Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Findings

liar-illo

(Photo: jesadaphorn/Shutterstock)

Your Unconscious Mind Is Better Than You Are at Detecting Lies

• March 25, 2014 • 4:00 AM

(Photo: jesadaphorn/Shutterstock)

New research suggests that if we could push aside the biases of our conscious minds, we’d be better at spotting dishonesty.

Can you tell if someone is lying to you? Newly published research suggests you actually have that ability—at least to an extent—but accessing it is a different story.

In two experiments, researchers from the University of California-Berkeley found people are better at detecting deception using indirect methods that tap into their unconscious minds. They conclude our conscious minds, hobbled by commonly held misbeliefs, tend to trip us up.

“These results provide strong evidence for the idea that although humans cannot consciously discriminate liars from truth-tellers, they do have a sense, on some less-conscious level, of when someone is lying,” Leanne ten Brinke, Dayna Stimson, and Dana Carney write in the journal Psychological Science.

“It appears that viewing a liar automatically activates concepts associated with deception, and viewing a truth-teller automatically activates concepts associated with truth.”

The researchers begin by noting that previous studies have consistently found “human judgments of veracity to be no more accurate than the flip of a coin.” Yet they point out that other research has found primates such as monkeys and chimpanzees are capable of spotting dishonest behavior. It makes no evolutionary sense that this valuable skill would skip our species.

And in fact, the researchers argue, it did not. The problem is we confuse ourselves with cliched notions of which non-verbal cues point to deception. “For example,” they write, “the commonly held belief that liars avert their gaze and fidget is false.”

To test their hypothesis, the researchers conducted a couple of experiments in which participants’ conscious and unconscious minds effectively competed to find who could best ferret out deception. They watched 90-second “interrogation videos” featuring 12 people accused of stealing $100 from the testing room. Half had actually taken the money; the others were unfairly accused.

The 72 participants (all college undergraduates) watched as the suspects answered both neutral questions (“What is the weather like outside?”) and direct ones (“Did you steal the money?”).

The students then expressed their opinion on whether each was telling the truth. They proved quite inept, successfully picking out liars less than 44 percent of the time.

Finally, they completed a version of the Implicit Association Test, which is designed to measure the automatic, unconscious associations we make between people, objects, and ideas. In this case, “we were interested in whether observing someone tell a lie would, outside of awareness, activate mental concepts associated with deception,” the researchers write.

They found that, in a word game, participants were quicker to accurately categorize terms such as “dishonest” and “deceitful” when the photo and name of one of the actual thieves was visible on their screen.

“It appears that viewing a liar automatically activates concepts associated with deception, and viewing a truth-teller automatically activates concepts associated with truth,” the researchers conclude.

“Female participants achieved significantly greater indirect accuracy than male participants,” they add in an interesting aside. “This gender difference is consistent with previous findings that women’s person-perception accuracy is greater than men’s.”

A second test, which used a different technique, came to the same conclusion. It found that “subliminally presented faces of liars and truth-tellers activated and facilitated congruent concepts,” meaning that, once again, “automatic associations were significantly more accurate than controlled, deliberate decisions.”

It all suggests that “accurate lie detection is, indeed, a capacity of the human mind,” the researchers conclude. The problem is our “accurate unconscious assessments” get overridden by our biases and misconceptions. Sad, but true.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.


October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.


October 16 • 12:00 PM

How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.


October 16 • 11:00 AM

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.


October 16 • 10:00 AM

The False Promises of Higher Education

Danielle Henderson spent six years and $60,000 on college and beyond. The effects of that education? Not as advertised.


October 16 • 8:00 AM

Faster Justice, Closer to Home: The Power of Community Courts

Community courts across the country are fighting judicial backlog and lowering re-arrest rates.


October 16 • 6:00 AM

Killing Your Husband to Save Yourself

Without proper legal instruments, women with abusive partners are often forced to make a difficult choice: kill or be killed.


October 16 • 4:00 AM

Personality Traits Linked to Specific Diseases

New research finds neurotic people are more likely to suffer a serious health problem.


October 16 • 2:00 AM

Comparing Apples to the Big Apple: Yes, Washington, D.C., Is More Expensive Than New York City

Why shouldn’t distant locales tied to jobs in the urban core count in a housing expenditure study?


October 15 • 4:00 PM

Why Asian American Parents Are the Least Likely to Spank Their Kids

Highly educated, middle-class parents are less likely to use corporal punishment to discipline their children than less-educated, working-class, and poor parents.


Follow us


Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

Brain’s Reward Center Does More Than Manage Rewards

Nucleus accumbens tracks many different connections in the world, a new rat study suggests.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.