Knowing When You’re Being Deceived Is Not So Easy

Flickr: Crossed fingers II by Katie Tegtmeyer

When it comes to lying, it can seem like you just can’t win. People don’t like to be lied to. Lies can damage the bonds of any relationship. On the other hand, telling people the truth can hurt. Emotional pain caused by telling people the truth can also damage relational bonds. What do you do when both the truth and a lie are likely to cause pain? People routinely make choices of this nature. Studies show that we all lie on a daily basis. Most of our daily lies are “white lies” told to protect the feelings of others or to spare us from mildly unpleasant consequences. However, there are times when there is more at stake and knowing the truth takes on more importance. In these situations, people tend to resort to their intuitive lie sensors or as researchers call it, the “deceiver stereotype”. For instance, people tend to look for signs like a lag in speech, fidgeting or inappropriate smiling. “Gaze aversion” is a sign that people all over the world believe reveals a lie. That is, studies show that people from every continent believe that when someone looks down while telling their story, they are likely lying. Chances are you believe this as well. But is it true?

Researchers Anjanie McCarthy and Kang Lee published an article on this subject in a 2009 edition of the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. Their review of the literature showed that studies looking at whether eye gaze was a significant predictor of lying were inconclusive with evidence falling on either side of the issue. They decided to take a developmental look at the subject by conducting a study that looked at the eye gaze and lying patterns amongst a group of children between the ages of 7 and 15, and adults. Participants in the study were also assessed with regard to their knowledge of the “deceiver stereotype”. The results of the study confirmed their hypothesis, namely that, while the deceiver stereotype was a useful way to tell if children were lying, it became less useful with age. In fact, when trying to decide if an adult was lying, the deceiver stereotype may actually make you less likely to be correct in attributing truth and deception. The researchers believe that this is because, as we get older and we become intuitively aware of the signs of deception, we actively guard against showing these signs when we lie. Before age 5 kids are unaware of the “deceiver stereotype” and thus is much easier to tell if they are lying. Kids this young do not yet have the cognitive sophistocation necessary to know what another person is thinking and adjust their behaviour accordingly. Kids from 7 to 9 years of age, are more likely to be adjusting their lying behaviour based on their intuitive knowledge of what reveals a lie, however, their knowledge is more limited and thus they are still more likely to have their behaviour match a typical deceivers characteristics. Teens from 11 to 15 are as sophisticated as their parents with regard to lying. Again, this is thought to be due to the fact that they have full awareness of the cues that tip others off to their lying and so adjust their behaviour accordingly.

So it appears that, while we may believe that we can tell when others are deceiving us, when dealing with people aged 11 or older, we are just as likely to be deceiving ourselves.

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