Skilled liars make great lie detectors

Abagnale runs a security consultancy

Frank Abagnale Jr, the confidence trickster whose escapades inspired the hit film “Catch Me If You Can”, later became a security consultant for the FBI. There’s intuitive logic to the agency’s recruitment strategy – if you want to catch con artists, who better to spot them than a master con artist. But does this logic apply at a more basic level? Do skilled liars really make skilled lie detectors?

Surprisingly, psychologists haven’t investigated this idea before. Dozens of studies have shown that most people are very poor at detecting lies, and other research has shown that the propensity to lie is partly inherited, but no-one’s looked to see if good liars make good lie spotters.

Now Gordon Wright and his colleagues have done just that, recruiting 51 participants (27 women; mean age 25) to take part in a competitive group task. None of them had met before. Arranged in groups of 5 or 6, the participants took turns to spend about 20 seconds telling the group their position on a social issue, such as whether smoking should be allowed in public places or whether they were in favour of reality TV. Their true opinions had been reported in private to the researchers earlier. On each round, cards handed to the participants told them which opinion to share with the group and whether to tell the truth or lie. The task of the rest of the group was to judge whether the speaker was lying or not. Fifty pounds was up for grabs for the best liar and the best lie spotter.

The key finding was that participants whose lies were harder to spot tended to do better at spotting whether other participants were lying (the correlation was -0.35, with an effect size of 0.7, which is usually considered large). “As far as we are aware,” the researchers said, “this study is the first to provide evidence that the capacity to detect lies and the ability to deceive others are associated.”

This result begs the question – what underlying psychological processes grant a person skill at lying and lie spotting? It wasn’t IQ or emotional intelligence – the researchers tested for that, but they don’t yet know much more. “It is clear,” they said, “that identification of the precise nature of the proposed ‘deception-general’ ability is an important aim for deception research, and that further research should be devoted to this question.”


Wright, G., Berry, C., and Bird, G. (2012). “You can’t kid a kidder”: association between production and detection of deception in an interactive deception task. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6 DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00087

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

15 thoughts on “Skilled liars make great lie detectors”

  1. This is an interesting paper – thanks for pointing it out. But a nit-picky point: it certainly doesn't 'beg the question' about the underlying processes. It raises the question, perhaps. But 'begging the question' is a type of logical fallacy in which in which a statement or claim is assumed to be true without evidence other than the statement or claim itself.

  2. Hi Kimberly and Anonymous (2.41pm) – thanks for your comments, but on the point of “Begging the Question”, I'm unconvinced. I think you're fighting a losing battle. Here's the New American Oxford Dictionary:

    usage: The original meaning of the phrase beg the question belongs to the field of logic and is a translation of the Latin term petitio principii, literally meaning ‘laying claim to a principle’ … However, over the last 100 years or so, another, more general use has arisen: ‘invite an obvious question,’ as in some definitions of mental illness beg the question of what constitutes normal behavior. This is by far the more common use today in modern standard English.

  3. Why do you think they are looking for a wizard? A correlation between spotting a lie and telling a lie just implies variance in the abilities, not that some people are amazing at it.

  4. Both uses of “beg the question” are perfectly valid. In the “fallacy sense” what happens is that the fallacy “invites an [obvious] question” regarding a “statement or claim is assumed to be true without evidence other than the statement or claim itself”. Which not uncommonly happens in a somewhat less-than obvious way though, at least not obvious for everyone.

    It's like name calling may be an “ad hominem” attack/fallacy, but some name calling is simply name calling, not trying to prove a point, thus not exactly a fallacy.

  5. This reminds me to Dr. Cal Lightman, reaching the truth through applied psychology: interpreting microexpressions, through the Facial Action Coding System, and body language. I love the drama “Lie to Me”. Tim Roth is realy a good actor.

  6. Of course.

    If you yourself lie often, you know the tricks. You, as a fellow liar, can spot all of the little things liars do to make their lies seem more convincing. Interesting study, regardless.

  7. interesting. this paper mildly reminded me of the principle “to know how an alcoholic feels to quit drinking, you need to have been in that position yourself”.

    so liars being able to detect liars, makes sense. but howwww? what is it that the liar does that gives them away. siiiiigh *wait for further research*

  8. I must confess I've n ever heard the phrase “invite an obvious question” and I'm from the 22nd century.

  9. that's because the phrase is “beg the question”, which is intended to mean “invites an obvious question”. You haven't heard the latter because people use the former to mean the latter. At least that's what's happening now, not sure if it's still true in the future that you're from.

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