Looking to detect a lie? Let your unconscious mind be your guide, scientists say


If you think someone is lying to you, letting your unconscious mind make the decision may be the more accurate choice, psychological researchers say.

Leaving the determination up to our conscious awareness may actually get in the way since it will look for stereotypical signs of lying like avoiding eye contact or nervous behavior which are not always reliable signs of falsehoods, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, said.

"Our research was prompted by the puzzling but consistent finding that humans are very poor lie detectors, performing at only about 54 percent accuracy in traditional lie detection tasks," not a better result than sheer guessing, Berkeley scientist and study author Leanne ten Brinke said.

While humans are usually pretty good at sensing how others are expressing themselves, when it comes to sensing a lie that sensitivity in the conscious awareness somehow fails us, the researchers said.

They set up an experiment in which participants viewed videos of "suspects" being interviewed about a staged "crime," some of which had been instructed to take some money from a bookshelf but were told to deny it, while others had not taken the bill and would also deny it.

When asked about which of the interviewees were telling a lie and which were expressing the truth, study participants were able to correctly identify liars from truth-tellers less than half the time.

However, when the researchers turned to some common tests that tracked reaction time to gauge study participants' more automatic responses to the interviewees' statements, the results were significant.

Using a technique known as the Implicit Association Test, they discovered participants were more likely to unconsciously react to words suggesting dishonesty such as "untruthful," "dishonest" and "deceitful" in the suspects who were lying, while reacting to words like "honest" or "valid" with the suspects who were not lying.

"We set out to test whether the unconscious mind could catch a liar -- even when the conscious mind failed," said ten Brinke who, along with colleagues Dayna Stimson and Dana Carney, has published the findings in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

"These results provide a new lens through which to examine social perception, and suggest that -- at least in terms of detection of lies -- unconscious measures may provide additional insight into interpersonal accuracy," ten Brinke said.

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