Tell the truth. How often do you think people lie? You’ll find all kinds of answers to that question:
Truth to tell, I have no idea who is right. Regardless, wouldn’t it would be useful to know with more certainty whether someone is telling the truth?
This is where science comes in.
Writing recently in the peer-reviewed journal, International Journal of Psychology & Behavior Analysis, Aldert Vrij, a professor of applied social psychology at the University of Portsmouth in England, revealed a new study that suggests a simple trick can make it easier to expose liars.
It has to do with finding ways to increase their cognitive load, so that maintaining a lie becomes more difficult. More specifically, Vrij and his colleagues’ work suggests getting people to focus part of their attention on another important concept or task–while you simultaneously question them about whatever you think they might be lying about.
The study involved 164 volunteers who were asked to describe (truthfully) their positions on “various societal topics that were in the news,” as a university summary described it.
Then, the volunteers were divided into two groups: a cohort that would tell the truth when inquired about their feelings by a separate group of interviewers, and a second cohort that was told to lie as convincingly as possible.
From there, the volunteers were further divided into three subgroups:
The result? Volunteers who had been instructed to lie, and who were in the second group — the ones who asked to remember the registration and also told that it was important that they do so — were much less likely to be able to deceive the study interviewers than those in either the first or the third groups.
“Our research has shown that truths and lies can sound equally plausible as long as lie tellers are given a good opportunity to think what to say,” Vrij said afterward. “When the opportunity to think becomes less, truths often sound more plausible than lies.”
Vrij is not the first person to suggest that mental distraction might make it harder for people to keep the details of a lie straight. But I think the specifics here make the study especially interesting–and especially if you rely on being able to identify truth-tellers in business.
In short, I think it’s about a strategic approach to the dilemma, rather than a more limited tactical one.
For example, let’s go back to the extremely popular TED Talk we mentioned at the outset by Meyer, which has more than 31 million views. The secrets to revealing liars that she describes are largely about linguistic and behavioral “tells,” such as:
“Liars will shift their blink rate,” Meyer goes on to say, and “point their feet toward an exit … [and] will take barrier objects and put them between themselves and the person that is interviewing them.”
As intriguing as it all sounds, do you see what I mean about it sounding tactical, rather than strategic?
Even if all of these “tells” did correlate with lying, truth-seekers and serious liars might wind up in a sort of arm’s race, with the best liars discovering the “tells” and then learning not to exhibit them.
With a more strategic approach, like the Portsmouth study, you’re not looking so much for specific behaviors–but instead throwing the less-truthful among us off their game, by adding components that make it harder for them to keep false stories straight in the first place.
Now, Vrig and his colleagues recognize that there are limits to the exact scenario they studied. Certainly, things would get a bit odd if you tried to open a job interview or a business negotiation by asking someone to memorize a car registration number.
But you could add other complexities and mental distractions. A few ideas:
As I write in my free ebook, Neuroscience: 13 Ways to Understand and Train Your Brain for Life, there’s nothing more fascinating than the human brain, and the unexpected ways in which it works.
And if a little trick like increasing cognitive load so that lying becomes less effective, they why not give it a try? Honestly, I’d love to hear how it works for you.