The results revealed the first ever demonstration of what kinds of people are likely to be good lie detectors: those who are good liars. Interestingly, and in line with what past research has established, participants took significantly less time to start speaking when they were telling the truth than when they were lying. In particular, when lying, participants started speaking after an average of 6.5 seconds. When telling the truth, participants began speaking after an average of 4.6 seconds. The researchers also had IQ and emotional intelligence scores for each of the participants, but neither of these measures were related to lying or lie detection abilities.
Though this research is primarily about deception, it also speaks to a body of work showing that the way in which the brain and mind represent other people is remarkably similar to the way in which the self is represented. For example, when seeing someone else experience emotion, people will respond to tasks as if they were feeling that emotion themselves. Similarly, other work shows that if you twitch your finger, it enhances your ability to perceive someone else twitch their finger in the same way. That deception and deception detection abilities are associated seems to point to a similar conclusion – the representation of self and the representation of other must bear some striking similarities.
Though this study features a more realistic experimental setting than many previous investigations of deception, there are still some shortcomings of the study that deserve to be addressed in future work. First, the requirement of stringent experimental control meant that participants were explicitly instructed when to lie. However, the authors do point out that there are many instances in which individuals are either explicitly instructed to lie (for example, by a boss or parent), or are compelled to lie by the situation. Just think of the last time someone asked you if their new, awful haircut looked nice, and it’s easy to see how we are often forced to lie for one reason or another.
Also, as this is a correlational study, the reason for the association between lying and lie detection abilities remains unknown. While the authors suggest that one likely explanation is that both of these abilities draw on theory of mind and executive functioning, other hypotheses could also be reasonably entertained, and future work should be able to falsify those hypotheses which are not actually true.
This is the first example effectively showing who is likely to be a good liar. Specifically, those who are also good at lie detection. This is an important demonstration of a phenomenon with which our culture is justifiably fascinated. Lying, whether from a politician, an athlete, a poker player, or a frog is an important determinant of who wins and loses. Elections, court cases, card games, and the ability to reproduce all rely on lying and lie detection abilities. With such high stakes, it’s no wonder that we spend so much time trying to figure out who is bluffing and who isn’t. Given these findings, perhaps we can begin to be just a little more accurate.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.