Telling Lies: The Irrepressible Truth?
People lie surprisingly often, a task which requires a number of complex processes. For example, 40% of adults have reported telling a lie at least once per day. The majority of these lies are likely to be trivial in nature, serving a communicative function, however, others can have more drastic consequences, such as those told by criminal witnesses and suspects. Despite the apparent prevalence of lie-telling within society, lying is a complicated behavior that requires breaking the normal, default rules of communication.
The liar must first of all decide not to assert the truth, and then must assert an alternative statement that is plausible and appears informative to the listener, all the while concealing any outward signs of nervousness. Such a pragmatic feat requires cognitive processes in addition to those used when telling the truth. In this article we investigate what those processes might be. As such, we are less interested in the intent to instil a false belief in another’s mind but more interested in the necessary and universal cognitive processes associated with making a statement that is not true. The research presented here may be far removed from an aggressive interrogation where lives or liberty are at stake; but, the fundamental cognitive processes that are taking place when someone either tells the truth or constructs a falsehood are going to have some aspects in common regardless of the situation. The aim of the current research is to understand better these cognitive processes.
Our starting point is to examine the reasons given in the literature for why lying appears to be more difficult than telling the truth. Longer lie times, for example, must be indicative of additional cognitive processes involved in lying compared to telling the truth. Based on a framework developed in 2003, we will discuss three processes that have been implicated in lying and summarise the empirical evidence in favour of each.
Suppression of the truth
Our default communicative stance is to tell the truth. Without the assumption that speakers utter the truth most of the time, it is difficult to see how efficient communication could ever occur. This suggests that when people wish to lie to a question they will need to intentionally suppress the default, truthful response, which should increase the difficulty of lying relative to telling the truth.
There is indeed plenty of empirical evidence consistent with the claim that telling lies involves suppressing the truth. For example many researchers have found longer response times for lying relative to telling the truth, and there is neuroscientific evidence that brain regions active in lying overlap with brain regions associated with general response inhibition.
A number of these studies have been based around a lie detection technique known as the Concealed Information Test. This typically involves the presentation of a variety of different images or words via a computer screen. Some of these stimuli relate to previously learned information, known as probes, whereas others are irrelevant items. In practical situations, individuals may be asked the identity of a murder weapon, with the probe item being an image of the actual murder weapon (i.e., a knife) embedded within a series of irrelevant images (i.e., a gun, a hammer, a baseball bat). Participants are instructed to deny recognition of all items. If participants have concealed knowledge and recognise the murder weapon, they are expected to respond differentially to probe and irrelevant items.
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