Lie or truth?

Lie detection is an incredibly tricky task.

Deception research is broadly reported nowadays, and the popular press often features excellent summaries of scientific developments on the subject - I delight in the curiosity people hold for this fascinating aspect of human behavior. In this blog, I look forward to sharing my own research and offering some thoughts on deception and other similarly interesting aspects of dark or devious human behavior. I think it necessary to premise my personal point of view however.

By studying deception experimentally, I have had the opportunity to watch hundreds and hundreds of people attempt to both lie and to detect deception. Neither is an easy task. In terms of social cognition, lying is very complex, akin to patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time… it is difficult, resource demanding and very few people seem to find it easy or appear to consistently do it terribly well. Lie detection is an extremely difficult task too, it seems as if the majority of people labor under useless misconceptions about telltale signs of deception, exhibit potentially detrimental judgment biases, and massively overestimate their own ability. I look forward to the opportunity to discuss all of these in future blogs!

I’ve noticed though that I have started to ‘give credit’ to people able to perform these tasks even relatively well – indeed my own recent research suggests that if you are good at one of these tasks you are likely good at the other too – better liars are better lie detectors and vice versa - a result that might be encapsulated by the old adage “You can't kid a kidder!” (Wright, Berry & Bird, 2012).

Conventional morality frowns on lying and yet research has shown it to be remarkably common in everyday life. It is easy to take the view that lying is the ‘easy’ option – and in certain situations this may very well be the case, but the process of lying itself, let alone lying well, is by no means easy – it is cognitively far more demanding than telling the truth, requires finely coordinated thinking, speaking and behavioral displays, is performed under extreme pressure and time constraints, in addition, the risks associated with getting caught are potentially very high. I have come to hold a sneaking admiration for people who are good at being ‘bad’ and find their efforts compelling material for investigation.

Deception in everyday life is a skirmish between liars and lie detectors where sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Traditional deception research has primarily sought a means of improved (or foolproof) lie detection, an arms-race in which the solitary liar is dramatically overmatched.

Interested readers are probably familiar with the ‘factoid’ that people generally only achieve around 54% correct when ‘detecting lies’, and that only very few individuals have ever shown any indication of being any better (so-called lie detection ‘wizards’ and US Secret Service Agents). 54% doesn’t seem much to shout about does it? What is curious is that this 54% accuracy rate in lie detection performance is 1) remarkably consistent, and 2) it is a little deceptive.

It takes one to know one!

It takes one to know one!

Although people are, on average, only just better than chance, they are time and again - almost like clockwork- just better than chance, across countries, professional, social and educational backgrounds and so on and so on… Some fascinating work has been done to try to establish what this pattern might indicate, but it is important to look more carefully at this 54% accuracy figure. To date, no reliable predictor has been found to identify people who will score highly in lie detection tasks, although we are in the process of trying to replicate our “it takes one to know one” result (stay tuned)!

I expect you think that if a person is shown 100 lies, they will correctly say “Lie!” to 54 of them, i.e. that more often than not liars lose and lie detectors triumph. Well actually no. 54% is the percentage of statements accurately identified in total including both lies and truths. In most ‘lie detection’ experiments, half of the stimulus videos will be truthful and half will be lies. When you sum up the number of times people say “Truth” to truthful statements, and “Lie” to deceptive ones and work out a percentage score, this is the 54% we see so often.

So what happens if we look at each type of statement (truthful ones and deceptive ones) separately? Interestingly, people appear to be much better at accurately judging truthful statements than lies. If you just look at decisions made about truths, people will score well above chance, perhaps even around 80% correct, but if you look at just the lies it is common to see scores far below 50%, sometimes as low as 31% accuracy. This has been termed the ‘Veracity Effect’ (Levine, Park & McCornack, 1999). In short, people appear dramatically better at identifying truths than they are at identifying lies.


The truth-bias is a pervasive response pattern.

Another consistent pattern we observe is the so-called ‘Truth-bias’. Quite simply, people will tend to rate far too many statements as truthful than they ought to. Usually experiments will show 50% lies and 50% truths and yet participants may rate up to 72% of all the statements that they see as truthful. The obvious potential result of this bias is an inflated accuracy for truthful statements.

What I find enlivening is that a feature of our decision-making that might be seen as morally admirable, this ‘Truth-bias’, often positioned as an inherent desire for us to trust each other, may actually impede deception detection – offering a small window of opportunity for liars to get away with their lies. Lie detection is certainly a potential ‘force for good’ in, for example, legal and security settings, heavily funded by governments and military agencies. Given my admiration for liars’ efforts, and the mighty forces ranged against them (and I suppose for the future of my research passion) – I hope the liar, the underdog, has a bit more fight left to give!

Next time: Why might good liars be good lie detectors too?

I welcome any thoughts, feedback or suggestions for future blogs!

References of note and wider reading:

Levine, T. R., Park, H. S., & McCornack, S. (1999). Accuracy in detecting truths and lies: Documenting the “veracity effect”. Communication Monographs, 66(2), 125-144. doi:10.1080/03637759909376468

Wright, G. R. T., Berry, C. J., & Bird, G. (2012). "You can’'t kid a kidder”": Association between production and detection of deception in an interactive deception task. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6(87), 1 - 7. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2012.00087  | FREE DOWNLOAD HERE:

Make sure to swing by the PsychologyToday Deception Basics (HERE) for an embarrassment of riches!

The late Maureen O'Sullivan blogs on Natural Lie Detectors.

The always excellent Joe Navarro's Spycatcher blog.

About the Author

Gordon Wright

Gordon Wright is a Ph.D. Student at Birkbeck, University of London.

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