(ISNS) -- Being a good liar is one thing; being able to spot a liar is another.
For the group of undercover agents on the USA network's new television show, "Graceland," the character's lies are their lives. The centerpiece of the show is a beachfront house seized from an Elvis-obsessed drug lord and now claimed as home by an eclectic mix of agents from the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Customs service. The clandestine clan ranges in experience from the laid-back senior housemate, FBI agent Paul Briggs (portrayed by Daniel Sunjata), to the buttoned-up, fresh-out-of-Quantico rookie, Mike Warren (portrayed by Aaron Tveit). According to the show's creator and executive producer Jeff Eastin, who also developed the FBI-based show "White Collar," the house was real and operational from 1992 to 2001.
Within the walls of "Graceland" is the one place where these agents can let their guard down after a stressful day on the job outwitting dangerous criminals. For Warren, his first day on the job is definitely a trial by fire. In a clever plot twist seen in the pilot, the audience learns Warren's real assignment, which forces him to start spinning his own web of untruths inside the house. With little time to sharpen his skills of deception, he strains his mental muscles to assemble a new life story made up of lies.
"Lying is an emotionally exhausting and cognitively demanding task," said David Matsumoto, a psychologist at San Francisco State University and director of Humintell LLC, a firm that performs research, consulting, and training on emotional cues. "When lies are more complicated it is more difficult to lie."
Because of the high-stakes situations the agents of Graceland face on a daily basis, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to slip in and out of someone else's skin. "It takes a lot of cognitive effort to maintain a double identity, always thinking about where you are and what environment you are in and what that situation needs," said Robert Feldman, a psychologist and dean at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. "It takes an excellent memory to remember what you told someone in one context versus another… to be constantly aware of who you are and where you are and who you are with."
Keeping track of the lies is only one piece of the puzzle; undercover agents must also be able to tell believable lies in a variety of situations.
"Intelligence, sensitivity, and the ability to see what lies deep in the hearts of other people can be a magnificent talent," said Bella DePaulo, a social psychologist and author. "The ordinary people who become extraordinary liars often have just those sorts of skills, and use them to give their lies legs."
While lying to a stranger might seem easier than lying to someone you know well, experts have opposing views on situations where the stakes are higher. For example, is it easier to lie to a stranger who is holding a loaded gun to your head or to your mom to avoid feeling ashamed?
"Lying to a loved one is probably the more difficult because the loved one knows us, and if you know the person well, you detect changes," said Laura Freberg, a psychologist at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. "My husband loves a practical joke, but I usually catch on because when he is up to something, he holds his mouth a little bit tighter than when he is being open and honest."
Feldman disagrees. "It is easier to lie to your mom because it is part of the lying that we do every day, and in a high-stakes situation there is a strong factor of anxiety to feel and another to notice," he said.
Once lying becomes a habit, an interesting thing happens. "The more people come to believe their lies, it is easier for them to lie, because they are no longer technically lying and it is easier for them to do so," said Matsumoto.
Once a liar adjusts to spinning a web of lies and keeping track of them, the next step involves being able to detect the lies of other people.
"Lying is easy; detecting lies is hard," said DePaulo. "There is no perfect clue to deception and there is no behavior that always occurs when people are lying; there are no perfect human lie-detectors."
Some behaviors can indicate lies, but they aren't foolproof in proving deception. "People are less articulate when they’re lying and they use more filler words, like 'um' and 'you know' to buy time," said Freberg. "People also use less detail in a story. When we’re remembering a real event, thinking about one thing will lead to the recovery of other memories, so the story becomes enriched with the telling so the person using the most words is usually the honest one."
With all the pieces of the deception puzzle in place, the most difficult part of undercover work is holding the puzzle of lies together.
"Be aware of the fact that agents have to be constantly vigilant," said Feldman. "They would need a very clear sense of their false identity to be consistent."
Some experts suggest that undercover agents adopt unfamiliar behaviors as a way to avoid being consumed by the lies of work -- and to protect your cover.
"Avoid anything that you do in your 'real' life, for example if you drink coffee, drink tea," said Freberg. "Otherwise, we are classically conditioned to respond to familiar stimuli unconsciously, and you will behave without thinking, which could be very dangerous."
The characters in the show all know they'll be walking that perilous path outside of "Graceland." Viewers can expect to see what happens when the characters bring some of those lies inside the house as well.
Emilie Lorditch is an editor and writer for Inside Science TV.
Inside Science News Service is supported by the American Institute of Physics.