In the final hand of the 2011 World Series of Poker, Pius Heinz, a 22-year-old German who had honed his poker chops online was matched up against 35-year-old Martin Staszko – a former Hyundai automobile plant foreman. Staszko was in bad shape, having only about a quarter of the chips his younger opponent had, and had been dealt a relatively mediocre hand. Despite this, he decided to risk it all in an attempt to wage a comeback. In effect, he was lying, and Heinz, fortunately blessed with a relatively good hand, called him on his lie. Heinz, having successfully detected his opponents attempt at deceit, won the hand, the tournament, and $8.7 million while Staszko, the failed deceiver, took runner up and had to console himself with just $5.4 million.
Although humans are the only species that plays poker, we are far from the only species that uses deception. And though several million dollars may seem like a high stakes game to us, the stakes for animals which use deception are even higher – often life or death. A frog which successfully fakes its croak to make itself seem bigger will be more likely to succeed in life than a similarly sized one which unsuccessfully fakes its croak. However, the ability to detect deception is just as important as the ability to deceive. A female frog with a talent for detecting deception will be more likely to mate with the actual biggest frog in the pond, rather than the one which only sounds the biggest, ensuring a greater likelihood of success for her genes. And so the evolutionary arms race continues, with liars and lie detectors successively attempting to one-up each other in reproductive fitness.
This is how deception is usually considered. The separate processes of deception and deception detection competing against each other, with the genes associated with each waxing and waning in success relative to the other. However, psychological and neuroscience theories of how lying and lie detection actually work seem to make a different prediction. Specifically these theories suggest that lying and detecting lies both rely on theory of mind, which is the ability to think about what someone else is thinking, and executive processes, an umbrella term which includes abilities like problem solving, attention, reasoning, and planning. Thus, rather than two separate processes competing against each other, these models suggest that improvements in one area will be directly related to improvements in the other. Good liars, in other words, should also make for good lie detectors.
Until now, however, no one has considered looking at whether this idea is true or not. In fact, previous research has failed to show any relationship at all between lie detection ability and any individual differences. That is, there is no evidence indicating which individuals are likely to be good or bad at lie detection. To answer these questions, researchers at the University of London and the University College London had participants play a game they designated the Deceptive Interaction Task.
Participants playing the game are told that the object is to simultaneously be the best at lie detection as well as the most credible. The participants were told that the individuals who score highest in these two areas would each receive a prize of £50. This ensured that all participants were motivated to lie effectively and to attempt to detect lies in others. Participants played in groups of five or six, and on each trial, one participant was chosen randomly to be the sender. The sender was given a card, on which was printed an opinion (for example “Smoking should be banned in all public places”) and an instruction to lie or tell the truth. Participants had privately indicated whether they agreed or disagreed with these opinions prior to the start of the game. After reading their card, the sender then presented their either their actual opinion, or lied about their opinion, and gave some supporting arguments to back up what they had said. The other participants, designated as receivers, then indicated whether they thought the sender was lying or telling the truth.