Category: Lying

Decades of lie detection research has been unrealistic

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

–further reading–
Just how good are police officers at detecting liars?
Forget good cop, bad cop – here’s the real psychology of two-person interrogation
Skilled liars make great lie detectors

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

A small proportion of the population are responsible for the vast majority of lies

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

–further reading–
A case of pseudologia fantastica, otherwise known as pathological lying

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Experienced job interviewers are no better than novices at spotting lying candidates

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

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Anxiously attached people are ace at poker and lie detection

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

–Further reading–
The advantage of having an anxiously attached person on your team
That’s not a poker face, this is a poker face

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Lying is common at age two, becomes the norm by three

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

–Further reading–
Adults are unable to tell when children are lying.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

When parents lie to their children

We teach our kids that it is wrong to lie, even though most of us do it everyday. In fact, it is often our children who we are lying to. A new study, involving participants in the USA and China, is one of the first to investigate parental lies, finding that the majority of parents tell their children lies as a way to control their behaviour.

Gail Heyman and her colleagues presented 114 parents in the USA and 85 in China with 16 so-called “instrumental lies” in four categories – lies intended to influence the kids’ eating habits (e.g. “you need to finish all your food or you will get pimples all over your face”); lies to get the children to leave or stay put (e.g. “If you don’t come with me now, I will leave you here by yourself); lies to control misbehaviour (e.g. “If you don’t behave I will call the police”); and finally, lies to do with shopping and money (e.g. “I did not bring any money with me today. We can come back another day.”).

Eighty-four per cent of US parents and 98 per cent of Chinese parents admitted telling at least one of the 16 lies to their children, and a majority of parents in both countries admitted to telling lies from three of the four categories. The exception was the misbehaviour category – just under half the US parents said they told lies to make their children behaviour better, compared with 80 per cent of Chinese parents.

The lie that the greatest proportion of parents said they told was threatening to leave a child behind if he/she refused to follow the parent. Rates of lying by parents were higher in China than in the US, especially in relation to misbehaviour and eating. The Chinese parents also viewed instrumental lying by parents with more approval than the US parents did; at the same time, they (the Chinese) viewed lying by children with more disapproval. “This cross-cultural difference may reflect greater concern with social cohesiveness and a greater emphasis on respect and obedience,” the researchers said.

Asked why they told instrumental lies to their children, parents across both countries talked in terms of a cost-benefit trade-off and the stress of getting children to comply. Other times it was felt children would struggle to understand the truth, such as the complexities of the family budget.

As well as looking at instrumental lies, the study also asked parents about untruths they told their children regarding fantasy characters like the tooth-fairy, or to make their children feel better, for example praising a poor piano performance. Here there were no cultural differences in rates of lie-telling, although the Chinese parents showed less approval toward lying about the existence of fictional characters.

The study has limitations, as acknowledged by the researchers. The two samples differed in other ways besides their culture – the US parents being more highly educated, for example. And of course there was a reliance on self-report rather than an observation or record of actual lies told. Despite these issues, Heyman said their study “helps fill a void in an understudied area that may have strong implications for children’s social and moral development.”

What do you think about parents lying to their children? Do you lie to yours? Do you remember being lied to as a child?


Heyman, G., Hsu, A., Fu, G., and Lee, K. (2012). Instrumental lying by parents in the US and China. International Journal of Psychology, 1-9 DOI: 10.1080/00207594.2012.746463

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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.

Shock result! Asking children and teenagers to promise to tell the truth actually works

When teenagers are asked to provide testimonies for use in court, how do you increase the likelihood that they’ll tell the truth? It may sound twee, but a North American study claims that merely asking them to promise to tell the truth can be surprisingly effective.

Angela Evans and Kang Lee had just over one hundred 8- to 16-year-olds complete a 10-item trivia test, which unbeknown to the youngsters featured two impossible questions (‘Who invented the hair brush?’ and ‘Who discovered Tunisia?’). A little entrapment never hurt anyone: the participants were promised a $10 reward if they got all 10 answers right and told to refrain from peeking at the answers located on the inside of the testing booklet. For 54 per cent of the sample, the temptation proved too great and hidden cameras caught them peeking.

Next, the youths were interviewed. ‘While I was out of the room, did you peek at any of the answers?’ an experimenter asked. Eighty-four per cent of the peekers lied and said they hadn’t peeked. Next they answered some questions about their understanding of truth and lying and the morality of dishonesty. Finally, all the participants were asked to promise to tell the truth in answer to the next question. This was a repeat of the question about whether they’d peeked at the answers. This time just 65 per cent lied – a statistically significant improvement.

Of course this first study doesn’t show that the promise to tell the truth was the active ingredient in reducing lying – perhaps it was the discussion about morality or merely the act of being asked the same question twice. A second experiment with another forty-one 8- to 16-year-olds was identical to the first except the bit about promising to tell the truth was omitted. They still had the morality discussion and they were again asked twice whether they had peeked at the answers. Eighty-two per cent of peekers lied when first asked if they’d peeked. When asked again after the morality questions, 79 per cent still lied – no change in terms of statistical significance.

The lying youngsters in the first experiment who were asked to promise to tell the truth were eight times as likely to switch from lying to truth-telling than were the liars in the second experiment. ‘When conducting forensic interviews with child and adolescent witnesses, police officers, social workers, and lawyers could use the honesty-promoting technique of promising to tell the truth,’ the researchers said. ‘In turn, the likelihood of obtaining truthful statements may increase.’

ResearchBlogging.orgEvans AD, and Lee K (2010). Promising to tell the truth makes 8- to 16-year-olds more honest. Behavioral sciences and the law PMID: 20878877

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Are children from collectivist cultures more likely to say it’s okay to lie for the group?

Would you lie for the sake of your team? Perhaps it depends on the culture you come from. Monica Sweet at the University of California and her co-researchers reasoned that children from collectivist cultures, such as China, which emphasise the importance of group ties, might be more inclined to say it’s okay to lie for your team than children from individualistic cultures, such as the US, which place more value on self-interest.

Nearly four hundred children aged seven to eleven, approximately half from a city in Eastern China and half from the US, were presented with fictional scenarios in which a protagonist either lied or told the truth about a transgression by his or her team. The transgression related either to a tug-of-war team cheating by getting extra friends to help or a drawing competition team cheating by getting older children to help.

The surprising finding was that the children from China actually found lying to protect one’s team less acceptable than did the children from the US. ‘This is not to suggest that Chinese children were acting in an individualistic manner,’ the researchers said, ‘but rather that they were acting based on what they believed to be a more salient moral aspect of the situation.’

Moreover, children from both the US and China tended to refer to the protagonist’s concern for him or herself (e.g. ‘she wanted to win’), rather than concern for the team, when asked to explain the protagonist’s motivation to lie or truth-tell. Also, asked to justify their own evaluation of the protagonist’s lies or truth-telling, few Chinese or American children mentioned concern for others (e.g. ‘she did the right thing by standing by her group’). ‘…[I]t is somewhat surprising,’ the researchers said, ‘that more children from China, the collectivist culture, did not mention the impact of the protagonist’s decision on others.’

‘Taken together,’ the researchers concluded, ‘the findings suggest that collectivist ideals do not necessarily equate to a greater focus on the group, and that situational context matters.’ However, they acknowledged that the results might have been different if they’d used a sample of children from rural China as opposed to urban China, where Western influences are on the increase.

ResearchBlogging.orgSweet, M., Heyman, G., Fu, G., & Lee, K. (2010). Are there limits to collectivism? Culture and children’s reasoning about lying to conceal a group transgression. Infant and Child Development DOI: 10.1002/icd.669

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

People lie more in email than when using pen and paper

Emails feel so transient, so disembodied, that we’re more tempted to lie when sending them compared with writing with pen and paper. That’s according to Charles Naquin and colleagues who tested the honesty of students and managers as they played financial games.

Forty-eight graduate business students were presented with an imaginary $89 kitty and had to choose how much they’d tell their partner was in the kitty, and how much of the kitty to share with their partner. Crucially, some participants shared this information by email, others by pen and paper. You guessed it – those who shared the info by email were more likely to lie about the kitty size (92 per cent of them did vs. 63 per cent of the pen and paper group), and they were also more unfair in how they shared the money. Participants in the email group also said they felt more justified in misrepresenting the amount of money to their partner.

A follow-up study ramped up the ecological validity. One hundred and seventy-seven full-time managers took part in a group financial game. Participants formed teams of three with each member pretending to be the manager of a science project negotiating for grant money. This game was played with real money, the players all knew each other, and any lies would be revealed afterwards. Once again, players who shared information by email were more likely to lie and cheat than were players who shared information by pen and paper.

Charles Naquin’s team said their results chime with previous research showing, for example, that peer performance reviews are more negative when conducted online rather than on paper. ‘Moving paper tasks online either within or across organisational boundaries should be undertaken with caution,’ they said. For example: ‘Taxes using the increasingly popular e-filing system could be even more fraught with deception than the traditional paper forms.’

ResearchBlogging.orgNaquin, C., Kurtzberg, T., & Belkin, L. (2010). The finer points of lying online: E-mail versus pen and paper. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95 (2), 387-394 DOI: 10.1037/a0018627

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.