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Truth Be Told Liars Can’t Multitask

Fibbers Flop from Mental Distractions

Lies man with hand crossing fingers behind back telling liar and cheating to wife

Fibbers beware. Telling lies, especially during interviews, sucks up a lot of cognitive energy, making it easier for others to trip up these tall talers.

The trap for those stretching the truth is fairly simple. Make them multitask and the extra brain power needed to handle two things at once can help expose fibs.

This, at least, is what researchers of the University of Portsmouth claim. They should know because this institution has been studying liars and lying for years. Portsmouth’s latest research surfaced after its research team worked with more than 150 participants, half of which were instructed to lie about a particular subject when interviewed. The others were asked to tell the truth.

They were also asked to carry out a secondary task when interviewed that involved recalling a seven-digit car registration number. Apparently, the extra burden was too much for the fib masters to handle.

“In the last 15 years, we have shown that lies can be detected by outsmarting lie tellers. We demonstrated that this can be done by forcing lie tellers to divide their attention between formulating a statement and a secondary task,” reported Professor Aldert Vrij.

“Our research has shown that truths and lies can sound equally plausible as long as lie tellers are given a good opportunity to think about what to say. When the opportunity to think becomes less, truths often sound more plausible than lies. Lies sounded less plausible than truths in our experiment, particularly when the interviewees also had to carry out a secondary task and were told that this task was important.”

The lying participants didn’t go in cold. They were even given the chance to prepare for their interviews and were incentivized to appear convincing through the award of potential prizes.

Ultimately, the findings could yield some major benefits for those forced to sus out who is being straight up or not during interrogations and interviews.

“The pattern of results suggests that the introduction of secondary tasks in an interview could facilitate lie detection, but such tasks need to be introduced carefully. It seems that a secondary task will only be effective if lie tellers do not neglect it. This can be achieved by either telling interviewees that the secondary task is important, as demonstrated in this experiment, or by introducing a secondary task that cannot be neglected,” Vrij explained.

The multitasking trip-up is only one of several grounding pieces of research on lying to come out of Portsmouth. An earlier study, in fact, helped do away with the notion that women are more focused on lying than men.

The university’s efforts discovered that men are twice as likely as women to consider themselves to be good at lying and at getting away with it.

Not surprisingly, Portsmouth also reported that people who excel at lying are usually good talkers and wind up telling more lies than others, according to Dr. Brianna Verigin, who led the research effort.

“We found a significant link between expertise at lying and gender. Men were more than twice as likely to consider themselves expert liars who got away with it,” she explained.

There was at least one reassuring aspect of the research. It found that lying isn’t as pervasive as many might assume.

“Previous research has shown that most people tell one-to-two lies per day, but that’s not accurate, most people don’t lie every day but a small number of prolific liars are responsible for the majority of lies reported,” Verigin said. “What stood out in our study was that nearly half, about 40 percent, of all lies are told by a very small number of deceivers. And these people will lie with impunity to those closest to them.”

Not surprisingly, high-level fibbers aren’t only snappy wordsmiths. They also know how to make their lies more convincing by blending in fact with fiction.

“Prolific liars rely a great deal on being good with words, weaving their lies into truths, so it becomes hard for others to distinguish the difference, and they’re also better than most at hiding lies within apparently simple, clear stories which are harder for others to doubt. Expert liars also prefer to lie face-to-face, rather than via text messages, and social media was the least likely place where they’d tell a lie,” Verigin added.

Unfortunately, people generally are not great at picking out lies. In fact, the Portsmouth team discovered that at best observers only identify a lie about 50 percent of the time. Of course, who knows if that’s the truth. Verigin could be fibbing.





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