy. But what tends to happen is that they get too negative. It leaks out more than they really intended, because of the negative emotional state they're in.

LL: There are election campaigns happening right now in the United States and in Canada. Where do you think it's easier to spot the lies, north or south of the border?

DS: Well, in the U.S. system, certainly the signals are much stronger and much more variable across different candidates. So it's easy to tell who's doing well and who's doing poorly. In last night's debate here, most of the candidates seem to be roughly at the same level, because they're all using the same sort of meta-strategy of talking a lot about policies.

LL: It almost sounds like it's harder to spot lies in Canada because Canadian politicians are more dull.

DS: Well, but it's also that they're not supposed to be presidential; they don't get elected Prime Minister. So they're in a bit of a bind. They want to be the the front person for their party but that's not the official job they're running for.

LL: Based on your research and what you've looked at so far, who would be your pick to win the Canadian election? Who is the most deceptive?

DS: Well, they were very much the same. I think Mulcair comes out slightly less than the others, and that's probably to his disadvantage.

LL: I want to ask you about the flip side of this as well. Do politicians pay a price for being honest? I can't help but think of 1993 and Kim Campbell.

DS: Yes. In general, any kind of honesty in a politician doesn't pay off electorally, because people are looking at them and they're trying to find somebody who they think is competent. Any kind of revelation of your humanity and your flaws and so on actually plays against that quite strongly. Voters don't seem to actually like voting for real people; they want to vote for these fictionalized personas.