Do you ever lie?
Many people would consider this to be a highly confronting question, not only because all of us (sometimes) lie but also because we believe that there is a general moral imperative not to lie.
There is actually considerable debate about the moral imperative against lying among philosophers, and it is easy to come up with counterexamples: For example, saying “no” to the Nazi asking whether you are hiding a Jewish family when you do seems to carry a greater moral obligation than telling the truth.
It has been estimated that 60% of people lie at least once during a 10-minute conversation, and those who do tell nearly 3 lies on average. Perhaps concerningly, one might suspect that not all of those lies are based on a moral imperative. Putting morality aside, the frequency of lies in everyday contexts identifies them as an important object of psychological and cognitive examination.
Perhaps surprisingly, the cognitive impact of lying has only recently begun to be examined.
On the “receiver” side of the issue, we know that if people learn that a person was lying to them, they derogate the deceptive author, but they often fail to adjust their beliefs: That is, people continue to be influenced by something that they know to be a lie. As frustrating as this may appear, it is not at all unusual that people continue to be influenced by information that was initially presented as true, but then turned out to be false, even if the misinformation involved no deception. We also know that people are by and large very poor at detecting deception: In a seminal study on lie detection, Paul Ekman examined the ability of various professionals, including law-enforcement personnel. such as members of the US. Secret Service, Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation. National Security Agency, Drug Enforcement Agency, California police and judges, as well as psychiatrists to detect people who were lying in a video-taped message. Only the Secret Service was found to perform better than chance. (A follow-up study extended this finding to other professional groups, including psychologists with a particular interest in detecting deception).
Turning to the “originator” side of the coin, we also know a little about what’s it like to lie. For example, we know that people’s skin conductance response (SCR) increases when they are lying—this physiological response forms the basis of the lie detector. There is a large literature on the reliability of lie detection, but here the focus is on another variable; namely, whether or not one is lying in one’s native language or a second language.
A recent article in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review by Duñabeitia and Costa explored interaction between deception and second language processing. If you are a native Spanish speaker, how well can you lie in English?
The role of language is of interest because there is considerable evidence that emotionality is reduced in one’s nonnative language: decision making processes that are sensitive to emotional reactions have been found to be modulated as a function of the language in which they are framed. In consequence, people are prone to make more rational decisions in a nonnative communicative context. Given that lying involves an emotional response, it might therefore be possible that this response is attenuated in one’s nonnative language—perhaps it is easier for us to tell a Furphy in Estonian?
Duñabeitia and Costa examined the interaction between lying and use of a nonnative language: Both are stressors, each of which is expected to raise SCR or an equivalent physiological indicator. But what would happen if both stressors are presented together?
The participants were native Spanish speakers with proficiency in English who were asked to name pictures of animals aloud. People were assigned either to the English or the Spanish condition at random. Within each condition, depending on instructions for the particular trial, participants were asked either to describe the animal that they saw (true statements) or describe some other animal included in the experiment but not present in the picture (false statements, or “lies”). Thus, a person in the Spanish condition who was presented with the picture of a sheep might respond with the definition of an “oveja” (true condition), the Spanish for sheep, or with the definition of a “pájaro” (false condition), the Spanish for bird, and likewise in English in the other language group.
The primary measure in the experiment was pupil dilation. Pupil dilation is another indicator that, similar to SCR, has been associated with emotional responding and increasing cognitive load. Duñabeitia and Costa found that, as expected the stressor variables increased the emotional response: Pupil dilation was greater when speaking in a foreign than in one’s native language and pupil dilation was also greater when people uttered falsehoods than when they truthfully named the animal in the picture.
Importantly, the magnitude of the effects of lying was comparable in both languages: Lying in English was as emotive as lying in the participants’ native Spanish. This result is intriguing because it suggests that participants were not able to fully distance themselves emotionally from the impact of their lie in a foreign language. But at the same time, in spite of the greater cognitive load associated with speaking in a nonnative language (which would a priori suggest a significantly larger lying cost in the nonnative than in the native language), these results demonstrated that some form of emotional distance may be operating in the other language because the “cost” of lying was not disproportionately greater than in the native language.
Naming pictures is obviously not the same as lying about your drug habits, and it remains to be seen how those results translate into plausible forensic contexts. Nonetheless, at first blush it appears as though there is no advantage to being caught shoplifting abroad rather than in your native country: Whatever language the Secret Service is using to interview you, they might be able to detect when you are lying.