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Postdoc Demystifies the Art of Deception

Deception. Often used as fodder for spy novels and whodunits, it is more than just a dramatic device in fictional tales. At UC Merced, it’s serious science.

Just ask Nick Duran, a post-doctoral researcher in the Cognitive and Information Sciences program. Duran is at UC Merced, thanks to a minority research fellowship from the National Science Foundation, which is supporting his work here with Professor Rick Dale.

Duran’s area of focus is action dynamics. He is taking an in-depth look at deception from the perspective of how the act of lying affects a person’s facial expressions, body language and other fine-grained motor behaviors. Scientists have historically made assumptions based on reaction times like how long it takes a respondent to select a truthful answer versus a deceptive answer.

Duran, however, is unpacking that reaction time and using motion-tracking tools to determine all of the minute movements a person makes when lying compared to when telling the truth. He hypothesizes that deception may change the pattern of these movements and expressions.

Nick Duran“When it comes to lying, there are multiple cognitive factors that make it challenging to deceive,” Duran explains. “For example, there is activation and competition from the truth, as well as the need to monitor what another is likely thinking based on what you've said. Such monitoring is important because you don't want to contradict yourself and expose yourself as a liar."

Research on deception is not new. It is what has led to the invention of polygraph machines, which detect changes in heart rate, blood pressure and breathing. But Duran believes such a narrow focus in lie detection is flawed. It is his hope to develop objective measures of detecting deception, particularly for use in criminal cases where subjective eye-witness testimony is given profound weight and can lead to false convictions.

What makes Duran’s research so valuable, according to Dale, is that he’s taking a fresh approach to an old issue – and its practical applications are endless.

“No doubt the prize in deception research is detection,” said Dale, who serves as Duran’s sponsoring scientist for the NSF fellowship. “Nick’s research can make contributions in this and beyond, because it’s a whole new tack in studying the processes that underlie deceptive behavior.”

Research aside, Duran’s time here at UC Merced is a win in multiple areas. Duran has benefitted from the growing campus’s willingness to invest in people and resources.

“Everything here – from the labs and equipment, to the people and their research methods – are new and fresh,” Duran said. “I don’t know that many postdocs get the advantage of working in such a state-of-the-art environment.”

Dale, who originally met Duran when he was a graduate student in Memphis, said he’s brought value to the Cognitive and Information Sciences program by collaborating with fellow postdocs, visitors and graduate students. And that value is increasing now that Duran has accepted a tenure-track faculty position with Arizona State University.

“As a research institution, the ultimate goal for many of our faculty is to place our students and postdocs in academic positions at other universities, to continue their research agendas and start their own labs,” he said. “Nick’s success is a wonderful example of this for UC Merced.”

Research Type: 
Graduate Research