In an Oct. 2 press release, Dr. Michael Woodworth and Dalhousie University, located in Halifax, Nova Scotia, reported on their new research study about individuals’ ability to detect deception. The study found that assessing truthfulness isn’t so much dependent upon one’s ability to pick up on stereotypical clues (fidgeting, eye contact, voice tone), but on how badly one wants to spot such clues. In other words, the more determined or motivated one is to detect deception, the more likely that person will make mistakes.
The study was done using 150 undergraduate students. The student observers were shown videotapes in which 12 people described highly stressful personal experiences. Six of them were completely untrue. Some of the undergraduate participants were offered monetary incentives for accuracy. They were also told that only a small number of people were particularly skilled at catching liars.
The study found that those most invested in detecting deception (those receiving monetary incentive and wanting to be among those most skilled at lie detection) also tended to be more confident in their ability to pick up on body language and other clues thought to be indicative of lying.
Following that train of thought, the researchers noticed that overzealous lie catchers seemed to have a kind of “tunnel vision” that has been observed in some police investigations in both Canada and the U.S. Defense teams often argue that the police were convinced within hours of a crime that they “knew” who committed the crime and therefore did not put much effort into investigating other possible suspects.
Woodworth worked on the study as a graduate student at Dalhousie University. He currently teaches forensic psychology and conducts research as an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus. He said: “What’s really intriguing about this study is that the people who were very motivated to catch liars tended also to be more confident. And when they were overconfident, they didn’t take as much time to reflect on their decisions and tended to make a lot more mistakes.”
In an online article, “Detecting Deception: A Quick Review of the Research,” John M. Grohol, Psy.D., writes that many lay people, media personalities and public officials “believe that people can make a pretty good assessment of when a person is lying or not. The research illustrates, however, that nothing could be further from the truth.”
Dr. Grohol says that those who have the best chances of detecting truthfulness or deceit are those who’ve known each other for years, such as a best friend or a family member. This is because being accustomed to the signs of lying in the other person over a number of years makes it easier to know when one is being truthful or lying.
In the summation of his article, Grohol writes: “The gulf between what we actually know and what we think we know is large. It likely grows larger each day. The more we realize the limits of our knowledge and our abilities, the wiser and more fair we can be to the people around us.”
Woodworth says that “lie catchers” can get better at detecting truthfulness and deceit with feedback and reflection on their decision. That’s when their abilities improved, he said. It’s important, he says, for professionals to be continuously aware of their motivation to ensure their enthusiasm to get at the truth isn’t distorting their judgment. Further, he adds, it may be good for professionals engaged in investigating lies and truth (judges, lawyers, police officers, customs officers, border guards) to regularly discuss their judgments with colleagues and solicit feedback as a means of continually evaluating their decision-making strategies. In summation Woodworth says, “the fact is that a lot of people in the legal system are extremely motivated to find guilt, especially when the pressures are huge and there’s public outcry. But being motivated isn’t everything. It might not be beneficial at all.”
A paper based on the results of the research study has been published in “Legal and Criminological Psychology,” a journal of the British Psychological Society.
Press release, “Deception Detection;” http://www.newswise.com/articles/view/533929/
PsychCentral, “Detecting Deception: A Quick Review of the Research;” http://psychcentral.com/archives/deception.htm