Although research has shown that most of us are hopeless at spotting lies, there’s been speculation in the literature that a minority of people might be unusually talented fib-detectors. The evidence for these “wizards”, as they’ve been called, remains controversial. Now a new study has tested the relevance of a key psychological construct that one might imagine wizards would score highly on – emotional intelligence.
If liars betray their true emotions in early, rapid, automatic facial expressions, as some experts have claimed, it would make sense that people who are particularly adept at recognising and processing emotions (one of the hall-marks of emotional intelligence) would therefore have an advantage at spotting deception.
To test this, Alysha Baker and her team at the Centre for the Advancement of Psychological Science and Law at the University of British Columbia presented 116 undergrad participants with 20 clips of real-life press conferences featuring anguished people pleading for the return of their missing relative(s). Half the clips featured a person who was in fact later identified as the perpetrator of the crime against their missing relative. The student participants had to say whether the anxious person in each clip was genuine or being deceptive; how confident they were in their judgment; and how they’d been affected by the clip emotionally.
Overall, the the participants performed no better than chance at identifying which clips featured a liar – consistent with past research showing the difficulty of accurate lie detection. However, there was a further paradoxical finding: participants who scored highly on the “emotionality” component of emotional intelligence (pertaining to emotional expression, perception and empathy) were significantly less accurate than average at judging which of the anxious relatives was being genuine. This association was mediated by how upset the students felt about the clips, perhaps indicating that their emotional state was affecting their ability to scrutinise the videos effectively.
Moreover, higher scorers on emotionality tended to sympathise more than low scorers specifically with the people featured in the deceptive videos, suggesting they were misreading deceptive cues (such as emotional turbulence, decreased plea length and tentative word use) as signs of increased distress, rather than as signs of deception.
All the participants, but especially the high emotionality scorers, expressed misplaced confidence in their judgments about the video clips. “The present findings suggest that a reliance on erroneous information about deception, combined with unfounded sympathy for deceptive pleaders leads to a highly confident, but incorrect assessment that crocodile tears are a reflection of genuine distress,” the researchers said.
Baker, A., ten Brinke, L., and Porter, S. (2012). Will get fooled again: Emotionally intelligent people are easily duped by high-stakes deceivers. Legal and Criminological Psychology DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8333.2012.02054.x