Machiavelli no more

While Porter and co-researcher Michael Woodworth (pictured teaching a class at UBCO) understand that little white lies and half-truths are necessary for honest people to coexist in today’s society, for them, high stakes lies are a completely different animal. UBC Okanagan studies have uncovered that little white lies manifest into a lifetime of pathological deception for a tiny percentage of the population. The two distinguished Okanagan professors are out to illustrate that narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism are not only on the rise—they are reaching epidemic levels in western civilizations.

As a psychology professor at UBC Okanagan and one of Canada’s top lie detectors, Woodworth has focused on three main areas of research: psychopathy, criminal behavior and deception detection. He does not focus on the average individual but instead, on the one-in-a-hundred who lacks empathy, feeling and emotion. Sometimes referred to as the “dark triad,” this is the small percentage of the population that is psychopathic or exhibits Machiavellian behavior on a regular basis.

Careers are blossoming in psychopathy, says Woodworth, who watches as the worldwide trend in lying expands. “Today humans are not only lying and cheating more, they are getting away with it,” he says. “Downright deceptive has increased from being clever, which was the norm 20 years ago.”

As an expert at understanding the psychopathic brain with over 30 publications to his name, Woodworth can’t hide his amazement that no Wall Street bankers have gone to jail for the subprime fiasco. Single-handedly, Wall Street bankers lied, cheated and defrauded millions out of trillions of dollars. They ran the entire world economy over a cliff and then, unbelievably, were bailed out by their government for doing so.

“All these (US) bankers are lucky they don’t live in Iceland,” says Woodworth, “because they put 30 bankers in jail over there.” While 30 might not seem like a large enough number, Iceland’s population is a mere 330,000 compared with the US population topping 319 million.

While the average person might ask how that is even possible, Porter and Woodworth already have the answer. They point to Italian Renaissance politician and founder of modern political science Niccolò Machiavelli. In his renowned work, The Prince, Machiavelli describes immoral behavior, such as dishonesty and killing innocents, as being normal and effective in politics. He claims that honesty and all other virtues are expendable if deceit, treachery, and force would be more expedient. This axiom appears to be embossed on the foreheads of Wall Street bankers, yet the courts fail to act.

Woodworth’s work is shining a spotlight on this human gullibility. Humans do not think or reason through problems or challenges, but instead embrace the first story or the popular narrative. The brain is both hardwired to trust and to be lazy—choosing the fastest path to response. This inability to notice Machiavellian behaviour and psychotic deception right in front of us is famously summed up by Mark Twain: “It is easier to fool a man than to convince him that he has been fooled.”

Taking it online

Today, more often than not, you’ll find the liars online.

“Our ability to lie goes up dramatically when we are online,” says Woodworth. “People that were highly motivated to lie, find it much easier to take advantage of the features of lying when they are online. In a context where people were not face-to-face, they can shield themselves from cues that would normally give them away.” It appears that the Internet is a prep school for liars—and a university for psychopaths.

Woodworth has collaborated with Jeff Hancock and Saurabh Goorha from Cornell University to look at deception in the context of mediated communication. As an increasing number of individuals are communicating in online and electronic environments, their work will have important implications for social, business and even criminal electronic communications.

The Internet or instant messaging does not transmit nonverbal and vocal behaviour. Here liars can have enhanced control over the production of their messages, improving the deceiver’s ability to deceive.


“People that were highly motivated to lie, find it much easier to take advantage of the features of lying when they are online. In a context where people were not face-to-face, they can shield themselves from cues that would normally give them away." - Michael Woolworth

With a growing number of individuals and consumers falling prey to deceptive practices and information they have received online, and an increasing number of generally highly motivated sexual offenders (particularly pedophiles), who have been using various online communication forums to lure potential victims, knowing how to detect a lie is critical.

Woodworth’s recently-released research has demonstrated that, despite a propensity to successfully con and manipulate individuals face to face, individuals with higher levels of dark triad traits, such as psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism, do not appear to retain (their) ability in online contexts. “We have now conducted research,” says Woodworth, “that examines both ability to negotiate, as well as ability to deceive, and surprisingly found that specifically for online communication, individuals higher in dark triad traits were less successful (than individuals with less of these traits) when both negotiating and deceiving.”

It appears, dark triad deceivers lose their ability to control the conversation using their nonverbals (appearing confident) as well as using their nonverbals to distract from their language. Without the dominating body language, these deceivers lose their touch.

“We have conducted research looking at individuals with varying levels of psychopathy communicating via social media and found that individuals higher in psychopathy had less coherent or readable language, that was more self-centred and that was also more negative and angry in tone, including increased profanities.” These are not the most compelling characteristics if you are trying to deceive someone.

Lie to me

As we have seen, detecting a lie is no easy task. Porter doubts some of the celebrated findings of American psychologist Paul Ekman who pioneered the study of emotions and their relation to facial expressions.


“The mind seems to be able to construct information from internal and external sources to generate a coherent but false picture of what occurred.” - Stephen Porter

“Ekman’s original work showed that there are discrete universal emotions and corresponding facial expressions,” says Porter, “and this validates Darwin’s theory, which has led to the major way researchers study facial expressions. Unfortunately, he made assertions about involuntary or unconscious communication of emotions via micro-expressions, but didn’t have the research that backed them up.”

Porter challenged his UBCO students to find all of the peer reviewed science supporting Paul Ekman’s work—and ironically, they couldn’t find any. It was as if Ekman’s work was in of itself—deception—within the field of deception. Porter believes that the cognitive brain has stolen the limelight from the emotional brain. We think, feel and believe we are in charge—but that is an illusion. Porter suggests that the emotional brain regions are brilliant at detecting truth, but the cognitive regions highjack that wisdom; we outthink ourselves. Whether one is seeking truth or spotting a lie, it is the subconscious or emotional brain regions that are (mostly) in charge. “The unconscious brain regions are always on,” says Porter. “They never sleep.”

“Paul Ekman became very rich and famous and he made millions of dollars from the so-called SPOT program that was used in airports across the US,” says Porter, “security staff were trained to read facial expressions of what to look for in potentially dangerous passengers.” In addition to selling airport facial recognition software, Ekman pioneered the short-running TV series Lie To Me.

Porter suggests, “Ekman’s emotional approach attempted to ignore cognition and instead, focus wholly on how the liar was feeling. “The cognitive approach to science has been dominating the conversation for years,” says Porter, “and the flip side of that is there has been a pooh-poohing of the emotional approach.” (This emotion trumps cognition understanding, although new, dovetails nicely with the findings of world-renowned neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio, Daniel Kahneman, Terrance Sejnowski, Michael Gazzaniga and a host of others who have spearheaded a revolution in emotional brain science.) April-May-2016-bc-wine-awardsThe Porter team has published many peer-reviewed papers and studies that have both contradicted and advanced Ekman’s work. Hundreds of neuroscientists around the world agree with UBCO analysis that the emotional, subconscious brain regions hold a bigger say in determining the secret to human wisdom, truth and understanding.

The UBCO truth team is helping us to realize that new facts and new scientific findings should mean new perspective and better decision-making by all people. If students could be easily coerced into believing they had committed crimes that were simply made up—isn’t it conceivable that entire societies could be similarly tricked?