How to spot a liar
Rule #1: Increase the cognitive load. Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
Tell the truth: How often do you think people lie? You'll find all kinds of answers to that question:
A study in the Journal of Basic and Applied Social Psychology from a while back suggested that lying might be rampant, with 60 percent of people admitting to lying after just a single 10-minute conversation.
I beg to differ, says deception expert Timothy Levine of the University of Alabama, Birmingham, whose work is more recent: It's much less frequent. More like once or twice a day on average.
But author Pamela Meyer, who wrote a book about lying and gave a super-popular TED Talk on the subject, looks at it the other way, suggesting that most people are on the receiving end of between 10 and 200 lies every single day.
Truth to tell, I have no idea who is right. Regardless, wouldn't it be useful to know with more certainty whether someone is telling the truth?
This is where science comes in.
Writing recently in the peer-reviewed journal, International Journal of Psychology & Behavior Analysis, Aldert Vrij, a professor of applied social psychology at the University of Portsmouth in England, revealed a new study that suggests a simple trick can make it easier to expose liars.
It has to do with finding ways to increase their cognitive load, so that maintaining a lie becomes more difficult.
More specifically, Vrij and his colleagues' work suggests getting people to focus part of their attention on an important concept or task while you simultaneously question them about whatever you think they might be lying about.
The study involved 164 volunteers who were asked to describe (truthfully) their positions on "various societal topics that were in the news," as a university summary described it.
Then, the volunteers were divided into two groups: a cohort that would tell the truth when inquired about their feelings by a separate group of interviewers, and a second cohort that was told to lie to the interviewers as convincingly as possible.
From there, the volunteers were further divided into three subgroups:
One group of volunteers was asked to remember and recall a car registration number—representing a secondary mental task.
A second group of volunteers was also asked to recall the registration, but they were additionally told that this detail was extremely important, and that they would be penalized if they could not remember it correctly.
The final group of volunteers had no mention of the car registration at all.
The result? Volunteers who had been instructed to lie, and who were in the second group—the ones who were asked to remember the registration and also told that it was important that they do so—were much less likely to be able to deceive the study interviewers than those in either the first or the third group.
"Our research has shown that truths and lies can sound equally plausible as long as lie tellers are given a good opportunity to think what to say," Vrij said afterward. "When the opportunity to think becomes less, truths often sound more plausible than lies."
Vrij is not the first person to suggest that mental distraction might make it harder for people to keep the details of a lie straight.
But I think the specifics here make the study especially interesting. In short, I think it's about a strategic approach to the problem, rather than a more limited tactical one.
For example, let's go back to the extremely popular TED Talk we mentioned at the outset by Meyer, which has more than 31 million views. The secrets to revealing liars that she describes are largely about linguistic and behavioral tells, such as:
Non-contracted denials (unexpectedly formal language, like the example she gives of Bill Clinton saying, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky"), or
Distancing language, like, "To tell you the truth ..." or "In all honesty ..."
Suspicious body language. For example, she says, liars supposedly freeze their upper bodies more often, and can tend to force eye contact.
"Liars will shift their blink rate," Meyer goes on to say, and "point their feet toward an exit ... [and] will take barrier objects and put them between themselves and the person that is interviewing them."
As intriguing as it all sounds, do you see what I mean about it sounding tactical, rather than strategic?
Even if all of these tells did correlate with lying, truth-seekers and serious liars might wind up in a sort of arms race, with the best liars discovering the “tells” and then learning how not to exhibit them.
With a more strategic approach, like the Portsmouth study, you're not looking less-truthful for specific behaviors, but instead throwing the less-truthful off their game—by adding components that make it harder for them to keep false stories straight in the first place.
Now, Vrig and his colleagues recognize that there are limits to the exact scenario they studied. Certainly, things would get a bit odd if you tried to open a job interview or a negotiation by asking someone to memorize a car registration number.
But you could add other complexities and mental distractions. A few ideas:
Perhaps there's something to the idea of people making deals on the golf course; the game itself might function as the extra mental effort in the Portsmouth study.
Or else, Vrij suggests introducing a task like driving a car. He goes on to say that he means a simulator, but why not bring up big “likely-to-lie” scenarios with people while they are driving?
Or else, maybe it's as easy as pushing for more details in a negotiation when you know that the other side has a deadline or another important task at the same time.
Hey, if a little trick like increasing cognitive load so that lying becomes less effective, then why not give it a try? In all honestly (heh-heh), I'd love to hear how it works for you.
Signal Boosts: I’m going to take a break today to space these out. If you’d like to submit an idea, do so here.
One-click rating & review. Link is at the bottom of this email. We had 234 replies yesterday & I think the distribution is fair. Mondays are the hardest emails to write, just because I’m trying to be a good husband and dad and spend time with my family on the weekends. We’ll get there, though!
7 other things worth knowing today
The NYT has a big project about the previously unreported history of Haiti: "French elites, including a descendant of one of the wealthiest slaveholders in Haiti’s history, controlled Haiti’s national bank from the French capital. Their ledgers show no investments in Haitian businesses, much less the kinds of ambitious projects that modernized Europe. Instead, original records uncovered by The New York Times show that Crédit Industriel siphoned tens of millions of dollars out of Haiti and into the pockets of French investors." (NYT)
Hearing about monkeypox? Cool, I guess we can track this one now too: Florida says it's found one case and is conducting epidemiological investigations to determine any possible exposures or offer post-exposure treatment. (Palm Beach Daily News)
A diplomat at Russia’s mission to the United Nations in Geneva resigned in protest over the war: “For twenty years of my diplomatic career I have seen different turns of our foreign policy, but never have I been so ashamed of my country as on February 24 of this year,” Boris Bondarev wrote, referring to the date of the invasion of Ukraine. (WashPost)
Georgia electrical vehicle factory becomes big political issue: Electric truck maker Rivian wants to bring thousands of jobs to rural Georgia—but some politicians want the "woke corporation" to go back to California. (NBC News)
One in 3 American adults don’t get enough sleep—defined as 7 or more hours a night—per a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study. (Axios)
American Trevor Reed speaks out on how he survived nearly 3 years in a Russian prison. (ABC News)
End of an era: New York City removed its last public payphone on Monday. (CNBC)