Noses and the Pinocchio Effect

3 05 2011

I have a great interest in lying, while also being a hopeless liar. I discovered the full extent of this interest only recently when sorting through my bookshelves in the futile (but ongoing attempt) to create order and harmony. I was putting like-with-like and discovered that I had at least a dozen books on lying.

Long before human language evolved, communication still happened. Today, messages sent non-verbally – typically via facial movements, gesture etc – are still hugely important, either in supporting the verbal message or more ominously, in contradicting it. For a pretty ridiculous pop culture extension of this, one need go no further than the TV show Lie to Me.

The truth probably is that some people are more accomplished liars than others, and some people are more accomplished at detecting lies than others.  The truth probably also is that the cues that help you detect lies are less than immediately obvious, happen in clusters rather than singly, and happen very fast. In other words, you have to be sufficiently interested in this area of human endeavour to learn about and practise it.

Some jobs no doubt provide de facto training eg police work, counselling, primary school teaching… to name a few. I’ve used a few such strategies – for detecting, not for lying – such as the commonly mentioned eye gaze – up to the left means fabrication; up to the right means memory recall. This can be helpful when asking  (interrogating) teenagers about the previous night.

The point to bear in mind is that when a person lies, they undergo physiological changes: some invisible (like an elevated heart rate), some visible – being jittery, sweaty, restless. On the other hand, people can exhibit jittery, restless, sweaty signs but not because they’re lying. They could be unwell or suffering from social anxiety. Likewise, the accomplished liar no doubt is able to dissemble as required – in fact, this is part of the accomplishment. The whole topic is rendered more complex by the simple fact that what constitutes a lie is far from clear-cut. And that the same lie, told repeatedly, can become a kind of truth in the mind of the liar.

Tradition and myth have it that the nose plays a big part in lies, both the commission and the detection.  Rubbing or touching the nose is said to be a dead give-away. I’m not sure about that – but remember Pinnocchio, whose nose elongated along with his lies?  Apparently, there’s some science  behind the myth. In Chicago, the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation has allegedly reported that chemicals (called “catecholamines”) are released during lying, causing swelling in the nasal tissue. Lying apparently increases the blood pressure and causes an expansion of the nose as a result. This is called “the Pinocchio Effect”, for obvious (if cute) reasons. While the expansion may not be visible to the human eye, it is this that causes the itching that causes the nose touching.

It all sounds very plausible to me, but check it out for yourself. I certainly don’t want to be caught out lying, even if (or, especially if) not trying to.