Category Archives: Individual differences

Research round-up 4: When people lie

On to part 4 of this series on research published in 2008 that I didn’t get a chance to blog about when it came out, where we take a peek at some of the new research on circumstances in which people lie and what makes them seem credible.

Part 1: Catching liars
Part 2: New technologies
Part 3: Magic

First, lying in an extreme situation: Harpster and her colleagues reported results of a study that suggests that detailed linguistic analysis of calls made to the emergency services can help determine whether the caller might have committed the homicide they are reporting:

This study examined verbal indicators to critically analyze 911 homicide statements for predictive value in determining the caller’s innocence or guilt regarding the offense. One hundred audio recordings and transcripts of 911 homicide telephone calls obtained from police and sheriffs departments throughout the United States provided the database for the study. Using qualitative approaches for formulating the linguistic attributes of these communications and appropriate quantitative analyses of the resulting variables, the likelihood of guilt or innocence of the 911 callers in these adjudicated cases was examined. The results suggest that the presence or absence of as many as 18 of the variables are associated with the likelihood of the caller’s guilt or innocence regarding the offense of homicide. These results are suggestive of up to six distinct linguistic dimensions that may be useful for examination of all homicide calls to support effective investigations of these cases by law enforcement.

Staying in the forensic realm, Tess Neal and Stanley Brodsky wondered how expert witnesses can enhance their credibility. They reported results indicating that eye contact with the lawyer cross-questioning them and with mock jurors enhances the credibility of male experts, though it does not seem to have an impact on female experts’ credibility:

The effect of eye contact on credibility was examined via a 3 (low, medium, high eye contact) x 2 (male, female) between-groups design with 232 undergraduate participants. A trial transcript excerpt about a defendant’s recidivism likelihood was utilized as the experts’ script. A main effect was found: Experts with high eye contact had higher credibility ratings than in the medium and low conditions. Although a confound precluded comparisons between the genders, results indicated that males with high eye contact were more credible than males with medium or low eye contact. The female experts’ credibility was not significantly different regardless of eye contact. Eye contact may be especially important for males: Male experts should maintain eye contact for maximum credibility.

If you’re a rape victim, however, police investigators believe you’re more credible when you cry or show despair whilst giving your evidence:

Credibility judgments by police investigators were examined. Sixty-nine investigators viewed one of three video-recorded versions of a rape victim’s statement where the role was played by a professional actress. The statements were given in a free recall manner with identical wording, but differing in the emotions displayed, termed congruent, neutral and incongruent emotional expressions. Results showed that emotions displayed by the rape victim affected police officers’ judgments of credibility. The victim was judged as most credible when crying and showing despair, and less credible when being neutral or expressing more positive emotions. This result indicates stereotypic beliefs about rape victim behavior among police officers, similar to those found for lay persons. Results are discussed in terms of professional expertise.

From detecting lying by the police to police deception: Geoffrey Alpert and Jeffrey Noble published a discussion piece in Police Quarterly in which they consider the circumstances, nature and impact of conscious, unconscious, ‘acceptable’ and unacceptable lying by police officers:

Police officers often tell lies; they act in ways that are deceptive, they manipulative people and situations, they coerce citizens, and are dishonest. They are taught, encouraged, and often rewarded for their deceptive practices. Officers often lie to suspects about witnesses and evidence, and they are deceitful when attempting to learn about criminal activity. Most of these actions are sanctioned, legal, and expected. Although they are allowed to be dishonest in certain circumstances, they are also required to be trustworthy, honest, and maintain the highest level of integrity. The purpose of this article is to explore situations when officers can be dishonest, some reasons that help us understand the dishonesty, and circumstances where lies may lead to unintended consequences such as false confessions. The authors conclude with a discussion of how police agencies can manage the lies that officers tell and the consequences for the officers, organizations, and the criminal justice system.

In everyday life, when do people think it’s ok to lie? BeverlyMcLeod and Randy Genereux’s results suggest that your personality traits influence what sorts of lying you find acceptable, and when:

The present study investigated the role of individual differences in the perceived acceptability and likelihood of different types of lies. Two-hundred and eighty seven college students completed scales assessing six personality variables (honesty, kindness, assertiveness, approval motivation, self-monitoring, and Machiavellianism) and rated 16 scenarios involving lies told for four different motives (altruistic, conflict avoidance, social acceptance, and self-gain lies). Our central hypothesis that the perceived acceptability and likelihood of lying would be predicted by interactions between personality characteristics of the rater and the type of lie being considered was supported. For each type of lie, a unique set of personality variables significantly predicted lying acceptability and likelihood.

What is the impact of lying? Robert Lount and his colleagues warned that it’s difficult to recover from an early breach of trust in a relationship:

Few interpersonal relationships endure without one party violating the other’s expectations. Thus, the ability to build trust and to restore cooperation after a breach can be critical for the preservation of positive relationships. Using an iterated prisoner’s dilemma, this article presents two experiments that investigated the effects of the timing of a trust breach—at the start of an interaction, after 5 trials, after 10 trials, or not at all. The findings indicate that getting off on the wrong foot has devastating long-term consequences. Although later breaches seemed to limit cooperation for only a short time, they still planted a seed of distrust that surfaced in the end.

And finally, a couple outside the psychology/criminology literature that may be of interest:

Next round up (part 5): research on the psychophysiology of lying.

Psychopathy and verbal indicators of deception in offenders

psychopath bookA new article from Zina Lee, Jessica R. Klaver and Stephen D. Hart reminds us that we need to be careful when assuming that promising results from lie detection studies where people without serious psychopathology are the subjects can be generalised to a forensic context.

Lee et al wondered whether a tool commonly used for assessing credibility of verbal or written statements could be used to discriminate lying from truth-telling psychopaths. It’s been estimated that up to about 2% of the general population and between 15 and 25% of incarcerated criminals meet the criteria for psychopathy. One of the characteristics of psychopaths is their ability and willingness to deceive others – they are pathological liars who think nothing of manipulating and deceiving others for their own gain. This pathological lying, coupled with superficial charm and inability to feel guilt or remorse, makes a psychopath a particularly dangerous and unpleasant individual.

Previous studies of psychopaths’ deceptive behaviour have reported mixed results, with some suggesting that psychopaths are effective at deceiving others, whilst others report no differences between psychopathic and non-psychopathic individuals. When it comes to verbal behaviour, there is some evidence that psychopaths’ deceptive verbal behaviour may differ from that of non-psychopaths’, being less coherent and less cohesive. Lee et al’s study is, however, the first to investigate psychopathy and verbal indicators of deception in a systematic fashion, using Criteria Based Content Analysis (CBCA).

The researchers asked 45 randomly selected prisoners to tell the truth about the crime for which they had been convicted and to lie about a theft they did not commit. In summary, the authors “found fewer, and different, distinguishing features between true and false accounts among psychopathic and non-psychopathic offenders” (p.81). The results included:

  • More appropriate details provided by psychopathic offenders compared to nonpsychopathic offenders when lying (but no difference when telling the truth)
  • No difference in narrative length between the true and false conditions among psychopathic offenders, and for both groups, truthful narratives were longer than false narratives
  • For psychopathic offenders, spontaneous corrections more frequent when lying compared to telling the truth. This is opposite to the finding with non-criminal populations – according to CBCA, the presence of spontaneous corrections is thought to be associated with credibility.
  • Psychopathic offenders judged less credible than non-psychopathic offenders, even when telling the truth. Seven times less likely to be judged credible to be precise.
  • Narratives produced by psychopathic offenders were judged to be less coherent overall than narratives produced by non-psychopathic offenders.

The study has limitations, the most important being the relatively small sample size, the lack of stakes (the participants had no particular motivation to lie) and the fact that participants were given very little time to prepare their lies. The authors also wonder whether the fact that participants gave uninterrupted narratives might have given an unrealistic impression of psychopaths’ lying ability:

It may be that during an interaction, psychopathic individuals are able to pick up on subtle cues or adjust their speech and presentation based on feedback from the listener. Future studies examining individual variables within the listener (e.g. naive or gullible) or situational factors associated with the interaction (e.g. greater distractions in the environment) may provide further insight into how psychopaths successfully manipulate and deceive others.


See also:

Photo credit: kenchanayo, Creative Commons License

Abstract below the fold.

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Lie acceptability

When do people think it might be ok to lie? religionSusanna Robinson Ning and Angela M. Crossman from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York have just published the results of an interesting study of lie acceptability.

The authors start off with a good summary of the literature on lie acceptability, and age, gender, cultural and religious differences in attitudes to different types of lie. Different types of lie may be more or less acceptable, depending on the motivaton for telling them and the context in which they are told. Broadly, lies which are told for personal gain or to harm others – so-called ‘antisocial lies’ – are generally considered less acceptable than those told to help another or for politeness – ‘prosocial lies’.

Ning and Crossman set out to explore how perceptions of lie acceptability vary across situations and by different cultural or subcultural groups at a detailed level. They argue that:

These issues are important, as one’s perceptions of the acceptability of lies may relate to the frequency with which one lies and to the facility with which one lies (e.g., whether or not one provides obvious cues that give away deceptive attempts out of discomfort with the act of lying). (p.2131)

They authors also note that understanding how liars and deceived people feel about the acceptability of the particular lies may also be important once a liar has been found out: “perceptions of lie acceptability predict reactions to the discovery that one has been deceived (DePaulo et al., 2004), which could be relevant to issues such as relationship stability in the wake of such a discovery” (p.2131).

In this study, individuals from various different religious denominations, including 44% from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), 28% claiming to be athiest or agnostic, and 20% claiming to be non-LDS Christian, rated the acceptability of lies in 12 different scenarios in which types of lie and context were varied. There’s a lot in the results, but briefly:

  • Unsurprisingly, prosocial lies were considered by all to be more acceptable than anti-social lies.
  • “Lies told to strangers were generally considered more acceptable than were lies told to spouses” (p.2147)
  • “Women in this study tended to rate both self- and other-oriented lies as more acceptable than did men, particularly for lies told to strangers” (p.2148)
  • Lie acceptability decreased overall with age and “age was negatively associated with [acceptability of] lies told to avoid conflict in a spousal relationship, but was not related to perceptions of such lies told to a stranger” (p.2149)
  • “As predicted, LDS participants consistently rated lies as significantly less acceptable overall than did non-LDS participants, regardless of lie motivation, relationship category, or participant sex”. (p. 2149)

There are some important caveats, notably that the sample was biased towards females (77%) and was relatively young (mean age approximately 27 years). Furthermore, the manner of recruiting the LDS sample, via a church listserv (the others were recruited via a secular listserv), may have led to an increase in socially desirable responding. As the authors acknowledge, this study does little more than highlight some interesting areas for more detailed research.


Abstract below the fold

Photo credit: simpologist, Creative Commons License

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Psychopathy and Nonverbal Indicators of Deception in Offenders

Lying and deceit is a common feature of psychopathy, yet few studies have explored the behaviours of psychopaths while they lie. In an in-press article to appear in Law and Human Behavior, Jessica R. Klaver, Zina Lee and Stephen D. Hart from Simon Fraser University in Canada write:

Extant research suggests that, contrary to what might be expected, psychopathy is generally unrelated to a greater capacity for successful lying behavior. However, it may be that psychopathic offenders are able to deceive successfully by making use of interpersonal skills that are not captured by relatively structured assessments. Their ability to captivate and appear genuine while conning and manipulating others may be enhanced by an effective nonverbal behavioral presentation.

Klaver and her colleagues tested 45 offenders, some of whom were classified as psychopaths on the basis of the Hare Psychopathy checklist – Revised. Participants were video taped talking about the circumstances the offence for which they were incarcerated (true condition) and telling a false story about an offence they didn’t commit (false condition). The authors summarise the results in the abstract:

[...] Interpersonal features of psychopathy were associated with inflated views of lying ability, verbosity, and increases in blinking, illustrator use, and speech hesitations. While lying, the more psychopathic offenders spoke faster and demonstrated increases in blinking and head movements. Indicators of deception in offenders were somewhat different from those typically observed in non-offender populations. These findings indicate that personality factors may have an impact on nonverbal indicators of deception in criminal justice settings where the detection of deception is of utmost concern.


Keeping and revealing secrets

An interesting idea for a longitudinal study, reported in the December 2006 issue of Communication Research: Walid A. Afifi and John P. Caughlin set out to test the role of rumination and the decision to reveal or continue to conceal secrets. They recruited 342 students who reported that they were keeping a secret from someone. These individuals filled in surveys at the start of the study and two months later, measuring things like signficance of the secret, identity relevance, impression management concern, how much the secret-keeper had thought about the secret, and self-esteem. The second survey also recorded whether the secret had been revealed, and what the reaction to the revalation had been. The analyses suggested:

[...] that identity-related concerns (internal and external) and self-esteem play an important role in affecting the degree of rumination, and that rumination in turn affects the likelihood of revelation. Our findings also show that the benefit of revelation for rumination and self-esteem is affected in important ways by the target’s reaction to the disclosure and the revealer’s ability to distance the information from the self (p 479).



During a 2-month period this investigation followed 342 individuals who were keeping a secret, focusing on predictors and outcomes of revelation. Rumination, identity-related concerns, and self-esteem were the variables of interest. Rumination at the beginning of the study was associated negatively with self-esteem and was positively correlated with identity-related concerns. Despite their positive association with one another, rumination and the identity factors clashed in their impact on the decision to reveal the secret. Finally, the revelation of secrets seems to decrease rumination and increase self-esteem, but only to the extent that the target’s reaction was positive and the revelation decreased the self-relevance of the secret for the discloser, respectively. A complex picture emerges of the process of secret concealment and revelation. © 2006 SAGE Publications

Why your brain tells tall tales

As others (thank you Mind Hacks!) have pointed out, New Scientist issue 2572 (7 October) carried a cover feature on confabulation. As Science Direct is ever-so-kindly giving free online access to New Scientist for the next few weeks, you can read it for free via this link (select 7 October edition and scroll down to item 44).

Here are a couple of short extracts, but it’s definitely worth reading the full article for yourselves.

Confabulation was first mentioned in the medical literature in the late 1880s, applied to patients of the Russian psychiatrist Sergei Korsakoff. He described a distinctive type of memory deficit in people who had abused alcohol for many years. These people had no recollection of recent events, yet filled in the blanks spontaneously with sometimes fantastical and impossible stories. [...]

[...Morten Kringelbach, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford,] suspects that confabulation is not just something people do when the system goes wrong. We may all do it routinely. [...] The intriguing possibility is that we simply do not have access to all of the unconscious information on which we base our decisions, so we create fictions upon which to rationalise them, says Kringelbach. That may well be a good thing, he adds. If we were aware of how we made every choice we would never get anything done – we cannot hold that much information in our consciousness. [...]

How long to decide whether someone is trustworthy?

The BPS Research Digest has a post this week (20 July) on a recently published study indicating that people make snap judgements of trustworthiness based on facial appearance.

“These findings suggest that minimal exposure to faces is sufficient for people to form trait impressions, and that additional exposure time can simply boost confidence in these impressions. That is, additional encounters with a person may only serve to justify quick, initial, on-line judgments”, the researchers said.

BPS-RD commentary on the article here.

Detecting Lies in Children and Adults

In the latest issue of Law and Human Behavior, an article reporting the results of a study by Gail S. Goodman and her colleagues exploring whether observers could detect children’s lies. The authors tested both adults’ ability to detect lies told by children and adults, with some interesting findings, notably that

  • observers detected children’s lies more accurately than adults’ lies
  • observers were more likely to detect adults’ truthful statements than children’s truthful statements
  • observers who were highly accurate in detecting children’s lies were similarly accurate in detecting adults’ lies
  • observers were biased toward judging adults’ but not children’s statements as truthful

In other words, the results suggest that we might be biased towards believing adults and disbelieving children. This has potentially important implications in forensic settings. For instance, might investigators and jurors be biased to believe that children are telling lies in abuse allegations? At the moment, of course, we cannot know, but it looks like an important and worthwhile area for further study.


Follow the link above for the abstract on the publisher’s website.

Me, myself, and lie: The role of self-awareness in deception

Amanda K. Johnson, Allyson Barnacz, Toko Yokkaichi, Jennifer Rubio, Connie Racioppi, Todd K. Shackelford, Maryanne L. Fisher and Julian Paul Keenan
Personality and Individual Differences 38(8), pp1847-1853, June 2005

Deception has been studied extensively but still little is known about individual differences in deception ability. We investigated the relationship between self-awareness and deception ability. We enlisted novice actors to portray varying levels of deception. Forty-two undergraduates viewed the videotaped portrayals and rated the actors’ believability. Actors with high private self-awareness were more effective deceivers, suggesting that high self-monitors are more effective at deceiving. Self-awareness may lead to knowledge of another’s mental state (i.e., Theory of Mind), which may improve an individual’s deception ability.