The heart of the Kavanaugh hearing is our false confidence

Summary: The media overflows with people’s confident evaluations of who told the truth at the Kavanaugh hearing. They are the bottom line of the spectacle, whose result will help shape America for many years. Unfortunately, people are not good lie detectors (neither are lie detectors). Again we show our disinterest in science and facts. This habit will not end well for us.

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Hordes of journalists and political gurus plus millions of people watched the testimony of the Kavanaugh. Afterwards the media overflowed with confident assessments as to who was telling the truth – and who lying. That’s logical, because we have read so many articles like this!

There is a large body of research about this important topic. Almost all of it comes to the same conclusion. People, even trained experts, cannot detect lies. Scientists continue to look for useful methods.

“Research has consistently shown that people’s ability to detect lies is no more accurate than chance, or flipping a coin. This finding holds across all types of people — students, psychologists, judges, job interviewers and law enforcement personnel.”
— “Deception Detection” by Laura Zimmerman in the Monitor on Psychology of the American Psychological Association, March 2016.

The FBI’s Law Enforcement Bulletin explains the problem in “Evaluating Truthfulness and Detecting Deception” by David Matsumot et al. (2011).

“While interviewing the suspect who claims ignorance about an incident, the witness who saw it happen, or the informant who identified the perpetrator, the detective asks a question that will eviscerate the perpetrator’s story. As the suspect prepares to answer, he looks up and to the left, purses his lips, tenses his eyelids, and brings his eyebrows down.

“The investigator knows that a suspect displaying shifty eyes and gaze aversion and looking up and to the left when answering uncomfortable questions is exhibiting signs of lying. The suspect is not totally disinterested, but he is reluctant to participate in the interview. Because the suspect’s behavior suggests dishonesty, the detective prepares to drill still deeper in the questioning.

“Unfortunately, this investigator likely would be wrong. Twenty-three out of 24 peer-reviewed studies published in scientific journals reporting experiments on eye behavior as an indicator of lying have rejected this hypothesis. No scientific evidence exists to suggest that eye behavior or gaze aversion can gauge truthfulness reliably.

“Some people say that gaze aversion is the sure sign of lying, others that fidgety feet or hands are the key indicators. Still others believe that analysis of voice stress or body posture provides benchmarks. Research has tested all of these indicators and found them only weakly associated with deception.”

Both of these articles are optimistic about the development of new methods, as they scientists have been for a century (other examples are this and this).

Joe Navarro combines his experience and knowledge of the studies to explain the problem: “The Truth About Lie Detection” in Psychology Today — “We do it every day, but most of us only do it half right.”

“As the best researchers can tell, and in my own experience as an FBI Special Agent (now retired), detecting deception is very difficult. Every study conducted since 1986, when the famed researcher Paul Ekman first wrote about this, has demonstrated that we humans are no better than chance at detecting deception …. That means that if you toss a coin in the air you will be as likely to detect deception as the truth. …

“I have listened to jurors post trial comment that they thought a witness was lying because they had ‘heard somewhere that if you touch your nose you are lying.’ Likewise I have talked to many a law enforcement officer who is convinced that they are experts at detecting deception. They have deluded themselves that they are, as have judges and other professionals. In fact, every time I hear Judge Judy (of TV fame) say, ‘I know you are lying,’ I cringe (unlike us she is covered by judicial privilege in saying what she wishes, the rest of us would be sued for slander). …

“Starting in 1971, when I first started studying the subject, I have heard of claims of individuals being able to detect deception based on behavior such as when someone avoided eye contact, looked up and to the right, touched their lips while speaking, cleared their throat, or displayed micro expressions. Instructors both in law enforcement and even researchers came in and lectured us young FBI agents about deception armed with videos of someone who touched their nose or covered their mouth when lying, or they showed signs of contempt as if that were scientific proof of deception.

“They were wrong and they were also incorrect in insisting that they were right; an anecdotal vignette of a person as they perform a behavior when lying is not science. It is interesting, but it is not science nor is it reliable. There are other times when the person uses the same behavior merely to relieve or reduce stress based on circumstances (e.g., in a police interview or the person is worried about getting to work late during a stressful traffic stop) and they are not lying but those are never shown. …

“{A} polygraph result cannot be used against you in court) and …the American Academy of Sciences had less than choice words for the use of the polygraph in its formal report on the polygraph in 2002.

“As for other gimmicks out there including machines that read eye behavior or voice stress analysis, again, I am dumbfounded by how many people are convinced that these machines actually work. Test after test has shown that these systems do not detect deception.”

But we’re so confident!

In this, as in so many things, people grossly overestimate their skills. It is the overconfidence effect (also well-established by psych research).

“The overconfidence effect is a well-established bias in which a person’s subjective confidence in his or her judgements is reliably greater than the objective accuracy of those judgements, especially when confidence is relatively high.”
— “The Role of Individual Differences in the Accuracy of Confidence Judgments” by Gerry Pallier et al, Journal of General Psychology, 2002. Gated. Open copy here.

In “Assessing Credibility” Hazel Genn explains why we have difficulty telling true from false testimony. She is a Professor of Socio-Legal Studies at University College (London), 2016.

“Experimental research by psychologists has established that few people do better than chance in judging whether someone is lying or truthful. The research also consistently shows that most people think they are making accurate judgments when they are not.

“Studies suggest that people are about 45 to 60% accurate in spotting lies – in fact, very close to chance, which would be 50%. One study comparing the ability of different professional groups to detect lies found that the police were no better than ordinary people in identifying who was lying, although they were confident that their judgments were better. In another US study involving secret service agents, psychiatrists, judges, robbery investigators, FBI polygraphers and college students, the only group to score significantly above chance in detecting lies were the secret service agents. In all groups, the subjects’ self-assessment of their skill at lie detection bore no relation to their actual score.

This all suggests that although we are not very good at detecting deceit, we think that we are.

How did America watch the Kavanaugh hearings?

George Orwell gave us a model of a class structure that fits modern America (see A picture of America, showing a path to political reform. Each class sees these things differently. It is America, so everybody is quite open about their feelings and methods.

There is the bourgeois, the top few percent who own most of America (the 1% own over a third; the top 3% over half). There is the inner party, the highly paid senior leaders of our political, non-profit, and business institutions. They are cool and unsympathetic, seeing the hearings purely in terms of power – a struggle for control of the undemocratic core of our political system (nine people with lifetime terms, with vast and ill-defined authority).

There is the outer party of managers, small business owners, and professionals. They want simple stories that explain events in terms of good guys and bad guys. Cheer our team! Thrill at tales of the bad guys’ dastardly deeds! They want stories that provide entertainment and catharsis plus a sense of belonging to a community (a virtual tribe). Politically ineffectual, they want to believe themselves engaged. So they consume information (becoming well-informed) and write posts or comments (21st C letters to the editor). The Kavanaugh hearings were crafted to appeal to them.

There are the proles, America’s workers, and the underclass. Neither care for these political spectacles.

Truth is an irrelevance today.

Posts about the Kavanaugh hearing

  1. The Kavanaugh hearings’ warning: the Court is so powerful that extreme measures are appropriate to take control of it.
  2. Hidden knowledge: false rape accusations by women are common.
  3. Lies are a useful and appropriate tool to use for political conflicts.
  4. The Kavanaugh hearings: lawfare used against us.
  5. The heart of the Kavanaugh hearing is our false confidence in our ability to detect lies.

For More Information

Ideas! For shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about the Supreme Court, about Reforming America: Steps to New Politics, and especially these…

  1. American politics is a fun parade of lies, for which we pay dearly.
  2. Our minds are addled, the result of skillful and expensive propaganda.
  3. Swear allegiance to the truth as a step to reforming America.
The Most Dangerous Branch: Inside the Supreme Court's Assault on the Constitution
Available at Amazon.

The book about the heart of the problem

The Most Dangerous Branch: Inside the Supreme Court’s Assault on the Constitution.
By David Kaplan (2018).

A good liberal, Kaplan became upset about the Court’s power only when the Right took control of it. But his supporting evidence and logic are sound, despite his partisanship. From the publisher …

“With the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Court has never before been more central in American life. It is the nine justices who too often now decide the controversial issues of our time – from abortion and same-sex marriage, to gun control, campaign finance and voting rights. The Court is so crucial that many voters in 2016 made their choice based on whom they thought their presidential candidate would name to the Court. Donald Trump picked Neil Gorsuch—the key decision of his new administration. The next justice – replacing Anthony Kennedy – will be even more important, holding the swing vote over so much social policy. Is that really how democracy is supposed to work?

“Based on exclusive interviews with the justices and dozens of their law clerks, Kaplan provides fresh details about life behind the scenes at the Court – Clarence Thomas’s simmering rage, Antonin Scalia’s death, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s celebrity, Breyer Bingo, the petty feuding between Gorsuch and the chief justice, and what John Roberts thinks of his critics.

“Kaplan presents a sweeping narrative of the justices’ aggrandizement of power over the decades – from Roe v. Wade to Bush v. Gore to Citizens United, to rulings during the 2017-18 term. But the arrogance of the Court isn’t partisan: Conservative and liberal justices alike are guilty of overreach. Challenging conventional wisdom about the Court’s transcendent power, The Most Dangerous Branch is sure to rile both sides of the political aisle.”

31 thoughts on “The heart of the Kavanaugh hearing is our false confidence

  1. We cannot tell whether someone is speaking the truth and don’t have to.

    We can judge character and tell whether someone is a creep. And this guy is.

    1. Peregrino,

      That’s a great point. I was a very part-time securities industry arbitrator for 12 years. In those hearings with con men, they were always more convincing that their clients (skillful lying was a professional requirement. Both lied, of course.

      That’s why we tried to rule on the basis of evidence.

    2. Henrik,

      That’s in the eye of the beholder, pure tribalism at work.

      Our leaders smile when hearing such things. The peons squabbling is their greatest strength.

    3. My go-to philosophy in dealing with conflicting positions on any particular topic is, “There are always three (not two) sides to every story. There are the two conflicting accounts, and then there is the truth.” That truth may fall to the favor of one side or the other, or it may fall to neither. Facts are more subjective than we often want to believe and, when filtered through the experiences of those viewing the facts, they can bolster the testimony of either side.

      But the truth remains. It may be discovered by the minds of humans (what the original article addresses) or it may not. But it will always remain.

      Character is a evolving (or devolving) attribute through a person’s lifetime. Looking at 36 years of evolution (on the positive side of the matter), a person’s character can change a dramatic 180 degrees. Or character may remain stagnant. I think it only fair to look at the labor and effort invested in the correction of immature behavior and the recognition of virtue being achievable.

      In this Kavanaugh vs. Ford matter, the ugly “truth is irrelevant to power” is clearly being played by both sides. It becomes a pursuit of what each perceives to be the better components of governing/being empowered. The stakes are high and so is the level of emotion, positioning and selective transparency.

      The answer is out there, but who is truly willingly to do the hard work to find it in a timely manner given the current, poisonous atmosphere of our society. Someone must take a lamp and walk through the dark.

    1. info,

      “”Kavanaugh screams about his innocence”

      What are you looking at? I tried to skim it, and did not see Kavanaugh “scream”. He was angry, with good reason imo. I would rather have a judge with human passion than the cold ideological robots that extremists prefer (they’d love Robespierre).

      Watching Colbert reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ discussion of humor in The Screwtape Letters. This is Colbert.

      “But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. …It is a thousand miles away from joy it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it.”

      FLippancy is high school humor, persisting into adulthood mostly as a form of tribal identification.

      As for that Facebook posting, I assume you realize that is the subject of this post. A massive body of psych research proves it is bs. But Americans’ love their ignorance. We embrace it! I doubt this will work well for us.

    2. info,

      ”The predator always makes himself out to be the victim”

      Orwell would love that! Saying that you are innocent proves that you are guilty. That belongs in my post about America’s descent into 1984. But at least we’re smiling, happy about the trip!

    3. ”What are you looking at? I tried to skim it, and did not see Kavanaugh “scream.”

      Title of Colbert’s video on him.

  2. What happens in evidence-less justice: from
    http://joannenova.com.au/2018/09/we-are-living-nineteen-eighty-four/#more-60700 an excerpt

    Again, the ideological trumps the empirical. “All women must be believed” is the testament, and individuals bow to the collective. Except, as in Orwell’s Animal Farm, there are ideological exceptions — such as Bill Clinton, Keith Ellison, Sherrod Brown, and Joe Biden. The slogan of Ford’s psychodrama is “All women must be believed, but some women are more believable than others.” That an assertion becomes fact due to the prevailing ideology and gender of the accuser marks the destruction of our entire system of justice.

    The overconfidence effect yields different results with different victims, different perpetrators proving its unsuitability to be useful, and its inability to determine what is claimed for it.

    1. John,

      I don’t understand your comment about the overconfidence effect.

      “yields different results with different victims,”

      There are no “victims” to it. Not everybody has it. Those that have, have it to different degrees. As with all psychological behaviors.

      “proving its unsuitability to be useful”

      What is its “use”? How does your statement prove it “unsuitable”?

      “its inability to determine what is claimed for it.”

      I don’t know what that means.

    2. The worst of it is that the Dems are implicitly pushing the utterly incendiary view that “All women must be believed”. As Biden put it:

      “For a woman to come forward in the glaring lights of focus, nationally, you’ve got to start off with the presumption that at least the essence of what she’s talking about is real, whether or not she forgets facts, whether or not it’s been made worse or better over time. But nobody fails to understand that this is like jumping into a cauldron.”
      WaPo, 17 Sept 2018.

      If women in all such situations are reflexively believed, it becomes open season vs. men.

      For such a major, “respected” Dem to trot out such trash is a major step toward (gender-driven) civil war.

    3. Nany Mouse,

      I’d state that more strongly: they are explicitly pushing “all women must be believed (unless they accuse Bill).” As you said, that is incendiary. It might mark the gender war going nuclear.

      Biden’s comment is a bookend to Representative Maxine Walters’ call for mob violence against GOP officials.

      This will not end well for us. Somewhere in this process I fear that we will pass a line, beyond which the Republic becomes non-recoverable. We will have killed it.

    4. If we can face it, that a John Hinckley is nuts for hoping that killing a President will win him Jodie Foster, then we should be able to face, that a Christine Ford is nuts for believing that Kavanaugh assaulted her 36 years ago.

      In a country of well over 300 million, it should be assumed that, say, 1 million are nuts enough to believe such things.

      Until now, we’ve been lucky that the damage from such nuts has been relatively limited.

    5. NanyMouse,

      “that a Christine Ford is nuts for believing that Kavanaugh assaulted her 36 years ago.”

      We don’t know if her claim is true or false. There is, as yet, no evidence either way. Which should be sufficient grounds to dismiss it. But partisans are only interested in how claims advance their aims than truth or fairness — or the damage done to our institutions.

      “In a country of well over 300 million, it should be assumed that, say, 1 million are nuts enough to believe such things.”

      Ditto as above. Nobody is nuts. The Kavanaugh hearings are a natural and inevitable result of lifetime appointments to a Court with vast and ill-defined powers. The struggle for control of it, the undemocratic core of our regime, will become fiercer. See details here.

      The only solution is to reduce the Court back to something closer to what the Founders originally intended.

    6. Yes, Larry, and this is in the context of the “venerable” WaPo’s June 8 diatribe entitled “Why can’t we hate men?” by Suzanna Danuta Walters (professor of sociology and director of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Northeastern University, the editor of the gender studies journal Signs).

      It ended with:

      “We have every right to hate you. You have done us wrong. #BecausePatriarchy. It is long past time to play hard for Team Feminism. And win.”

    7. Nany Mouse.

      That might go down in history as the first shot in the gender war. It is part of the Left’s abandonment of the long struggle for a fair and just society, and embrace of sexism and racism — and power.

      I’ll bet future generations will see this as madness. The Left for doing this. The rest of us for going along with it.

    8. Shouldn’t we expect, that unscrupulous shrinks will work to convince the Christine Fords, that Kavanaugh (or Trump, Pence, Obama, Biden, or a Clinton) assaulted her 30+ years ago?
      How many related $million+ book deals will have to happen, before the MSM faces that they’ve created a monster by the cred they give to these types?

    9. Larry, I meant what happens when people believe in their abilities. Sorry I wasn’t clear.

      Due if to no other reason than tribalism, the overconfidence effect allows persons to choose the guilty. The people so judged are victims if they are innocent. Looking at the overconfidence effect as a method of determining truth, yields different results with different victims, different perpetrators for the same evidence.

      I should have used some quotes, and better writing. The excerpt showed the arbitrary nature of conclusions of persons who have but do not believe they are over confident.

      It goes to my discussion of this trait is anathema to justice. It also goes to if you ask most people they believe their judgments are true AND they are not affected by the overconfidence effect.

      Change my comment to “A judgment using (t)he overconfidence effect yields different results with different victims, different perpetrators proving the judgments’ unsuitability to be useful, and its inability to determine what is claimed for it (justice).

      Or something better written.

    1. Raymond,

      That’s a fun article. But I doubt the proles or underclass follow the Washington follies.

  3. It’s not a surprise conservatives have gone all in on the PHIL101 “but can we even know truth?” takes. Who knew there were so many Lacanians on the right?

    What’s consciously elided by these freshman dorm debates is the actual heart of the matter – public faith in the integrity of the judiciary. A basic principle of American judicial ethics is that judges must not only be free from impropriety, but even the appearance of impropriety. The foundations of civil authority in this country depend in large measure on a lack of public doubt about the fairness of judicial decisions.

    Public faith in the integrity of judiciary is far more important than Kavanaugh’s reputation. That means the burden of proof is on those appointing him. The American people are entitled to know beyond a reasonable doubt that this lifetime appointee to the highest court is not a perjurer with a history of being a sex pest.

    1. Juche,

      To what are you referring to? You appear to believe that any charges, even if lacking an evidentiary basis, should disqualify an American from judicial office.

      Given the rewards to making such accusations, such a policy will turn nomination hearings into clown shows. Will that boost the reputation of Congress or the Court?

      Also, what person of experience and reputation will subject himself or herself to such an inquisition? Only the most partisan and hungry for power.

      From another perspective, would those of such stature want to serve a people who enjoy watching such clown shows, and believe them a fit process to select high officials?

      Many Americans believe that public office is a great boon, and any indignities and abuse can be inflicted on nominees. But quality people don’t need our jobs, and are unlikely to take them if they despise us.

  4. The latest nonsense on my facebook feed goes something like “Women are strong for sharing their stories but they are also strong for NOT sharing their stories herpa derp derp.” Whatever that means. The irony being that (assuming it’s all true) if she had in fact told her story to the police, Kavanaugh would be nowhere near a Supreme Court nomination today.

    1. Rando,

      “The latest nonsense on my facebook feed goes something …”

      Lots of nonsense on the media about this. America’s Outer Party has lost its mind. That is one reason I suspect this is a milestone event, a marker.

      “Assuming it is true”

      That’s a key issue. But procedural questions are, as always, more important (epistemology, justice, fairness). How do we evaluate these claims? If we just believe women, men become second class citizens – and the number of false claims (already high) will skyrocket.

      Some believe the gender wars are hot. This is nothing compared to the future might hold for us. Much of what we value might become collateral damage. That’s why sensible people avoid these kinds of social clashes.

    2. “If we just believe women, men become second class citizens”.

      A milestone, indeed, probably leading to a huge spike of MGTOW.

      Those men with any solid sense of human realities, will, to the maximum extent possible under their specific circumstances, wash their hands of all women they don’t hugely trust.

    3. Nany,

      “A milestone, indeed, probably leading to a huge spike of MGTOW.”

      Many of us have wondered about that. But that’s fighting biology. My guess (guess) is that this will to some extent “poison the well” of gender relations. Hookups will still be done, albeit perhaps with more care by men – and perhaps less frequently (MGTOW). What will be most affected are deeper relationships, as more men come to see women as potential foes — willing to turn on you when profitable. That might be denunciation as a harasser, an assaulter — or divorce (collecting child support).

      The social engineers playing with Western society have no idea how fragile it all is. Time might soon provide answers.

    4. “Fighting biology” may fast become easier than you might expect.
      MGTOWs could make do with porn, and pay women to be artificially inseminated (with the MGTOW’s genes), and raise the kids with brothers they trust.
      Better these approaches, than getting slaughtered in court, or being blacklisted, e.g. for looking at a woman the wrong way decades ago.

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