Is It Easier To Know The Truth When Distractions Are Removed? : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture In a newly published study, "witnesses" were randomly assigned to wear the niqab and "jurors" had to decide if they were telling the truth. The findings are surprising, says Alva Noë.

Is It Easier To Know The Truth When Distractions Are Removed?

Egyptian women wearing niqab line up outside a polling station in in Giza, Egypt in 2012. Amr Nabil/AP hide caption

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Amr Nabil/AP

Egyptian women wearing niqab line up outside a polling station in in Giza, Egypt in 2012.

Amr Nabil/AP

It's a common thought that you need to see a person's face to tell whether he or she is telling the truth or not.

This is why courts in the U.S., the United Kingdom and Canada prohibit witnesses from wearing the niqab, a traditional Muslim headdress that covers up the whole head and face except for the eyes. How can a jury evaluate the words and state of mind of a person hidden behind a veil?

A new study by Amy-May Leach of the University of Ontario and her colleagues calls this bit of conventional wisdom into question.

The setup is this: From a larger group of volunteer subjects, the researchers selected 80 females and showed them videotapes in which someone is or is not taking something out of an unattended handbag. Half of the women saw films of a theft taking place; the other 40 saw a film in which no theft took place. All 80 women, however, were instructed to say that they saw no theft taking place, in advance of a videotaped interview that was conducted by experimenters. That is, half of the "witnesses" were instructed to lie. The rest of the volunteers, men and women, were charged with the task of viewing the taped interviews and reaching a judgment on whether the witnesses were telling the truth or not.

So far, so good. But there was a pertinent twist. Half of the witnesses were randomly assigned to wear the niqab; all wore a dark cloth covering their ordinary clothing.

Like many Americans, I haven't had a lot of contact with women in the niqab, but I've had enough to know that, at least in normal circumstances, the veil hardly masks the person or the personality of the person wearing it. She shines through.

For this reason, I would have predicted that the niqab wouldn't make a difference to a juror's ability to evaluate the veracity of a witness.

The results are surprising, however. It turns out that "jurors" tasked with judging whether or not "witnesses" were lying were significantly more accurate, not less, when the witnesses wore the elaborate head covering.

Now, why would that be? There are a few possibilities. Maybe veiled witnesses made less of an effort to succeed in coming across as truthful. This might be because, freed from optical inspection, they underestimated how hard it is, usually, to sell a lie. Or maybe because, hidden behind the veil, they felt free not to bother.

But the most likely explanation, and the one the investigators seem to endorse, is that the eyes and the voice are the most important windows on the state of mind of a person giving testimony — and far from the niqab concealing these, it actually frames these by covering up other distracting but irrelevant features of a person's appearance or manner.

I wonder whether the finding generalizes. Maybe "less is more" more often than not when it comes to understanding each other.

Maybe we can enhance the effect by eliminating the voice, too. Might it be that we can more easily tell that someone is lying when we are not distracted by what they are saying? A curious but testable hypothesis.

Alternatively, we might eliminate visual information altogether. You would expect that a video of a witness would give a juror more information than an audio recording alone and that, therefore, it would make it easier to assess honesty. But maybe, as with the niqab, that isn't the case. Maybe sights are distractors and that we'd be better off listening but not watching.

Legend has it that Pythagoras lectured behind a screen; he wanted his followers to attend to his words and his meaning and not his person.

Maybe he was on to something?

Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe