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Spot the Chronic Liar With This 16-Item Deception Checklist

A new questionnaire can help tell you who’s most likely to lie.

Key points

  • Chronic liars seem to have a unique personality trait that underlies their deceptive tendencies.
  • A new questionnaire to identify deception includes items such as "It is easy for me to make up clever lies" and "I always avoid lying if I can."
  • Three deception-based profiles include the tricksters, the average, and the virtuous.

Psychology’s pursuit of tools to detect deception remains one of its most challenging enterprises. The basic obstacle facing this field is perhaps the obvious fact that liars, well, lie. How can you take at face value the answers potential liars give to questions about their tendency to deceive?

Outside of the psychology lab, the problems of detecting deception might seem even more insurmountable. An in-law seems to be making up constant excuses for not acknowledging your birthday. Year after year, you're promised gifts that never arrive. You'd love to know whether this is some sort of elaborate form of passive aggression, or whether that in-law is just unable to tell the truth.

Why Is It So Hard to Understand the Psychology of Deception?

According to Nanyang Technological University’s Dominique Makowski and colleages (2021), there are reasons that “the scientific study of deception and lying has had a turbulent history,” but not just for the simple fact that liars don’t want to say they lie. The problem, the Singapore authors claim, is that “although deception is a common phenomenon, practiced by virtually all,” too much emphasis is placed on detecting pathological cases or just separating truth from lies in the way people behave.

What’s needed, the authors maintain, is to refocus to see lying as a form of chronic “reality bending.” From this cognitive and integrative perspective, deception is “the process of achieving an inaccurate experience of a piece of information in relation to its objective qualities.” Understanding how this process works means prying into the mental apparatus of those whose reality is constantly being bent.

Taking deception out of the context of spotting liars doesn’t mean that you have to give up on the idea of figuring out who, like your in-law, potentially seems to have a complicated relationship to the truth. Lying is, the authors propose, an intentional act of deception, not just an accident. However, lies don't form random patterns but can become part of the fabric of an individual’s personality. You are born with a tendency to lie, in other words, and you retain this tendency throughout your life. Furthermore, although lying is common, people still differ in the extent to which they engage in deception. Rather than figure out ways to trap liars, then, you’re better off evaluating their propensity to lie in terms of where they stand on a lying disposition.

Moving from a behavioral approach to deception to one based on personality, the researchers note that investigations examining the traits of liars identify higher extraversion and openness as one set of predictors. People who are socially active have more opportunities to improve their lies through practice. Conversely, people who are high on agreeableness and conscientiousness should be more truthful because they're more likely to stay within the norms of social expectations.

High scores on the so-called dark triad traits of Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy should also be related to the lying disposition. As you might be able to attest from personal experience, individuals with these qualities try to manipulate you, think they’re better than you are, and just plain enjoy the experience of lying. They lie, in other words, because doing so gives them pleasure.

Deception Might Be Rooted in Disposition

Makowski and her collaborators sought to break down and then define the trait of deception, a process that required both administering a lying questionnaire as well as testing its relationship to other personality dimensions. Their instrument, appropriately called the “Lying Profile Questionnaire” or “LIE,” began with 44 items that subsequently became reduced to 16 after the authors evaluated its statistical qualities. Part of their measurement process also included questions regarding frequency of telling lies (number per day and number per week).

The final LIE scale, then, consists of the following 16 items that fell into 4 basic qualities. See how you would rate (or try rating other people) on a sliding scale from disagree to agree:

  1. I have a tendency to lie
  2. I find it difficult to refrain myself from lying
  3. I lie more often than most people do
  4. I lie frequently
  5. I can lie well
  6. I am a good liar
  7. It is easy for me to make up clever lies
  8. It is hard for others to detect my lies
  9. Lying is against my principles
  10. I always avoid lying if I can
  11. It is bad to lie
  12. I feel guilty after lying
  13. It is okay to lie sometimes
  14. I lie when necessary
  15. It is acceptable to lie depending on the context
  16. I would lie if something important was at stake

Now that you've answered these items, you might have noticed that they seem to group together. Indeed, as the authors discovered, the 16 items fell into the 4 clusters, in order, of ability (being good at lying), frequency (telling lots of lies), negativity (reverse-scored unwillingness to lie), and contextuality (lying depending on the stakes involved).

Of the 1,011 participants recruited for the study (all Singapore residents), 716 provided usable data. The average age of the final sample was 25 years old, and just over half were women. In addition to the LIE, participants also completed measures of social desirability (trying to “look good”), psychopathy, narcissism, the so-called “normal” personality (a 6-factor trait measure), virtuosity (the actual tendency to be “good”), impulsivity, emotion regulation, and sensitivity to internal bodily cues. As you can see, then, the evaluation of the dispositional quality of lying used in this study was both comprehensive and theory-guided.

What Are the 3 Types of Deception-Based Personalities?

Having established the unique relationships between lying as a trait and other potentially connected qualities, the authors then went on to define what they called the 3 profiles of “trickster,” “average,” and “virtuous.” Tricksters were good at lying, did so frequently, and didn’t see anything wrong with lying. Those fitting the average profile were lower on the negative aspects of lying and less likely to engage in lying, but they still did lie to a certain extent. Finally, the virtuous very much avoided lying (frequency, ability, and contextuality) and saw lying as a behavior to be avoided. In terms of admitted frequency of lying, as you might expect, those with high scores on the LIE also reported that they lied more on a daily basis.

Clearly, then, the problem you face with people who lie occurs when they fit the trickster profile. They are going to be good at lying (at least they think so), lie as much as possible, adapt their lying to the situation, and don’t see this quality as presenting any moral obstacles to overcome.

Examining the relationship between LIE scores and the other measures used to establish its validity, the authors presented a few tantalizing tidbits in their interpretation of these findings. For one thing, impulsivity turned out to be an important correlate. People with “difficulties in cognitive control” lie more often.

Perhaps as part of this impulsivity, those more likely to lie aren’t able to “consider the emotional and practical implications of one’s actions.” The fact that lying can be “cognitively and emotionally overwhelming” may prove to be too taxing and so people inclined to be liars just slip into the habit of engaging in deception, regardless of what might occur as a result.

To sum up, seeing the tendency to lie as a trait or disposition rather than as a game-day decision to trick people can help you detect not just the deception, but the deceiver. Your birthday-forgetting in-law may just be an indiscriminate liar, so there's no reason to take it personally. By separating the virtuous from the tricksters, you can gain fulfillment from the people who are worthy of your trust.

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock

References

Makowski, D., Pham, T., Lau, Z.J. et al. (2021). The structure of deception: Validation of the lying profile questionnaire. Current Psychology: A Journal for Diverse Perspectives https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-021-01760-1

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