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Spotting Liars

April 1, 2014

People’s unconscious reactions to liars and truth-tellers are more accurate than their conscious judgments.



Unconscious lie detection. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.”

The Cardsharps, 1594. (Caravaggio/Kimbell Art Museum)

The Cardsharps, 1594. (Caravaggio/Kimbell Art Museum)

We might be better at spotting liars if we didn’t think about it. This according to Leanne ten Brinke and her colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. She says that humans are consistently terrible at distinguishing liars from truth-tellers. Her team’s study confirmed this – but also used an established test to gauge the participants’ unconscious reactions.

LEANNE TEN BRINKE (University of California, Berkeley):

We did find that there was some kind of discrimination happening here. The unconscious mind did seem to be able to pick out who was lying and who was telling the truth to them.

Why people ignore these gut reactions is a mystery. But ten Brinke notes that when consciously looking for liars, people often focus on behavioral cues like fidgeting or averting the eyes, even though there’s no evidence that these actually mean anything. I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.