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'The Top 5 Ways to Spot a Liar': Refugee Status Decision-Making and The Science of Lie Detection

Hilary Evans Cameron, Instructor, Ethics, Society and Law, Trinity College

Published April 20, 2018 by Technologies of Justice.

Hilary Evans Cameron presented The Top Five Ways to Spot a Liar, a discussion on refugee status decision-making, during a session at the Technologies of Justice Conference entitled Immigration and Refugee Law Issues Under the Microscope. The conference took place from January 26 to 27, 2018 at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, Ontario.



Hilary Evans Cameron explained the science of lie detection, how it is used to address refugee claims, and the misuse of research, especially in refugee settings. She pointed out that in psychological deception research, there are two main theories:

  • Lies cause anxiety.
  • It takes more energy to lie.

She explained that lie detection researchers define how to catch liars in terms of predictive power, and that lie detection is only slightly better than a coin toss.

She also discussed how in the field of lie detection and deception, statistical significance can often be equated with predictive power. She explains the baseline approach or technique of watching how a person acts (relaxed versus stressed) and 'spotting their tells' on difficult versus easy questions, and how this can be an unreliable method of lie detection, especially in refugee situations. She Illustrated how proper training and tools can result in a 70 per cent accuracy rate in gathering bundles of 'tells' or by stress situations, but how you cannot rely on these factors as proxy indicators of stress, anxiety or fear in refugees. She explained how difficulties in telling a story in refugees is very often an unreliable indication of lying, due to the existence of language or cultural barriers. She emphasized the lack of empirical basis on lie detection research being transferable to refugees, and how there is much more that needs to be discovered before this can be used reliably, or used at all, in refugee situations.