Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

Why Political Spouses–and All Spouses–Know Less Than We Do

We know better than Huma Abedin and the other spouses

In the spectacle that was the Anthony Weiner “yes, I sexted my crotch still again” press conference, his wife Huma Abedin was supposed to be a sympathetic character. Her belief in her husband, despite his bad behavior, was meant to persuade us to trust him. It shouldn’t.

I don’t vote for a candidate’s spouse – I vote for (or against) the candidate. I don’t want to hear that I should vote for a candidate because the spouse thinks s/he’s terrific. That’s my position as someone who wants to take all the matrimania down a notch, if I can’t get rid of it altogether.

As it turns out, though, I also have data on my side. There is evidence that the romantically involved are – at least in the situations that have been investigated – particularly bad at knowing when their partner is lying and when they are telling the truth.  

I don’t just mean that romantic couples are not very good at detecting deception. As I’ve argued before, based on well over a hundred studies, humans just are not that good at separating truths from lies when all they have to go on are verbal and nonverbal cues. In studies in which people would get 50% of their truth vs. lie judgments right just by guessing, the average accuracy score is about 54% – better than chance, but not by much.

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No, what I mean is that the romantically involved are actually worse at detecting the truths and lies of their partner than are perfect strangers. I described a relevant study in The Hows and Whys of Lies:

In this study, Anderson (1999) modeled the situation of asking your romantic partner the impossible question, “Do you think that person is attractive?”  One member of a heterosexual romantic couple watched a series of slides of very attractive and very unattractive people. Only that one member of the couple could see the slides.  The person who could see the slides lied half the time and told the truth half the time about his or her actual feelings about the attractiveness of the people in the slides. The other member of the couple tried to tell when the first member was lying or telling the truth. On this direct measure of lie detection accuracy, partners were correct 52% of the time. However, Anderson also included complete strangers in the design.  The strangers were accurate at detecting the exact same truths and lies 58% of the time. So the strangers were better than the romantic partners at knowing whether the person really did find the various people in the slides to be attractive. The strangers were also more accurate than the romantic partners when their direct ratings of deceptiveness were made on rating scales rather than on dichotomous measures.

Anderson also included a series of indirect measures.  He asked the judges to indicate, for example, how confident they felt about each of their judgments of deceptiveness, whether they felt that they had gotten enough information, and how suspicious they felt.  On almost all of these indirect measures, both the strangers and the romantic partners were accurate.  They could both distinguish the truths from the lies with these indirect ratings.  For example, they felt more confident when they had just heard a truth than when they had just heard a lie. They also felt that they had gotten more information when they had heard a truth, and they felt more suspicious when they had just heard a lie. Interestingly, on all of these indirect measures, the degree to which the perceivers could separate the truths from the lies was greater for the romantic partners than for the strangers! So, even though the partners did worse than the strangers on the most direct and explicit measure, which involved calling their partners liars some of the time, they did reliably better than the strangers on the more indirect measures. In some ways, the partners were picking up on some important behaviors that the strangers were missing. 

What we do not yet understand, but would very much like to explore, is this disconnect between partners’ direct ratings of deceptiveness and their gut intuitions.  Are the partners not aware that their feelings of confidence and suspiciousness and perceptions of other people’s suspiciousness are varying in ways that could be meaningful?  Do they have any clue at all that there could be a link between these kinds of feelings and whether or not their partner is lying?  And if they were clued in on this clue, would it even matter? Could they use that information effectively, or would their attempts to use it undermine the process whereby they form these meaningful impressions and intuitions?  And finally, the more sinister question:  If they could use this information to find out who their partners really did find attractive, would they really want to know this?  Maybe they should just let sleeping frauds lie.

There are two ways to be wrong in these studies of success at detecting deception. You can witness a lie and think it is the truth or witness a truth and think it is a lie. The romantically-involved were especially likely to be wrong in one of those two ways – they were particularly likely to believe their partners lies (rather than disbelieve their truths).

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UCSB.

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