Skilled liars make great lie detectors

Abagnale runs a security consultancy
Frank Abagnale Jr, the confidence trickster whose escapades inspired the hit film "Catch Me If You Can", later became a security consultant for the FBI. There's intuitive logic to the agency's recruitment strategy - if you want to catch con artists, who better to spot them than a master con artist. But does this logic apply at a more basic level? Do skilled liars really make skilled lie detectors?

Surprisingly, psychologists haven't investigated this idea before. Dozens of studies have shown that most people are very poor at detecting lies, and other research has shown that the propensity to lie is partly inherited, but no-one's looked to see if good liars make good lie spotters.

Now Gordon Wright and his colleagues have done just that, recruiting 51 participants (27 women; mean age 25) to take part in a competitive group task. None of them had met before. Arranged in groups of 5 or 6, the participants took turns to spend about 20 seconds telling the group their position on a social issue, such as whether smoking should be allowed in public places or whether they were in favour of reality TV. Their true opinions had been reported in private to the researchers earlier. On each round, cards handed to the participants told them which opinion to share with the group and whether to tell the truth or lie. The task of the rest of the group was to judge whether the speaker was lying or not. Fifty pounds was up for grabs for the best liar and the best lie spotter.

The key finding was that participants whose lies were harder to spot tended to do better at spotting whether other participants were lying (the correlation was -0.35, with an effect size of 0.7, which is usually considered large). "As far as we are aware," the researchers said, "this study is the first to provide evidence that the capacity to detect lies and the ability to deceive others are associated."

This result begs the question - what underlying psychological processes grant a person skill at lying and lie spotting? It wasn't IQ or emotional intelligence - the researchers tested for that, but they don't yet know much more. "It is clear," they said, "that identification of the precise nature of the proposed 'deception-general' ability is an important aim for deception research, and that further research should be devoted to this question."


Wright, G., Berry, C., and 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 DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00087

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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