Can a lie still be harmful if it’s never found out? New research on the relationship between dishonesty and social understanding may unsettle the fibbers amongst us. In a multi-study investigation with a total of 2,588 participants, scientists have found Pinocchio isn’t the only one to experience a few personal problems after telling lies.
Work is getting stale, and you’ve recently been courted by an exciting new company for a great role, the one drawback being a slight pay cut. Before you’ve made up your mind, your manager asks you whether you have plans to go elsewhere. If you wanted to avoid showing your hand, you could lie blatantly. You could change the topic. Or, you could palter: use a truthful statement to create a misleading impression.
“Financially, you’re treating me really well and I don’t think there’s anything out there that could match that.”
Paltering is the topic of a new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The authors, Todd Rogers and others at Harvard University, focused on negotiation situations, where access to accurate information had concrete consequences. They found that paltering is fairly common – real-life negotiators reported doing it more frequently then telling a lie, and as commonly as neglecting to share information – and that one reason for this is that they believed it wasn’t such a big deal as lying. In this, they were sadly mistaken.
Most people are poor at detecting whether someone is lying, at least partly because most people think mistakenly that things like shifty eye movements and fidgeting hands are reliable signs of deception.
Louise Jupe and her colleagues at the University of Portsmouth recruited 16 teenage offenders – their average age was 15, and 8 of them were female – who’d committed a range of crimes including battery, theft, racial assault, arson and criminal damage; and a control group of 36 teenagers with no record of criminality and with an average age of 16 (and 24 of whom were female).
The participants watched 12 video clips, between 78 to 90 seconds in duration, of teenagers aged 14 to 18 answering questions about whether or not they were concealing in their clothing a digital music player. The participants’ task was simply to say whether they thought each of these teenagers was lying or not, and at the end to say what behavioural cues they’d used to make their judgments.
The researchers had recorded the video clips earlier with 12 teenagers who were not participants in the study. Half of the videoed teenagers were given a digital music player to hide in their clothing, and they were instructed to lie and say they didn’t have the device. The other half were not given the music player and they were told to tell the truth about not having it.
The participants with no record of criminality were hopeless at telling whether the teens in the videos were lying or telling the truth – in fact, they achieved an average of 50 per cent correct judgments, which is no better than if they’d just guessed. In contrast, the teenage offender participants managed an overall accuracy rate of 67 per cent (they accurately identified 60 per cent of truth tellers and 73 per cent of liars).
This the first time that lie detection abilities have been studied in teenage offenders, and the result extends to the teenage age group the earlier observation that adult prison inmates are more skilled than average at lie detection. The authors of the current research believe that the superior lie detection abilities of teen offenders (and adults) likely comes from the fact that they’ve had practice at lying in interrogation situations, which has given them insight into the “tells” that reveal when someone is not being honest.
Intriguingly, however, the behavioural cue that the teen offenders said they used to spot lying (shifty eyes) was not actually displayed by the liars in the videos – making this just the latest study to debunk the popular misconception that lying is revealed in the eyes. Rather, the main tell-tale behaviour shown by the liars was keeping their hands and feet unusually still, which wasn’t mentioned as a give away by the teen offenders. The researchers think this suggests that the teen offenders’ lie detection ability is based on intuition and on automatic cognitive processes that they can’t easily describe to others.
Apart from the small sample size, it’s worth noting that this study, like much research in this area, has some weaknesses that make it unrealistic. For example, the lies were inconsequential and the participants couldn’t interact with the teens in the videos. However, both these facts would likely make lie detection more difficult for the participants, so the teen offenders’ deception detection ability might be even more impressive in real life.
_________________________________ Jupe, L., Akehurst, L., Vernham, Z., & Allen, J. (2016). Teenage Offenders’ Ability to Detect Deception in Their Peers Applied Cognitive Psychology DOI: 10.1002/acp.3214
Young adults – defined here as people aged 18 to 29 – are the most skilled liars, while teens are the most prolific. That’s according to a new study published in Acta Psychologica that claims to be the first ever to investigate lying behaviour across the entire lifespan.
The research involved members of the public who were visitors at the Science Centre NEMO in Amsterdam. In all, 1005 people took part, aged from 6 to 77. To test lying ability, Evelyne Debey and her colleagues presented the participants with simple general knowledge questions (e.g. “Can pigs fly?”). These questions had to be answered as quickly as possible, either truthfully or dishonestly, depending on the colour of the YES/NO response options. Taking the pig question as an example, the idea is that a skilled liar ought to be able to answer “yes” very quickly, whereas a poor liar will be delayed when answering dishonestly, or they might even give a reflex honest answer.
Young adults showed the fastest reaction times and lowest error rates on this test of lying. Overall, lying proficiency showed an inverted U-shaped curve through the lifespan, improving through childhood, peaking in young adulthood and then gradually declining into old age. This meant that lying proficiency was the same in the youngest children (aged 6 to 8) as it was in the eldest participants (aged 60 plus).
To measure lying frequency, the researchers asked their participants to report the number of lies they had told during the preceding 24 hours to different people in different situations (e.g. to a stranger or relative; face to face or online), and to describe those lies. Overall, the participants reported telling an average of two lies during that time, which is consistent with past research. Teens admitted to telling more lies (an average of 2.8) than any of the other age groups. Again there was an inverted U-shaped relationship between age and lying such that lying frequency increased during childhood, peaked in adolescence, then decreased through life, so that the oldest group lied with the same frequency as the youngest participants.
The researchers have a theory that the reason lying skill and frequency show this pattern through the lifespan is because of age-related changes in inhibitory control – the idea being that to lie successfully you need to be able suppress the truth, and that young adults have the most inhibitory control.
To test this, the researchers had the same participants complete what’s known as a “stop-signal task” – this involved pressing a button to indicate as fast as possible whether an X or an O had appeared on-screen. Crucially, on 25 per cent of these trials a tone sounded that told them to cancel their response. The later this tone sounded, the harder it is to withhold a response. Participants with greater inhibitory control can usually cancel their response even when the stop signal is given very late.
The participants’ ability on this stop-signal task increased through childhood and peaked in young adulthood. However, performance after this age remained relatively stable. Moreover, performance on the stop-signal task did not correlate strongly with lying proficiency. This appears to undermine the researchers’ theory about inhibitory control, but they argued that there are different types of inhibitory control and that perhaps a different measure of a different kind of inhibition (such as the Stroop Test, which measures the ability to deal with interfering mental demands) would have correlated more strongly with lying ability.
In a field that so often relies on student research participants, this study stands out for its involvement of the general public across wide range of ages. However, as the researchers acknowledge, the findings come with many caveats. Among these is the fact the study was cross-sectional – it doesn’t tell us anything about how the same people’s propensity for, and ability to, lie changes as they age. Also, the test of lying ability was artificial and involved none of the emotional consequences of real-life lies. Note too that, as shown in past research, lying frequency was highly skewed so that half the participants reported telling no lies in the previous 24 hours, and over 50 per cent of the lies were told by prolific liars who made up just 9 per cent of the sample.
Debey, E., De Schryver, M., Logan, G., Suchotzki, K., & Verschuere, B. (2015). From junior to senior Pinocchio: A cross-sectional lifespan investigation of deception Acta Psychologica, 160, 58-68 DOI: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2015.06.007
All parents have to come to terms with the fact that their little angels will, from time to time, act like little devils. They’ll throw tantrums over trivial issues, or they’ll push, hit, bite or scratch other kids. And at some point they’ll start lying about what they’ve done.
Lying is perfectly normal among children, not a sign of a sociopath in the making. Many kids start telling the odd fib around their second birthday, and by the time they’re 4 or 5 they’re even better at the art of manipulating the truth, and keeping it from us. So how can parents help their kids internalise the lesson that honesty is the best — or at least the socially preferred — policy?
A team of educational psychologists led by Victoria Talwar recruited 372 children aged between 4 and 8 years old, and put them through a “temptation resistance” task in which they were left alone in a room for one minute with a toy placed behind them and out of sight, and told not to peek at it. When the experimenter returned, the kids, who were being filmed by a hidden camera, were asked whether they looked or not.
Previous studies using this set up found that 72–93 per cent of children under 8 years of age looked at the toy and then lied about it. Out the 372 children in this new study, 251 (67.5 per cent) looked at the toy, though older kids were less likely to peek. Of the peekers, 66.5 per cent lied about doing so, again with older kids being less likely to lie about it.
The new study, however, didn’t just look at levels of lying, but also at how appeals to honesty influenced lying, and whether the threat of punishment promoted or hindered truth-telling. To probe these questions, kids were split into six groups who were told different things when the experimenter returned to ask whether they had snuck a look — and in one group the peekers showed an impressively low rate of lying of just 35 per cent.
What was the secret? The researchers encouraged honesty in these children with a two-pronged pronouncement. First they told the children “If you peeked at the toy, it does not matter” (the no-punishment condition), and then they gave them an explicit “external” reason to be truthful (“If you tell the truth, I will be really pleased with you. I will feel happy if you tell the truth”). In the absence of punishment, an alternative, “internal appeal” for honesty (“It is really important to tell the truth because telling the truth is the right thing to do when someone has done something wrong”) was not quite so effective — lying rates only dropped to 45 per cent.
It might seem that the increase in honesty was driven by the absence of punishment — after all, if you won’t get in trouble, why bother lying? Yet this can’t be the whole story, as kids in a no-punishment condition that did not include any kind of appeal to truth-telling still lied more than 85 per cent of the time, showing that appeals for honesty had a powerful effect.
At the same time, the threat of punishment worked against both kinds of appeal: when kids were told they would get in trouble for lying, and were then given either an external or internal reason to tell the truth, lying remained high, at 60 and 86 per cent, respectively.
So while many parents looking to increase their children’s honesty might opt for one of two diametrically opposed options — the carrot of reward, or the stick of punishment — this new research shows there’s an important third route to take: appealing to the better angels of kids’ nature, and encouraging honesty because it will make others happy.
These findings also have obvious relevance for people who work with children in a range of professional roles and who want or need to encourage honesty and accurate reporting of events. “Positive consequences resulting from truth telling should be emphasized and negative consequences for transgressing should be avoided in order to promote honesty in young children,” the researchers write. Looking to the future, they suggest that further studies should explore whether the same dynamics apply to children when it comes to telling the truth about the transgressions of other people, and also whether adolescents are susceptible to the same appeals to honesty and threats of punishment.
_________________________________ Talwar, V., Arruda, C., & Yachison, S. (2015). The effects of punishment and appeals for honesty on children’s truth-telling behavior Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 130, 209-217 DOI: 10.1016/j.jecp.2014.09.011
According to decades of psychology research, most people, including law enforcement professionals, are useless at detecting lies. But in a new paper, a team led by Tim Levine argues that nearly all previous research has been unrealistic. The field has been dominated by studies that place the “lie detector” in a passive role, tasked with spotting “tells” leaked by the liar. But this just isn’t how deception detection works in real life, say Levine and his team. Rather, the interrogator interacts with the suspect and asks strategic questions to extract the truth. In this context, the researchers predicted that expert lie detection performance would be high.
To test this, they first invited 33 students to take part in a difficult quiz with cash prizes for correct answers. They played in pairs with what they thought was another student but was really an accomplice of the researchers. When the researcher left the room for a short spell, the student participants had a chance to cheat by looking at the answer sheet. Four of them cheated in this way.
After the quiz, all the students were interviewed about what had happened during the quiz. Unbeknown to the students, their questioner was an expert interrogator, qualified in the Reid Technique and a trainer of the police and military in interrogation techniques.
The interviews lasted about four minutes, during which time the questioner asked the students how they knew the answers they’d got right. They were also asked, if someone were to cheat, how they would have gone about it. They were also told that their partner would be interviewed next, and asked what they thought he/she would say. The questioner threatened an investigation if the student had cheated to sabotage the study, but told them that it wouldn’t be so bad if they’d cheated for money.
All four of the cheaters confessed about their transgression before the end of the interview. There were no false confessions. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the questioner achieved 100 per cent accuracy after the interviews when asked to identify the cheaters from among the 33 interviewees.
The tapes of the interviews were then shown to 136 more student participants who were asked to identify the cheaters. They achieved 92.7 per cent accuracy. This is consistent with the idea that strategic questioning can provoke “diagnostic answers” that anyone can interpret because they reveal the truth about what happened.
A follow-up study was similar but this time there were five expert interrogators (one woman), all of them federal agents in the US. They each had different styles of questioning and the interviews varied from 3 minutes to 18 minutes. This time, 40 of the 89 students who played the quiz cheated, or their partner did (remember, they didn’t know it but their partner was actually a research assistant).
During the ensuing interviews, confessions about cheating were obtained for 34 out of 40 of the cheating episodes. There were no false confessions. The interviewers’ accuracy at correctly detecting whether cheating had occurred varied from 100 per cent (for three of them) to 94.7 per cent. The interviewers identified the specific true culprit (the student or their partner) in 95.5 per cent of interviews. When the video clips were played to 34 more students, these students achieved 93.6 per cent accuracy in judging whether cheating had occurred.
“These findings suggest that high levels of deception detection may be possible,” the researchers said, “but require that the right questions are asked the right way in a situation where message content is useful and where the solicitation of honesty is a viable strategy.”
_________________________________ Levine, T., Clare, D., Blair, J., McCornack, S., Morrison, K., & Park, H. (2014). Expertise in Deception Detection Involves Actively Prompting Diagnostic Information Rather Than Passive Behavioral Observation Human Communication Research, 40 (4), 442-462 DOI: 10.1111/hcre.12032
Obviously some people lie more often than others. What’s surprising is new research showing that the spread of lying propensity through the population is uneven. There is a large majority of “everyday liars”, and a small minority of “prolific liars”.
A few years ago Kim Serota and his colleagues put a figure on this. They surveyed a thousand US citizens and found that five per cent of the sample were responsible for 50 per cent of all lies told. Now Serota’s group have analysed data from nearly 3000 people in the UK and they’ve found the same pattern – the existence in the population of a minority of extremely prolific liars.
This new online survey is based on data collected as part of a public engagement project by the Science Museum in London in the Spring of 2010. Participants (51 per cent were female; average age 44.5) reported how often they told little white lies and how often they told big lies, as well as sharing their attitudes to, and experiences of lying.
The spread of answers was clearly skewed. Serota’s statistical analysis showed that 9.7 per cent of the UK sample were prolific liars. They averaged 6.32 little white lies per day and 2.86 big lies per day, compared with an average of 1.16 daily white lies and 0.15 daily big lies (about one per week) by the majority group of everyday liars. This means the prolific liars tell an average of 19 big lies for each single big lie by the everyday liars. The two groups generally agreed what counts as a big lie, with lying about whether you love someone being the most popular example.
The research also uncovered some intriguing differences between prolific and everyday liars. Prolific liars were more likely to be younger, male and to work in more senior occupational roles, although note these differences were modest. Prolific liars tended not to see lying as something that people grow out of. They were also most likely to lie to their partners and children (whereas everyday liars were most likely to lie to their mothers). Prolific liars were also more likely to say that their lying had landed them in trouble, including losing jobs and relationships.
Caution is required because of the different survey methods used, but this new research also allows a cross-cultural comparison between US and UK lying. Combining everyday and prolific liars, it seems that people lie more frequently in the UK – just over two lies per day on average, compared with an average of between one and two lies per day in the US, based on Serota’s earlier research. Another statistic – 24.4 per cent of the UK sample said they didn’t lie on a typical day, compared with 59.9 per cent of the US sample.
An obvious problem with this research is its dependence on people’s honesty about how often they lie. We’re in a somewhat bizarre situation of trusting prolific liars’ answers about their own lying. However, Serota and his colleague Tim Levine reassure us that past research has generally found self-reported lying to be fairly accurate. When more objective or third-party measures of lying are deployed, these usually correlate well with people’s self-reported lying rates. The current survey was anonymous, which would have helped.
The finding that lying frequency is distributed unevenly in the population has serious implications for deception research, most of which assumes that lying propensity is a “normally distributed” trait more like height or weight. “These data provide a strong case that the people who tell a lot of lies are not only different,” said Serota and Levine, “they are a population that needs to be studied independently of everyday liars in order to better understand the motivation and production of lies.” I wonder if future research might find that “prolific liars” are the same people who score highly on the Dark Triad of personality traits – psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism?_________________________________ Serota, K., & Levine, T. (2014). A Few Prolific Liars: Variation in the Prevalence of Lying Journal of Language and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1177/0261927X14528804
For the penultimate round of the TV show The Apprentice, the competing entrepreneurs must face a series of interviews with a crack team of hardened executives. The implicit, believable message is that these veterans have seen all the interview tricks in the book and will spot any blaggers a mile off. However, a new study provides the reality TV show with a reality check. A team led by Marc-André Reinhard report that experienced job interviewers are in fact no better than novice interviewers at spotting when a candidate is lying.
The researchers filmed 14 volunteers telling the truth about a job they’d really had in the past and then spinning a yarn about time in a job they’d never really had. The volunteers were offered a small monetary reward to boost their motivation. These clips were then played online to 46 highly experienced interviewers (they’d conducted between 21 and 1000 real-life job interviews), 92 interviewers with some experience (they’d interviewed at least once), and 214 students who’d never before acted as a job interviewer. The participants’ task was to identify the clips in which the interviewee was speaking truthfully about their work experience, and the clips in which the interviewee was fabricating.
Overall the participants achieved an accuracy rate of 52 per cent – barely above chance performance, which is consistent with a huge literature showing how poor most of us are at spotting deception. But the headline finding is that the more experienced interviewers were no better than the novice interviewers at spotting lying job candidates – the first time that this topic has been researched. Greater work seniority, having more work experience and having more subordinates at work were also unrelated to the ability to spot lying job candidates.
There was a glimmer of hope that interview lie-detection skills could be taught. Participants who reported more correct beliefs about non-verbal cues to lying (e.g. liars don’t in fact fidget more) were slightly more successful at recognising which job candidates were lying (each correct belief about a non-verbal cue added 1.2 per cent more accuracy on average). Experienced and novice interviewers in the current study didn’t differ in their knowledge about lying cues, which helps explain why the veterans were no better at the task. The more experienced interviewers were however more skeptical overall, tending to rate more of the clips as featuring lying.
“Our results provide the first evidence that employment interviewers may not be better at detecting deception in job interviews than lay persons,” the researchers said, “although it is a judgmental context that they are very experienced with.”
Although the main gist of the results is consistent with related research in other contexts – for example, studies have found police detectives are no better at spotting lies, despite their interrogation experience – this study has some serious limitations, which undermine the applicability of the findings to the real world. Above all, the study did not involve real interviews, which meant the participants were unable to interact with the interviewees in a dynamic manner.
_________________________________ Reinhard, M., Scharmach, M., and Müller, P. (2013). It’s not what you are, it’s what you know: experience, beliefs, and the detection of deception in employment interviews Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43 (3), 467-479 DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2013.01011.x
People who worry habitually about separation and abandonment – the “anxiously attached” – tend to be highly skilled at lie detection, an attribute that means they excel at poker. That’s according to Tsachi Ein-Dor and Adi Perry whose new findings build on their theory that anxiously attached people are natural sentinels – highly sensitive to threats in the environment, including, this new research suggests, social threats.
Across a pair of initial studies, dozens of men and women answered questions about their attachment style before watching video clips of two women chatting or one person telling a story. In some of the conversational clips, one of the women told a lie, a fact that could be detected through a subtle objective clue in the clip. In the story clips, the events described either happened to the story-teller or were fabricated (there no were objective clues in these clips).
People who scored high in attachment anxiety (for example, they agreed with statements like “I worry about being abandoned” and “My desire to be very close sometimes scares people away”) tended to be better at spotting lies and made-up stories. This wasn’t just because they were simply more liberal at labelling utterances as lies. Also, the lie detection link with attachment anxiety was specific. General state and trait anxiety did not correlate with lie detection skills. “It appears that anxiety from separation and abandonment, which relates to hyper-activation of an innate psychobiological system (i.e. the attachment system) that promotes survival, is what is driving people’s ability to detect deceit,” the researchers said, “and not an overall sense of tension.”
To see if the lie-detection skills associated with anxious attachment have any benefit in real life, Ein-Dor and Perry recruited 35 semi-professional poker players, assessed their attachment style and then observed their performance in a local poker tournament. Each participant was allocated at random to join in with a group of seven other players at the event. As they predicted, the researchers found that the participants who scored higher in anxious attachment tended to win more money in the tournament (on average, a one-point higher score in anxious attachment was associated with winning an extra 448 chips). Social anxiety did not have this association with tournament success.
Of course, there’s no direct evidence here that the anxious players’ better performance was due to their superior deception detection skills, but the researchers think it’s highly likely, especially given how important the spotting of bluffs and reading of “tells” is to poker (also past research suggests anxiously attached people are poorer at concealing their own emotions so their advantage is more likely to be related to reading other players’ minds than camouflaging their own).
These new findings add to past research showing that anxiously attached people are quicker than average at detecting physical threats, such as smoke in a room, and are quicker to alert other people to the danger.
“Studies like the ones reported here offer a new perspective on the strengths of individuals who have long been viewed as deficient and poorly adapted,” the researchers concluded.
_________________________________ Ein-Dor T, & Perry A (2013). Full House of Fears: Evidence that People High in Attachment Anxiety are More Accurate in Detecting Deceit. Journal of personality PMID: 23437786
They’re too young to need to fib about lipstick on their collar or even their unfinished homework but a new study finds the majority of three-year-olds are already practising liars. Deception in very young children has been documented before, but this is the first time it has been systematically tested in a laboratory.
Angela Evans and Kang Lee tested 65 two- and three-year-olds (28 girls) individually in a quiet room, part of which involved them being told not to peek at a toy. Despite this instruction, 80 per cent of the kids sneaked a peek. And when they were asked afterwards if they’d looked, around a quarter of two-year-olds lied about it, rising to 90 per cent of those aged over 43 months.
Although lying was rife among these young children, most of them weren’t very adept at it. When asked what the toy was, 76 per cent of the liars blurted out the answer, exposing their dishonesty.
The researchers also put the toddlers through a series of mental tests to see if any particular skills went hand-in-hand with lying. One of these was a kiddies’ version of the Stroop test that involved pointing to small pictures of fruits, while ignoring bigger versions. Like the adult Stroop, success at this task is thought to require a mix of inhibitory control and working memory. Evans and Lee found that the children who excelled at the kiddies’ Stroop were more likely to lie, which supports the idea that the development of lying depends on a mix of inhibitory ability and remembering the desired answer.
An important implication of this last point, the researchers said, is that the greater honesty of the younger children isn’t a mark of their moral purity, but simply a side-effect of their “fragile executive functioning skills.”
A weakness of the study is that it doesn’t look at different types of lies or tell us anything about the children’s motivation for lying.
_________________________________ Evans, A., and Lee, K. (2013). Emergence of Lying in Very Young Children. Developmental Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0031409