Nearly all clients ask me how I can tell if people are lying to me when I am doing research. An article in the May 13, 2013 HBS Working Knowledge, “How to Spot a Liar,” suggests clues to watch for based on research on a variation of the ultimate game, a common research tool. The research was performed by Deepak Malhotra, the Eli Goldston Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, with the paper with Associate Professor Lyn M. Van Swol and doctoral candidate Michael T. Braun, both from the University of Wisconsin—Madison.
The research showed that about 70% of the participants were honest. The remaining 30% were outright liars or deceivers by omission.
The article summarized the major findings:
“In terms of strategic cues, the researchers discovered the following:
• Bald-faced liars tended to use many more words during the ultimatum game than did truth tellers, presumably in an attempt to win over suspicious receivers. Van Swol dubbed this ‘the Pinocchio effect.’ ‘Just like Pinocchio's nose, the number of words grew along with the lie,’ she says.
• Allocators who engaged in deception by omission, on the other hand, used fewer words and shorter sentences than truth tellers. “Among the findings related to nonstrategic cues:
• On average, liars used more swear words than did truth tellers—especially in cases where the recipients voiced suspicion about the true amount of the endowment. ‘We think this may be due to the fact that it takes a lot of cognitive energy to lie,"’ Van Swol says. ‘Using so much of your brain to lie may make it hard to monitor yourself in other areas.’
• Liars used far more third-person pronouns than truth tellers or omitters. ‘This is a way of distancing themselves from and avoiding ownership of the lie,’ Van Swol explains.
• Liars spoke in more complex sentences than either omitters or truth tellers.
“The researchers also examined when and whether the receivers trusted the allocators—noting instances when receivers voiced doubts about the allocators' statements, and correlating the various linguistic cues with the accuracy of the receivers' suspicions. They also noted instances in which receivers showed no suspicion toward deceivers.
“On average, receivers tended to trust the bald-faced liars far more than they trusted the allocators who tried to deceive by omission. In short, relative silence garnered more suspicion than flat-out falsehoods. ‘It turns out that omission may be a terrible deception strategy,’ Van Swol says. ‘In terms of succeeding at the deception, it was more effective to outright lie. It's a more Machiavellian strategy, but it's more successful.’”
Perhaps we Americans have become practiced at recognizing deception by omission—it’s a favorite tool of many politicians. But I digress.
Many commenters pointed out the limitations of this study; it was interaction among people from the same culture and a fixed scenario. Other studies have shown that people think that they are better at recognizing liars than they actually are, both in terms of false positives and false negatives. That is, believing people are lying when they are not and believing that people are honest when they are not.
Bottom line: Researchers cannot depend on their perceived ability to recognize liars when performing research.
I, for one, do not think that I am great at spotting liars. My way of dealing with dishonesty in research is to talk to multiple sources, both inside and outside the organization. Individual sources may lie and companies put out false information which is a risky strategy if the firm is public. Much more common is the refusal to talk about the subject. Or people tell you what they think is true or makes them look good. An experienced researcher does look for subtle clues in words chosen, pauses, or changes in pitch of sources, but no one source is judged to have correct information unless supported by other sources.
How do you handle this issue in your research?