Some people are as honest as the day is long. Most aren't. Research indicates that 90 percent of people lie, and lie frequently.[i] In a 2014 study, “Love the Way You Lie,” Drouin et al. reported that lying frequency is one to two times daily, and occurs within 20 to 33 percent of relational interaction.[ii] (They do note that other researchers have arrived at lower estimates, such as four times per week.[iii])
Unfortunately, particularly within close relationships, the accuracy of our lie detection does not correlate with the frequency of our partners' dishonesty (or vice versa).
The Truth About Lie Detection in Relationships
Flipping a coin is a frequent illustration of our lie-detecting prowess, because our lie detection accuracy is barely above the level of chance.[iv] Yet even among people who are truly gifted in spotting signs of deception in others, that ability is often compromised within close relationships. While exposure to a behavioral baseline is an advantage in any relationship, when it comes to detecting dishonesty, relational familiarity is a double-edged sword.
We begin with the heartening truth that many close relationships are characterized by truthfulness and transparency. The trust created within such relationships strengthens commitment and enhances relational security. Other relationships, however, while rewarding and fulfilling in many ways, include some measure of dishonesty.
Although close relationships provide a behavioral baseline against which to judge new information or behavior, research indicates that relational familiarity benefits the deceivers. Receivers gauge the authenticity of information received based upon the speaker's normal behavior, yet they transmit their own behavioral clues indicating whether or not they are suspicious. Deceivers are thus able to improve their craft by practicing deception within close relationships and monitoring reaction for signs of distrust.
Burgoon et al. (2015) observed that deceivers capitalize on familiarity to craft lies that are consistent with a receiver's knowledge base, and watch carefully for signs of disbelief.[v] They note that liars can thereby improve their performance over time when interacting within familiar relationships. They explain that this improvement is presumably due in part to a reduction in cognitive stress while lying, based on the ability to more easily manage self-presentation with practice.
Relational familiarity may also facilitate deception through the “love is blind” phenomenon, where people are motivated to overlook negative traits and behavior from those who are closest to them within desirable relationships.
Love Blinds: How Desire Masks Deception[vi]
Whether in marriage, close friendships, or family relationships, over time, soft spots can become blind spots. These emotional blinders prevent us from perceiving or processing negative information that would threaten the positive image we hold of another person, or threaten the stability of the relationship. As a result, just as alcohol intoxication can cause us to miss traffic signals, such as red lights, emotional intoxication can cause us to miss interpersonal signals, such as red flags of dishonesty.
In order to maintain a pleasurable relationship, we trade in our reading glasses for rose-colored glasses, and a partner's negative traits become pleasantly obscured, or misperceived. Aggressiveness becomes assertiveness. Risk-taking is interpreted as adventure seeking. Moodiness is viewed as contemplation. Flirtatiousness is downplayed as friendliness.
Deceptiveness, however, within close relationships may actually be acknowledged, yet downplayed or ignored. This willingness to overlook deception may be fueled by positive illusions, through which people discount or disregard negative character traits or behavior within relationships they seek to maintain.
The Power of Positive Illusions to Distort Perception
Positive illusions generate rose-colored glasses, which facilitate relational maintenance. Yet unlike how a blindfold could facilitate a “see no evil” misperception, positive illusions allow partners to maintain a rosy view of their partners despite observing negative information.
Researchers Miller et al. (2006) report that many people ignore or downplay unpleasant or damaging information in order to maintain a positive view of their partner.[vii] As might be expected, they explain that positive illusions are particularly prevalent where there is relational investment. Because a person who has poured considerable effort and time into a relationship is motivated to avoid having to begin all over again with a new partner, they misperceive their partner's weaknesses in a fashion that allows them to continue to view their partner in a positive light in order to maintain the relationship.
Positive illusions operate in conjunction with emotional blinders to further camouflage a relational partner's deceptiveness — which is already facilitated by the suspicion cues available through relational familiarity.
Yet all is not lost.
Restoring Relational Trust
While it is true that because relational trust is intimately tied to relational comfort and security, viewing a partner's words and behavior objectively can be challenging. Yet healthy communication and non-judgmental discussion of potential dishonesty and its underlying causes can facilitate understanding, and promote respect. Partners who desire to be more forthcoming yet fear negative reaction will be encouraged to share truthful information within an atmosphere of love and acceptance.
Wendy Patrick, JD, Ph.D., is a career prosecutor, author, and behavioral expert, who often speaks on the topic of detecting deception. She is the author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller Reading People (Random House). She lectures around the world on sexual assault prevention, detecting deception and judging credibility, and threat assessment. She is an Association of Threat Assessment Professionals Certified Threat Manager. The opinions expressed in this column are her own.
Find her at wendypatrickphd.com or @WendyPatrickPhD
[i] Tsachi Ein-Dor and Adi Perry, “Full House of Fears: Evidence That People High in Attachment Anxiety Are More Accurate in Detecting Deceit,” Journal of Personality Vol. 82, No. 2 (2014): 83-92.
[ii] Michelle Drouin, Elizabeth Tobin, Kara Wygant, ”´Love the Way You Lie´: Sexting deception in romantic relationships,” Computers in Human Behavior Vol. 35 (2014): 542-547 (542) (citing DePaulo, Kashy, Kirkendol, Wyer, & Epstein, 1996).
[iii] Drouin et al.,”´Love the Way You Lie,´” 542 (citing e.g. Lippard, 1988).
[iv] Song Wu, Wei Cai, and Shenghua Jin, ”Motivation Enhances the Ability to Detect Truth from Deception in Audio-only Messages,” Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling Vol. 12 (2015): 119-126 (119) (citing Bond & DePaulo, 2006; Leach et al., 2009).
[v] Judee K. Burgoon, ”When is Deceptive Message Production More Effortful than Truth-Telling? A Baker´s Dozen of Moderators,” Frontiers in Psychology Vol. 6, Article 1965 (December 2015): 1-9 (6).
[vi] Portions of this article are taken from my book Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press, 2015).
[vii] Paul J. E. Miller, Sylvia Niehuis, and Ted L. Huston, “Positive Illusions in Marital Relationships: A 13-Year Longitudinal Study,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin Vol. 32, no. 12 (December 2006): 1579–1594.