Your unconscious mind: a built-in lie detector?

Trying to sniff out a liar? Your unconscious mind may be your best ally. (Minerva...

Trying to sniff out a liar? Your unconscious mind may be your best ally. (Minerva Studio/shutterstock.com)

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, Last Updated: 9:38 AM ET

Struggling to tell if a person is lying? Your unconscious mind may already have the answer.

A new study found automatic associations are better apt at detecting lies than conscious thought. Findings suggest physical detections of lying, such as averting eye contact and fidgeting, are what people tend to look for, although these detections do not necessarily mean a person is fibbing or untrustworthy.

"Our research was prompted by the puzzling but consistent finding that humans are very poor lie detectors, performing at only about 54% accuracy in traditional lie detection tasks," says psychological scientist and study author Leanne ten Brinke, postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley's Haas School of Business.

These findings appear at odds with human sensitivity to how others are feeling and thinking, as well sensitivity towards personality type.

Ten Brinke theorized with UC Berkeley colleague Dayna Stimson and Berkeley-Haas Assistant Professor Dana Carney that these seemingly contradictory findings could be explained by unconscious processes:

"We set out to test whether the unconscious mind could catch a liar -- even when the conscious mind failed," she says.

The research team instructed 72 participants to watch videos of suspects in a mock-crime interview. Some of the suspects in the videos had stolen a $100 bill from a bookshelf, while others had not. All suspects were required to tell the interviewer they had not stolen the money.

The participants were then asked which suspects they thought were lying and which were telling the truth, with inaccurate results. They were only able to determine which suspects were lying 43% of the time, and which were telling the truth 48% of the time. Researchers also used behavioral reaction time tests, one of which is referred to as the Implicit Association Test or IAT, to look at participants' "automatic" instincts towards the suspects.

Results found participants more likely to unconsciously link deception-related words such as "untruthful," "dishonest" and "deceitful" with the suspects who were actually lying. They were also more likely to associate truthful words such as "honest" and "valid" with suspects who were telling the truth.

A second experiment solidified these findings, suggesting people may have some intuitive sense beyond conscious awareness that knows a person is lying.

"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," says ten Brinke.

The study was published in the journal Psychological Science.


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