Public will be watching to catch a lie But witnesses seem likely to believe their own stories

October 11, 1991|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Millions of television viewers will join members of the Senate Judiciary Committee today in judging the perceived honesty, or lack of it, of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, the woman who says he sexually harassed her on the job.

It will be a straight call on credibility. And, according two of the nation's leading authorities on psychological lie-detection, it will not be an easy judgment -- both could be telling the truth, and so could Angela Wright, a second woman who has been subpoenaed to testify against Judge Thomas.

All the witnesses, that is, could actually believe what they are saying, although their testimony will be contradictory, said the psychologists. This would explain the apparent conviction and composure their supporters expect of the two major figures in this confrontation.

The two psychologists who advanced this theory are:

* Paul Ekman, professor of psychology at the University of California Medical School, San Francisco, and head of the university's Human Interaction Laboratory, whose research is supported by an award from the National Institute of Mental Health. He is author of two books on lying -- "Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics and Marriage" and "Why Kids Lie."

* Maureen O'Sullivan, professor of psychology at the University of San Francisco and co-author, with Dr. Ekman, of a scientific paper, "Who Can Catch a Liar?" for the September issue of the American Psychological Association's professional magazine, American Psychologist.

According to the two experts who discussed the principal witnesses, it is possible that either Judge Thomas has "repressed" some events literally out of his mind, or that Ms. Hill has created a reality out of her imagination.

"My definition of a lie is where one person, by choice, misleads another," said Dr. Ekman. "If you think you are telling the truth, you are not lying. You don't know you are committing a lie. I strongly suspect that is what is happening in this case."

Given the positions of the two witnesses in the confrontation and the stakes involved for each, he said, it is unlikely that either would knowingly lie before Congress.

"What is much more likely is that one of them has, over time, developed a belief of what occurred that is wrong. I, of course, don't know which one. My bet is both of them believe they are telling the truth about what happened. Unfortunately, life is like that," said Dr. Ekman.

But another leading authority on credibility, David Raskin, professor of psychology at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, questioned the theory, saying, "These are not things that . . . would be repressed or imagined."

Dr. Ekman said that viewers should not put too much stock in what they see.

"I warn people about making their judgment on demeanor, on what they do with their hands, or their voices. If what I am saying is true, then there is no way demeanor will give you away," said Dr. Ekman.

Dr. O'Sullivan noted that both Judge Thomas and Ms. Hill were professionally trained in controlling themselves. There would probably be little "non-verbal leakage" -- physical signs of discomfort, possibly indicating dishonesty -- from either of them.

But Dr. Raskin contended that "the stuff leaks out," adding: "People are not as controlled as they think they are."

Among the sometimes tell-tale signs of possible lying: averting the eyes from a questioner, increases in vocal pitch, narrow arching of the eyebrows, furrowing the brow, lips pulled back into a grimace, or inappropriate reactions, such as a smile that does not fit the situation.

Dr. Ekman, who credits himself with 80 percent accuracy in telling who is lying, said of the two major Senate witnesses: "I don't know that I am going to have much chance [ofmaking a judgment]."

His reasons: If his theory is correct that they believe they are telling the truth, both will appear to be truthful. Even if they show demeanor signs of lying, it could be because they are simply afraid of being disbelieved.

He calls this the "Othello dilemma," after the Shakespearean hero who murders his wife because he thought her fear signaled her unfaithfulness when, in fact, it was a reflection of her fear of not being believed.

"Fear looks and sounds the same, no matter whether it is the fear of being caught or of being disbelieved," he said, adding that the Thomas hearings, unless new facts emerged, would probably be decided "on the basis of what people believed beforehand."

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