Interpersonal Deception Theory Essays About Life

For other uses, see Deception (disambiguation) and Deceit (disambiguation).

"Feign" redirects here. For the album by Tim Berne's Hard Cell, see Feign (album).

Deception is the act of propagating a belief that is not true, or is not the whole truth (as in half-truths or omission). Deception can involve dissimulation, propaganda, and sleight of hand, as well as distraction, camouflage, or concealment. There is also self-deception, as in bad faith. It can also be called, with varying subjective implications, beguilement, deceit, bluff, mystification, ruse, or subterfuge.

Deception is a major relational transgression that often leads to feelings of betrayal and distrust between relational partners. Deception violates relational rules and is considered to be a negative violation of expectations. Most people expect friends, relational partners, and even strangers to be truthful most of the time. If people expected most conversations to be untruthful, talking and communicating with others would require distraction and misdirection to acquire reliable information. A significant amount of deception occurs between some romantic and relational partners.[1]

Deceit and dishonesty can also form grounds for civil litigation in tort, or contract law (where it is known as misrepresentation or fraudulent misrepresentation if deliberate), or give rise to criminal prosecution for fraud. It also forms a vital part of psychological warfare in denial and deception.


Deception includes several types of communications or omissions that serve to distort or omit the complete truth. Examples of deception range from false statements to misleading claims in which relevant information is omitted, leading the receiver to infer false conclusions. For example, a claim that 'sunflower oil is beneficial to brain health due to the presence of omega-3 fatty acids' may be misleading, as it leads the receiver to believe sunflower oil will benefit brain health more so than other foods. In fact, sunflower oil is relatively low in omega-3 fatty acids and is not particularly good for brain health, so while this claim is technically true, it leads the receiver to infer false information. Deception itself is intentionally managing verbal or nonverbal messages so that the message receiver will believe in a way that the message sender knows is false. Intent is critical with regard to deception. Intent differentiates between deception and an honest mistake. The Interpersonal Deception Theory explores the interrelation between communicative context and sender and receiver cognitions and behaviors in deceptive exchanges.

Some forms of deception include:

  1. Lies: making up information or giving information that is the opposite or very different from the truth.[2]
  2. Equivocations: making an indirect, ambiguous, or contradictory statement.
  3. Concealments: omitting information that is important or relevant to the given context, or engaging in behavior that helps hide relevant information.
  4. Exaggerations: overstatement or stretching the truth to a degree.
  5. Understatements: minimization or downplaying aspects of the truth.[1]

Many people believe that they are good at deception, though this confidence is often misplaced.[3]


Buller and Burgoon (1996) have proposed three taxonomies to distinguish motivations for deception based on their Interpersonal Deception Theory:

  • Instrumental: to avoid punishment or to protect resources
  • Relational: to maintain relationships or bonds
  • Identity: to preserve “face” or the self-image [4]


Deception detection between relational partners is extremely difficult, unless a partner tells a blatant or obvious lie or contradicts something the other partner knows to be true. While it is difficult to deceive a partner over a long period of time, deception often occurs in day-to-day conversations between relational partners.[1] Detecting deception is difficult because there are no known completely reliable indicators of deception. Deception, however, places a significant cognitive load on the deceiver. He or she must recall previous statements so that his or her story remains consistent and believable. As a result, deceivers often leak important information both verbally and nonverbally.

Deception and its detection is a complex, fluid, and cognitive process that is based on the context of the message exchange. The interpersonal deception theory posits that interpersonal deception is a dynamic, iterative process of mutual influence between a sender, who manipulates information to depart from the truth, and a receiver, who attempts to establish the validity of the message.[5] A deceiver's actions are interrelated to the message receiver's actions. It is during this exchange that the deceiver will reveal verbal and nonverbal information about deceit.[6] Some research has found that there are some cues that may be correlated with deceptive communication, but scholars frequently disagree about the effectiveness of many of these cues to serve as reliable indicators. Noted deception scholar Aldert Vrij even states that there is no nonverbal behavior that is uniquely associated with deception.[7] As previously stated, a specific behavioral indicator of deception does not exist. There are, however, some nonverbal behaviors that have been found to be correlated with deception. Vrij found that examining a "cluster" of these cues was a significantly more reliable indicator of deception than examining a single cue.[7]

Mark Frank proposes that deception is detected at the cognitive level.[8] Lying requires deliberate conscious behavior, so listening to speech and watching body language are important factors in detecting lies. If a response to a question has a lot disturbances, less talking time, repeated words, and poor logical structure, then the person may be lying. Vocal cues such as frequency height and variation may also provide meaningful clues to deceit.[9]

Fear specifically causes heightened arousal in liars, which manifests in more frequent blinking, pupil dilation, speech disturbances, and a higher pitched voice. The liars that experience guilt have been shown to make attempts at putting distance between themselves and the deceptive communication, producing “nonimmediacy cues” These can be verbal or physical, including speaking in more indirect ways and showing an inability to maintain eye contact with their conversation partners.[10] Another cue for detecting deceptive speech is the tone of the speech itself. Streeter, Krauss, Geller, Olson, and Apple (1977) have assessed that fear and anger, two emotions widely associated with deception, cause greater arousal than grief or indifference, and note that the amount of stress one feels is directly related to the frequency of the voice.[11]


Main article: Camouflage

The camouflage of a physical object often works by breaking up the visual boundary of that object. This usually involves colouring the camouflaged object with the same colours as the background against which the object will be hidden. In the realm of deceptive half-truths, camouflage is realized by 'hiding' some of the truths.

Military camouflage as a form of visual deception is a part of military deception.


Main article: Disguise

A disguise is an appearance to create the impression of being somebody or something else; for a well-known person this is also called incognito. Passing involves more than mere dress and can include hiding one's real manner of speech.


  • The fictional detective Sherlock Holmes often disguised himself as somebody else to avoid being recognized.

In a more abstract sense, 'disguise' may refer to the act of disguising the nature of a particular proposal in order to hide an unpopular motivation or effect associated with that proposal. This is a form of political spin or propaganda. See also: rationalisation and transfer within the techniques of propaganda generation.




  • The defensive mechanisms of most octopuses to eject black ink in a large cloud to aid in escape from predators.
  • The use by some Allied navies during World War II of Dazzle camouflage painting schemes to confuse observers regarding a naval vessel's speed and heading.


Simulation consists of exhibiting false information. There are three simulation techniques: mimicry (copying another model or example, such as non-poisonous snakes which have the colours and markings of poisonous snakes), fabrication (making up a new model), and distraction (offering an alternative model)


In the biological world, mimicry involves unconscious deception by similarity to another organism, or to a natural object. Animals for example may deceive predators or prey by visual, auditory or other means.


To make something that appears to be something that it is not, usually for the purpose of encouraging an adversary to reveal, endanger, or divert that adversary's own resources (i.e., as a decoy). For example, in World War II, it was common for the Allies to use hollow tanks made out of wood to fool German reconnaissance planes into thinking a large armor unit was on the move in one area while the real tanks were well hidden and on the move in a location far from the fabricated "dummy" tanks. Mock airplanes and fake airfields have also been created.


To get someone's attention from the truth by offering bait or something else more tempting to divert attention away from the object being concealed. For example, a security company publicly announces that it will ship a large gold shipment down one route, while in reality take a different route. A military unit trying to maneuver out of a dangerous position may make a feint attack or fake retreat, to make the enemy think they are doing one thing, while in fact they have another goal.

In romantic relationships[edit]

Deception is particularly common within romantic relationships, with more than 90% of individuals admitting to lying or not being completely honest with their partner at one time.[12]

There are three primary motivations for deception in relationships.

  • Partner-focused motives: Using deception to avoid hurting the partner, to help the partner to enhance or maintain their self-esteem, to avoid worrying the partner, and to protect the partner's relationship with a third party.[13][14][15] Partner-focused motivated deception can sometimes be viewed as socially polite and relationally beneficial, such as telling white lies to avoid hurting your partner. Although other, less common, partner-focused motives such as using to deception to evoke jealous reactions from their partner may have damaging effects on a relationship.[13][16]
  • Self-focused motives: Using deception to enhance or protect one’s own self-image, maintain or establish their autonomy, avoid constrictions, unwanted activities, or impositions, shield themselves from anger, embarrassment, or criticism, or resolve an argument.[12][13][14] Another common self-focused motive for deception, is a continuation of deception in order to avoid being caught in a previous deception.[13] Self-focused deception is generally perceived as a more serious transgression than partner-focused deception, because the deceiver is acting for selfish reasons rather than for the good of the partner or relationship.
  • Relationship-focused motives: Using deception to limit relationship harm by avoiding conflict or relational trauma.[13] Relationally motivated deception can be beneficial to a relationship, and other times it can be harmful by further complicating matters. Deception may also be used to facilitate the dissolution of an unwanted relationship.[12]

Deception impacts the perception of a relationship in a variety of ways, for both the deceiver and the deceived. The deceiver typically perceives less understanding and intimacy from the relationship, in that they see their partner as less empathetic and more distant.[17] The act of deception can also result in feelings of distress for the deceiver, which become worse the longer the deceiver has known the deceived, as well as in longer-term relationships. Once discovered, deception creates feelings of detachment and uneasiness surrounding the relationship for both partners; this can eventually lead to both partners becoming more removed from the relationship or deterioration of the relationship.[12] In general, discovery of deception can result in a decrease in relationship satisfaction and commitment level, however, in instances where a person is successfully deceived, relationship satisfaction can actually be positively impacted for the person deceived, since lies are typically used to make the other partner feel more positive about the relationship.

In general, deception tends to occur less often in relationships with higher satisfaction and commitment levels and in relationships where partners have known each other longer, such as long-term relationships and marriage.[12] In comparison, deception is more likely to occur in casual relationships and in dating where commitment level and length of acquaintanceship is often much lower.[17][18]


Main article: Infidelity

Unique to exclusive romantic relationships is the use of deception in the form of infidelity. When it comes to the occurrence of infidelity, there are many individual difference factors that can impact this behavior. Infidelity is impacted by attachment style, relationship satisfaction, executive function, sociosexual orientation, personality traits, and gender. Attachment style impacts the probability of infidelity and research indicates that people with an insecure attachment style (anxious or avoidant) are more likely to cheat compared to individuals with a secure attachment style,[19] especially for avoidant men and anxious women.[20] Insecure attachment styles are characterized by a lack of comfort within a romantic relationship resulting in a desire to be overly independent (avoidant attachment style) or a desire to be overly dependent on their partner in an unhealthy way (anxious attachment style). Those with an insecure attachment style are characterized by not believing that their romantic partner can/will support and comfort them in an effective way, either stemming from a negative belief regarding themselves (anxious attachment style) or a negative belief regarding romantic others (avoidant attachment style). Women are more likely to commit infidelity when they are emotionally unsatisfied with their relationship whereas men are more likely to commit infidelity if they are sexually unsatisfied with their current relationship.[21] Women are more likely to commit emotional infidelity than men while men are more likely to commit sexual infidelity than women; however, these are not mutually exclusive categories as both men and women can and do engage in emotional or sexual infidelity.[21]

Executive control is a part of executive functions that allows for individuals to monitor and control their behavior through thinking about and managing their actions. The level of executive control that an individual possesses is impacted by development and experience and can be improved through training and practice.[22][23] Those individuals that show a higher level of executive control can more easily influence/control their thoughts and behaviors in relation to potential threats to an ongoing relationship which can result in paying less attention to threats to the current relationship (other potential romantic mates).[24]Sociosexual orientation is concerned with how freely individuals partake in casual sex outside of a committed relationship and their beliefs regarding how necessary it is to be in love in order to engage in sex with someone.[25] Individuals with a less restrictive sociosexual orientation (more likely to partake in casual sex) are more likely to engage in infidelity.[21][25] Individuals that have personality traits including (high) neuroticism, (low) agreeableness, and (low) conscientiousness are more likely to commit infidelity.[21] Men are generally speculated to cheat more than women, but it is unclear if this is a result of socialization processes where it is more acceptable for men to cheat compared to women or due to an actual increase in this behavior for men.[26] Research conducted by Conley and colleagues (2011) suggests that the reasoning behind these gender differences stems from the negative stigma associated with women who engage in casual sex and inferences about the sexual capability of the potential sexual partner. In their study, men and women were equally likely to accept a sexual proposal from an individual who was speculated to have a high level of sexual prowess. Additionally, women were just as likely as men to accept a casual sexual proposal when they did not anticipate being subjected to the negative stigma of sexually permissible women as slutty.[26]

In online dating[edit]

Main article: Online dating

See also: Catfishing

Research on the use of deception in online dating has shown that people are generally truthful about themselves with the exception of physical attributes to appear more attractive.[27][28][29] According to the Scientific American, “nine out of ten online daters will fib about their height, weight, or age” such that men were more likely to lie about height while women were more likely to lie about weight.[30] In a study conducted by Toma and Hancock, “less attractive people were found to be more likely to have chosen a profile picture in which they were significantly more attractive than they were in everyday life”.[31] Both genders used this strategy in online dating profiles, but women more so than men.[31] Additionally, less attractive people were more likely to have “lied about objective measures of physical attractiveness such as height and weight”.[31] In general, men are more likely to lie on dating profiles the one exception being that women are more likely to lie about weight.[27]

In social research[edit]

Some methodologies in social research, especially in psychology, involve deception. The researchers purposely mislead or misinform the participants about the true nature of the experiment. In an experiment conducted by Stanley Milgram in 1963 the researchers told participants that they would be participating in a scientific study of memory and learning. In reality the study looked at the participants' willingness to obey commands, even when that involved inflicting pain upon another person. After the study, the subjects were informed of the true nature of the study, and steps were taken in order to ensure that the subjects left in a state of well being.[32] Use of deception raises many problems of research ethics and it is strictly regulated by professional bodies such as the American Psychological Association.

In psychological research[edit]

Psychological research often needs to deceive the subjects as to its actual purpose. The rationale for such deception is that humans are sensitive to how they appear to others (and to themselves) and this self-consciousness might interfere with or distort from how they actually behave outside of a research context (where they would not feel they were being scrutinized). For example, if a psychologist is interested in learning the conditions under which students cheat on tests, directly asking them, "how often do you cheat?," might result in a high percent of "socially desirable" answers and the researcher would in any case be unable to verify the accuracy of these responses. In general, then, when it is unfeasible or naive to simply ask people directly why or how often they do what they do, researchers turn to the use of deception to distract their participants from the true behavior of interest. So, for example, in a study of cheating, the participants may be told that the study has to do with how intuitive they are. During the process they might be given the opportunity to look at (secretly, they think) another participant's [presumably highly intuitively correct] answers before handing in their own. At the conclusion of this or any research involving deception, all participants must be told of the true nature of the study and why deception was necessary (this is called debriefing). Moreover, it is customary to offer to provide a summary of the results to all participants at the conclusion of the research.

Though commonly used and allowed by the ethical guidelines of the American Psychological Association, there has been debate about whether or not the use of deception should be permitted in psychological research experiments. Those against deception object to the ethical and methodological issues involved in its use. Dresser (1981) notes that, ethically, researchers are only to use subjects in an experiment after the subject has given informed consent. However, because of its very nature, a researcher conducting a deception experiment cannot reveal its true purpose to the subject, thereby making any consent given by a subject misinformed (p. 3). Baumrind (1964), criticizing the use of deception in the Milgram (1963) obedience experiment, argues that deception experiments inappropriately take advantage of the implicit trust and obedience given by the subject when the subject volunteers to participate (p. 421).

From a practical perspective, there are also methodological objections to deception. Ortmann and Hertwig (1998) note that "deception can strongly affect the reputation of individual labs and the profession, thus contaminating the participant pool" (p. 806). If the subjects in the experiment are suspicious of the researcher, they are unlikely to behave as they normally would, and the researcher's control of the experiment is then compromised (p. 807). Those who do not object to the use of deception note that there is always a constant struggle in balancing "the need for conducting research that may solve social problems and the necessity for preserving the dignity and rights of the research participant" (Christensen, 1988, p. 670). They also note that, in some cases, using deception is the only way to obtain certain kinds of information, and that prohibiting all deception in research would "have the egregious consequence of preventing researchers from carrying out a wide range of important studies" (Kimmel, 1998, p. 805).

Additionally, findings suggest that deception is not harmful to subjects. Christensen's (1988) review of the literature found "that research participants do not perceive that they are harmed and do not seem to mind being misled" (p. 668). Furthermore, those participating in experiments involving deception "reported having enjoyed the experience more and perceived more educational benefit" than those who participated in non-deceptive experiments (p. 668). Lastly, it has also been suggested that an unpleasant treatment used in a deception study or the unpleasant implications of the outcome of a deception study may be the underlying reason that a study using deception is perceived as unethical in nature, rather than the actual deception itself (Broder, 1998, p. 806; Christensen, 1988, p. 671).

In philosophy[edit]

Deception is a recurring theme in modern philosophy. In 1641 Descartes published his meditations, in which he introduced the notion of the Deus deceptor, a posited being capable of deceiving the thinking ego about reality. The notion was used as part of his hyperbolic doubt, wherein one decides to doubt everything there is to doubt. The Deus deceptor is a mainstay of so-called skeptical arguments, which purport to put into question our knowledge of reality. The punch of the argument is that all we know might be wrong, since we might be deceived. Stanley Cavell has argued that all skepticism has its root in this fear of deception.

In Religion[edit]

Deception is a common topic in religious discussions. Some sources focus on how religious texts deal with deception. But, other sources focus on the deceptions created by the religions themselves. For example, Ryan McKnight is the founder of an organization called FaithLeaks. He stated that the organizations "goal is to reduce the amount of deception and untruths and unethical behaviors that exist in some facets of religion".[33]


In its purest form, Christianity encourages the pursuit of truth. But, in practice, many Christians are criticized as being deceptive and otherwise problematic. The prominent political speech writer Michael Gerson said that evangelicals were "associating evangelicalism with bigotry, selfishness and deception." His comments were directed specifically towards those evangelicals who support Donald Trump.[34]


In Islam the concept of Taqiyya is often interpreted as legitimized deception. But, many Muslims view Taqiyya as a necessary means of alleviating religious persecution.[35] In the city of Basking Ridge, New Jersey the town's residents used the concept of Taqivya to block a mosque from being built. The dispute went on for years.[36] In a related story, journalist Ian Wilkie of Newsweek asserted that Taquivya provides evidence that Assad has used chemical weapons on the Syrian people.[37]

In law[edit]

Main article: Tort of deceit

For legal purposes, deceit is a tort that occurs when a person makes a factual misrepresentation, knowing that it is false (or having no belief in its truth and being reckless as to whether it is true) and intending it to be relied on by the recipient, and the recipient acts to his or her detriment in reliance on it. Deceit may also be grounds for legal action in contract law (known as misrepresentation, or if deliberate, fraudulent misrepresentation), or a criminal prosecution, on the basis of fraud.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ abcGuerrero, L., Anderson, P., Afifi, W. (2007). Close Encounters: Communication in Relationships (2nd ed.). Los Angeles: Sage Publications.
  2. ^Griffith, Jeremy (2011). The Book of Real Answers to Everything! - Why do people lie?. ISBN 978-1-74129-007-3. 
  3. ^Grieve, Rachel; Hayes, Jordana (2013-01-01). "Does perceived ability to deceive = ability to deceive? Predictive validity of the perceived ability to deceive (PATD) scale". Personality and Individual Differences. 54 (2): 311–314. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2012.09.001. 
  4. ^Buller, D.B., Burgoon, J.K., Buslig, A., Roiger, J. “Testing Interpersonal Deception Theory: The Language of Interpersonal Deception.” Communication Theory 6.3 (1996): 203–242.
  5. ^Buller & Burgoon, 1996
  6. ^Burgoon & Qin, 2006
  7. ^ abVrij, 2008
  8. ^Frank, M.G., O’Sullivan, M., & Menasco, M. A. (2009). Human behavior and deception detection. In J. G. Voeller (Ed.), Handbook of Science and Technology for Homeland Security. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
  9. ^Rockwell, P.A., Buller, D.B. & Burgoon, J.K. "Measurement of deceptive voices: Comparing acoustic and perceptual data." In C.E. Snow & J.L. Locke (Eds.) Applied psycholinguistics 18 (1997): 1–4.
  10. ^Zuckerman, M., DePaulo, B. M., & Rosenthal, R. “Verbal and nonverbal communication of deception”. Advances in experimental social psychology 14 (1981): 1–59.
  11. ^Streeter, L. A., Krauss, R. M., Geller, V., Olson, C., & Apple, W. “Pitch changes during attempted deception.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 35.5 (1977): 345–350.
  12. ^ abcdeCole, T. (2001). Lying to the one you love: The use of deceptions in romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 18(1), 107–129.
  13. ^ abcdeGuthrie, J., & Kunkel, A. (2013). Tell me sweet (and not-so-sweet) little lies: Deception in romantic relationships. Communication Studies, 64(2), 141–157.
  14. ^ abBoon, S. D., & McLeod, B. A. (2001). Deception in romantic relationships: Subjective estimates of success at deceiving and attitudes toward deception. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 18(4), 463–476.
  15. ^Lemay, E. P., Bechis, M. A., Martin, J., Neal, A. M., & Coyne, C. (2013). Concealing negative evaluations of a romantic partner's physical attractiveness. Personal Relationships, 20(4), 669–689.
  16. ^Sheets, V. L., Fredendall, L. L., & Claypool, H. M. (1997). Jealousy evocation, partner reassurance, and relationship stability: An exploration of the potential benefits of jealousy. Evolution and Human Behavior, 18(6), 387–402.
  17. ^ abDePaulo, B. M., & Kashy, D. A. (1998). Everyday lies in close and casual relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(1), 63.
  18. ^Rowatt, W. C., Cunninghan, M. R., & Druen, P. B. (1998). Deception to get a date. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24(11), 1228–1242.
  19. ^DeWall, C. N., Lambert, N. M., Slotter, E. B., Pond, R. S. Jr., Deckman, T., Finkel, E. J., Luchies, L. B., & Fincham, F. D. (2011). So Far Away From One’s Partner, Yet So Close to Romantic Alternatives: Avoidant Attachment, Interest in Alternatives, and Infidelity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 1302–1316.
  20. ^Allen, E. S., & Baucom, D. H. (2004). Adult Attachment and Patterns of Extradyadic Involvement. Family Process, 43, 467–488.
  21. ^ abcdBarta, W. D., & Kiene, S.M. (2005) Motivations for infidelity in heterosexual dating couples: The roles of gender, personality differences, and sociosexual orientation. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 22, 339–360.
  22. ^Diamond, A., & Lee, K. (2011). Interventions shown to aid executive function development in children 4 to 12 years old. Science, 333, 959–964.
  23. ^Klingberg, T. (2010). Training and plasticity of working memory. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14, 317–324.
  24. ^Pronk, T M., Karremans, J. C., & Wigboldus, D. H. J. (2011). How can you resist? Executive control helps romantically involved individuals to stay faithful. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 827–837.
  25. ^ abSimpson, J. A. & Gangestad, S. W. (1991). Individual differences in sociosexuality: Evidence for convergent and discriminant validity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 870–883.
  26. ^ abConley, T. D., Moors, A. C., Matsick, J. L., Ziegler, A., & Valentine, B. A. (2011) Women, men, and the bedroom: Methodological and conceptual insights that narrow, reframe, and eliminate gender differences in sexuality. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20, 296 –300.
  27. ^ ab"Can you really trust the people you meet online?". 
  28. ^"Myth-busting online dating". 
  29. ^"Detecting deception in online profiles". 
  30. ^"Catfishing: The truth about deception online". 
  31. ^ abc"Big fat liars: Less attractive people have more deceptive online dating profiles". 
  32. ^Milgram, Stanley (1963). "Behavioral Study of Obedience". Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 67 (4): 371–378. doi:10.1037/h0040525. PMID 14049516. 
  33. ^Ruth Graham, "A New “Wikileaks for Religion” Publishes Its First Trove of Documents", Slate, January 12, 2018
  34. ^Michelle Goldberg, "Of Course the Christian Right Supports Trump", The New York Times, January 26, 2018
  35. ^Shakira Hussein, "The Myth of the Lying Muslim: 'Taqiyya' and the Racialization of Muslim Identity", ABC, May 28, 2015
  36. ^Andrew Rice, "The fight for the right to be a Muslim in America", The Guardian, February 8, 2018
  37. ^Ian Wilkie, "WHERE’S THE EVIDENCE ASSAD USED SARIN GAS ON HIS PEOPLE?", Newsweek, February 17, 2018


  • American Psychological Association – Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. (2010). Retrieved February 7, 2013
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  • Baumrind, D. (1964). Some thoughts on ethics of research: After reading Milgram's "Behavioral Study of Obedience." American Psychologist, 19(6), 421–423. Retrieved February 21, 2008, from the PsycINFO database.
  • Bröder, A. (1998). Deception can be acceptable. American Psychologist, 53(7), 805–806. Retrieved February 22, 2008, from the PsycINFO database.
  • Cohen, Fred. (2006). Frauds, Spies, and Lies and How to Defeat Them. ASP Press. ISBN 1-878109-36-7. 
  • Behrens, Roy R. (2002). False colors: Art, Design and Modern Camouflage. Bobolink Books. ISBN 0-9713244-0-9. 
  • Behrens, Roy R. (2009). Camoupedia: A Compendium of Research on Art, Architecture and Camouflage. Bobolink Books. ISBN 978-0-9713244-6-6.
  • Edelman, Murray (2001). The Politics of Misinformation. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-80510-0. 
  • Blechman, Hardy; Newman, Alex (2004). DPM: Disruptive Pattern Material. DPM Ltd. ISBN 0-9543404-0-X. 
  • Christensen, L. (1988). Deception in psychological research: When is its use justified? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 14(4), 664-675.
  • Dresser, R. S. (1981). Deception research and the HHS final regulations. IRB: Ethics and Human Research, 3(4), 3–4. Retrieved February 21, 2008, from the JSTOR database.
  • Edelman, Murray Constructing the political spectacle 1988
  • Kimmel, A. J. (1998). In defense of deception. American Psychologist, 53(7), 803–805. Retrieved February 22, 2008, from the PsychINFO database.
  • Latimer, Jon. (2001). Deception in War. John Murray. ISBN 978-0-7195-5605-0. 
  • Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371-378. Retrieved February 25, 2008 from the PsycARTICLES database.
  • Ortmann, A. & Hertwig, R. (1998). The question remains: Is deception acceptable? American Psychologist, 53(7), 806–807. Retrieved February 22, 2008, from the PsychINFO database.
  • Shaughnessy, J. J., Zechmeister, E. B., & Zechmeister, J. S. (2006). Research Methods in Psychology Seventh Edition. Boston: McGraw Hill.
  • Bruce Schneier, Secrets and Lies
  • Robert WrightThe Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology. Vintage, 1995. ISBN 0-679-76399-6

Further reading[edit]

Look up deception in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Deception.
  • Mitchell, Robert W.; Thompson, Nicholas S., eds., Deception. Perspectives on Human and Nonhuman Deceit. New York: State University of New York Press.
  • Kopp, Carlo, Deception in Biology: Nature's Exploitation of Information to Win Survival Contests. Monash University, October, 2011.
  • Scientists Pick Out Human Lie Detectors, Press
This wallaby has adaptive colouration which allows it to blend with its environment.


Deception is thought to be more effortful than telling the truth. Empirical evidence from many quarters supports this general proposition. However, there are many factors that qualify and even reverse this pattern. Guided by a communication perspective, I present a baker’s dozen of moderators that may alter the degree of cognitive difficulty associated with producing deceptive messages. Among sender-related factors are memory processes, motivation, incentives, and consequences. Lying increases activation of a network of brain regions related to executive memory, suppression of unwanted behaviors, and task switching that is not observed with truth-telling. High motivation coupled with strong incentives or the risk of adverse consequences also prompts more cognitive exertion–for truth-tellers and deceivers alike–to appear credible, with associated effects on performance and message production effort, depending on the magnitude of effort, communicator skill, and experience. Factors related to message and communication context include discourse genre, type of prevarication, expected response length, communication medium, preparation, and recency of target event/issue. These factors can attenuate the degree of cognitive taxation on senders so that truth-telling and deceiving are similarly effortful. Factors related to the interpersonal relationship among interlocutors include whether sender and receiver are cooperative or adversarial and how well-acquainted they are with one another. A final consideration is whether the unit of analysis is the utterance, turn at talk, episode, entire interaction, or series of interactions. Taking these factors into account should produce a more nuanced answer to the question of when deception is more difficult than truth-telling.

Keywords: deception, cognitive effort, truth, deceptive message production, moderators of deception displays

The Dominant Pattern

First let us consider the received wisdom that deception is more difficult than truth and some of the evidence that undergirds it. Numerous deception scholars have argued that deception is more effortful than truth-telling (e.g., Zuckerman et al., 1981; Miller and Stiff, 1993; Buller and Burgoon, 1996b; Vrij, 2000; Sporer and Schwandt, 2006). Empirical research has affirmed this view with evidence of measurable psycho-physiological indicators of arousal and stress (e.g., the wealth of research on the polygraph; see Gougler et al., 2011) as well as observable behavioral signs of performance decrements. Deceptive messages are often shorter, slower, and less fluent, with longer response latencies, averted gaze, temporary cessation of gestures and postural rigidity–all potential indicators of deceivers having to think hard (Goldman-Eisler, 1958; Vrij et al., 1996, 2006; Rockwell et al., 1997; Porter and ten Brinke, 2010; ten Brinke and Porter, 2012; Mullin et al., 2014).

That said, it is important to note that the mental machinations associated with deception need not be burdensome or uniformly so. As Buller and Burgoon (1996b) stated in a rejoinder to DePaulo et al. (1996):

…DePaulo et al. (1996) ascribe to us a highly cognitive view of deception, with deceptive episodes peopled by highly conscious, surveillant liars and equally vigilant, cunning receivers. This is an exaggerated characterization of our assumptions. We have taken some pains in IDT to argue that much sender and receiver activity during deceptive encounters, like other communicative encounters, can be goal driven and strategic yet largely automatic and “mindless” (see, e.g., Kellermann, 1992; Burgoon and Langer, 1995). We see deception running the gamut from the kinds of inconsequential white lies and evasions that populate daily discourse to the life-threatening kinds of fabrications and omissions that color international conflicts (Burgoon and Buller, 1996, pp. 320–321).

The activities involved in message production are familiar, routinized, overlearned. Mental processes can be activated without the sender necessarily having significant attentional resources diverted. This is especially likely in the dominant laboratory research paradigms, which entail telling harmless and inconsequential lies seldom lasting more than 1 min and addressing single incidents, factual matters, or likes-dislikes. In such cases, messages can be constructed on the fly and modified in response to emergent exigencies. Senders can tap into a host of memories and readily accessible schemas that enable rattling off a deceptive response. The division of labor between verbal and non-verbal components of messages further distributes the workload and reduces the call on cognitive resources. Moreover, if lies are about inconsequential matters, are at the behest of an investigator, and entail no adverse consequences, then any emotional overlay should also be attenuated.

That many forms of deception are “ready-made” does not invalidate that the other processes surrounding their use, form and potential consequences still impose more cognitive work on the sender than does a truthful message related to the same narrative. But the depiction of deceptive message production requires more sophisticated modeling. It is not a question of deception being either easier or more difficult than telling the truth. It can be both.

A Baker’S Dozen Of Moderators

Here, then, toward a more nuanced, communication-oriented view, are a baker’s dozen of factors that should tip the scales in one direction or another. This non-exhaustive collection includes sender factors (i.e., ones that reside within the individual producing a message), message and communication context factors (i.e., ones related to the content and style of the message and to the communication context), relationship factors (i.e., ones inhering in the interpersonal relationship between sender and receiver) that should enable predictions of the circumstances under which deception will be more effortful, and scale of the measurement window under analysis. I illustrate many with evidence from our research program on interpersonal and mediated deception.

Sender Memory Demands

Recent neuroscience research is corroborating what social scientists have suspected for a long time—that the more a lie activates different mental processes, the more mental taxation it imposes on a communicator. In their updated conceptualization of cognitive resource demands associated with (complex) lie production, Sporer and Schwandt (2007) incorporated newer models of working memory such that cognitive load extends beyond accessing details from memory and constructing non-contradictory messages to also activating autobiographical and executive memory functions.

Consider that compared to the truth-teller, who needs only to recall an actual state of affairs, the deceiver must not only access the true state of affairs but must engage executive memory to decide if to deceive, evaluate which forms of deception are more “acceptable” according to one’s moral code and choose among those options, conduct a cost-benefit calculus of the relative likelihood of success of alternative forms of deceit, fabricate the response itself, compare it to the truth for possible inconsistencies with known facts, check the deceit against a “plausibility” meter, gage the likelihood of suspicion or detection by the interlocutor, and then actually assemble the verbal and non-verbal components into a normal-appearing message that maximizes credibility, all the while suppressing inapt behaviors and cognitions.

Early explorations of brain functioning with fMRI confirmed that these activities have associated changes in brain activation such that different regions show increased activation during lies than truths (see, e.g., Spence et al., 2001; Ganis et al., 2003; Abe and Greene, 2014). In one such test, Spence et al. (2008) found that the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC) was preferentially activated to inhibit inappropriate and unwanted cognitions and responses when lying about embarrassing material. Using a different method, Mameli et al. (2010) found multiple networks in the prefrontal cortex involved in deceptive responding as well as longer reaction times when communicators responded deceptively relative to truthful responses at baseline. Ito et al. (2011, p. 126) similarly substantiated increased activity in a network of brain regions in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (plus longer response latencies) when remembering and reporting truthful and deceptive neutral and emotional events. The authors did not find a similar response during truth-telling, leading them to suggest that “there is an increase in the amount of conflict and higher cognitive control needed when falsifying the responses compared to responding truthfully.”

A recent meta-analysis (Christ et al., 2009) further established that lying is associated with multiple executive control processes, specifically working memory, inhibitory control, and task switching (i.e., interspersing truthful with deceptive details). Using their activation likelihood estimate method, the authors demonstrated quantitatively that eight of 13 regions and 173 deception-related foci are consistently more active for deceptive responses than for truthful ones.

These robust findings using varied approaches are strong evidence that deception summons memory processes that are more taxing than those associated with truth-telling. Thus, for the predominant research paradigms that have been used, and holding all other conditions constant, deception requires engagement of more cognitive (and/or emotional) resources than does truth-telling1.

Sender Motivation, Incentives, and Consequences

This general pattern notwithstanding, three interrelated moderators that can alter this conclusion are motivation, incentives and consequences. Because motivation has often been manipulated through high monetary incentives or escaping adverse consequences, these three factors are operationally confounded. High motivation is thought to muster more effort, which can interfere with performance or improve it. The motivation impairment effect (MIE) asserts that motivation impairs non-verbal performance, thereby making lies more transparent, but also facilitates deceivers’ verbal performance (DePaulo and Kirkendol, 1989; Bond and DePaulo, 2006). Empirical findings have been fraught with inconsistencies. Burgoon and Floyd (2000), Burgoon et al. (2012), and Burgoon et al. (2015) have found both impairment and improvement of non-verbal and verbal performance among motivated deceivers engaged in consequential deception. Additionally, high-motivation truth-tellers (not deceivers) sometimes were most affected. Two meta-analyses (that omitted the aforementioned investigations) found high motivation affected liars and truth-tellers equally (Bond and DePaulo, 2006), and high-motivation lies were neither more nor less detectable than other lies (Hartwig and Bond, 2014).

If communicators have little to gain from deceiving or to lose from being caught, lying may pose little more challenge than truth-telling. Aside from the memory demands discussed above, small everyday lies such as fibs and white lies are easy to produce, can draw upon a cache of previously used utterances, and countenance no danger if detected. Lies that are likely to summon more cognitive resources are those that yield high pay-off if successful or that place the deceiver in serious jeopardy if uncovered (Porter and ten Brinke, 2010). In an analysis of real high-stakes deception, ten Brinke and Porter (2012) found that deceivers feigning distress over their missing children had difficulty faking sadness, leaked expressions of happiness, and were verbally more reticent and tentative. The authors ascribed these performance decrements partly to increased cognitive load. In high-consequence circumstances, however, truthful individuals may be equally distressed or motivated to succeed, so the difficulty of producing believable messages may be similar regardless of veracity.

The diverse results suggest that motivation is more complicated than presupposed and requires more “unpacking” of its relationship to cognitive effort. From a communication standpoint, motivation should follow social facilitation predictions, aiding overlearned behavior and interfering with less practiced behavior, up to a point beyond which emotional flooding should impair both verbal and non-verbal performance. Communicator skill and experience should dictate the threshold for performance deterioration.

Discourse Genre

Language can be categorized according to genres, which are discourse forms that share similarities in their structure, style, content, intended audience, and context in which they occur. Different genres impose qualitatively different demands on deceivers and truth-tellers. A factual narrative or description, for example, comprises representational and verifiable features that need to be assembled into a cogent, plausible sequence, and supported by relevant details. Whereas truth-tellers are only limited by the acuity of their memory when relaying specifics of an event, deceivers not only must recall the true state of affairs, but must decide how much, if any, to tell. They must compare their alternative version to reality, edit the content and linguistic form, and assemble the elements into a believable chronology.

Comparatively, an opinion lacks verifiability and need not be accompanied by any supportive documentation. Deceivers can easily proffer indisputable conjectures and opinions when asked questions such as, “Who do you think may have stolen the money from the cash draw?” or “What should happen to the thief?”, whereas the thoughtful reflections of a truth-teller may require more effort.

Within interactive discourse genres are also variations in form. A face-to-face dialog carries different demands than a monolog or one-to-many speech. When engaged in conversation with another, interlocutors must fulfill multiple communication functions beyond message production itself. First, they must “read” the definition of the situation from contextual cues so as to know what kind of discourse and associated expectations are in force. Because ascertaining identities is usually a high priority, communicators must signal their self-identity (e.g., gender, ethnicity, race, personality), put forth a desired self-presentation, and size up others’ identities. As interactions unfold, they must formulate their own messages and decipher the messages and feedback from their interlocutor. They must also regulate their emotional expressions, exchange relational messages that define the relationship between sender and receiver (e.g., trusting, intimate, equal), perform turn-taking responsibilities, and monitor their own communication. Although human communicators perform these functions in a seemingly effortless fashion, the discourse form can magnify or alleviate some of the effort associated with them. For example, Burgoon et al. (2001) demonstrated that engaging in dialog compared to face-to-face monolog was more difficult initially, but over time, dialog eased the demands on deceivers who were able to share the turn-taking burden with their interlocutor, create a smooth interaction pattern by developing interactional synchrony, adapt to interlocutor feedback, and approximate normal communication patterns2.

Another genre, the interview, can also influence the cognitive burden on respondents. The question-answer structure adds predictability to who is supposed to talk when and what the content should be. Language can be borrowed from the interviewer’s questions, and questions can be repeated as a stalling technique. Even within interviews are notable differences: Relative to an open-ended, free-wheeling interview, a structured one that requires short-answer replies reduces the degrees of freedom of what can be said and allows deceivers to forecast what is coming next. Many deception experiments are of this latter brief-answer variety, which our research has shown produces substantially different behavioral and psycho-physiological responses than open-ended interview protocols (Burgoon et al., 2010).

The illustrative genres mentioned here point to the need to formulate deception-relevant taxonomies of genres so that predictions can be made as to which will intensify or diminish the cognitive effort required of sender and receiver.

Form of Prevarication

Contrary to the claims of McCornack et al. (2014) that virtually all extant deception research bifurcates deception into bald-faced lies or bald-faced truths, and regards only those discourse options as worthy of scholarly investigation, most deception scholars recognize that deception includes a variety of forms. A sampling of research across the last five decades and across multiple disciplines has identified such forms of prevarication as white lies, altruistic lies, omissions, concealment, equivocation, evasions, exaggerations, strategic ambiguity, and impostership (see, e.g., Turner et al., 1975; Hopper and Bell, 1984; Miller and Stiff, 1993; Buller et al., 1994; Searcy and Nowicki, 2005; Ennis et al., 2008; Knapp, 2008). The type of prevarication being told will affect the cognitive resources required in its telling.

In his original formulation of information manipulation theory (IMT), McCornack (1997) proposed that deceptive discourse violates conversational implicatures along one or more of Grice’s (1989) four dimensions of cooperative discourse: quantity, quality, manner, and relation. Burgoon et al. (1996) proposed a similar set of five dimensions of information management: completeness (comparable to quantity), veridicality (comparable to quality), clarity (comparable to manner), relevance (comparable to relation), and personalism (see also Buller and Burgoon, 1996a). Under both conceptualizations, some forms of deceit such as omissions are more easily produced than others3.

Other times, truth-telling can be more difficult than deceit. Having to convey a “hard” truth to a patient dying of a terminal disease can levy more cognitive taxation than manufacturing a comparable falsehood that there is hope for recovery from the disease. A provocative line of research on whether people lie automatically or must decide to lie has also shown that when cheating offers a high probability of personal gain, people may be quicker to produce self-serving lies than truthful responses. In tempting situations, if a self-benefiting lie is easy to craft and little time is allowed for reflection, lying may be the more automatic response, whereas honesty may necessitate more hesitation, deliberation, and executive control (Shalvi et al., 2012; Tabatabaeian et al., 2015; see also Bereby-Meyer and Shalvi, 2015, for a review of supporting literature). When social bonds are made salient, people also produce lies more quickly that benefit their social group than lies that benefit only self (Shalvi and De Dreu, 2014).

In short, the type of prevarication (or truth) can be located on a continuum from easy to difficult, with cognitive effort for easy lies making them no more challenging than telling the truth.

Expected Response Length

Different kinds of interactions have associated expectations about utterance length. Day-to-day conversations are typified by reciprocation of short turns at talk. Conversing deceivers may project that they can get away with very brief responses while still satisfying conversational expectations. A spouse’s query, “How was your day?” is not expected to produce a dissertation on all one’s trials and tribulations at work or home. A husband who skipped work to go gambling or a wife on an illicit tryst can safely reply with a breezy “fine.” Such brief lies and truths—the bread and butter of much deception research–may differ little in their demands on resources. More penetrating questions like, “Why couldn’t I reach you today when I called your cell four times?” require lengthier–and more demanding–accounts.

Standard interview protocols also have associated expectations about what response lengths suffice. Introspective questions require conjectural rather than factual responses, and their non-verifiability may attenuate the memory burden on deceivers. The behavioral analysis interview operates on the premise that innocent people will exhibit the Sherlock Holmes effect: In attempting to aid an investigation, innocent respondents may speculate more than deceivers and widen the pool of suspects. Comparatively, deceivers should minimize conjecture and avoid proposing other suspects for fear of narrowing the pool to themselves (Horvath et al., 2008). A cognitive interview, in which respondents are asked to retell an account from multiple vantage points (Fisher and Geiselman, 1992), requests increasing elaboration and details, something that is expected to be easier for truth-tellers than deceivers to accomplish over repeated retellings (see also Vrij and Granhag, 2012).

Generally, conversations have associated norms and expectations for what kinds of utterances will satisfy the Gricean maxims, and communicators are fairly adept at predicting and fulfilling those expectations. The degree of cognitive difficulty should correlate positively with response length and how much the deceptive response deviates from expected form (with exceptions that can be anticipated in advance).

Sanctioning of Deceit

Most laboratory research involves deceit that is sanctioned by the experimenter rather than being chosen voluntarily by the perpetrator (Frank and Feeley, 2003). The alternative of allowing research participants to choose whether to lie or not creates a confound in that only skillful liars and those with an honest-appearing demeanor may choose to lie (Levine et al., 2010). Apart from experimenter-instigated deceit differing behaviorally from that chosen of a deceiver’s own volition (Sporer and Schwandt, 2007; Dunbar et al., 2013), the implication outside the laboratory is that deception will vary substantially in form and difficulty as a function of sanctioning and communicator skill (see also IDT regarding communicator skill).

That said, choice and skill may not completely alleviate the added cognitive work associated with deceit. Spence et al. (2008) designed an fMRI experiment in which deceivers could choose to comply or defy an experimenter’s request to divulge embarrassing secrets. Results revealed lying activated the VLPFC even under free choice. At the most fundamental level of brain functioning, then, lying still exercises a main effect on cognitive processing.

Communication Medium

The medium of communication itself also influences the degree of cognitive difficulty associated with lying. IDT’s first proposition states, “Context features of deceptive interchanges systematically affect sender and receiver cognitions and behaviors; two of special importance are the interactivity of the communication medium and the demands of the conversational task” (Burgoon and Buller, 2015). To the extent that deceivers are interacting synchronously and with all audiovisual modalities available to receivers (e.g., face-to-face, computer-mediated communication, teleconferencing), there are more communication functions to which cognitive resources must be devoted. When modalities are more limited–such as voice or chat–and asynchronous—more resources can be distributed among fewer aspects of message production and with less time press.4 Consistent with this reasoning, participants in a mock theft experienced the least anxiety and cognitive load when interacting via text, were the most aroused and exercised the most behavioral control when interacting face-to-face, and reported the most cognitive effort when interacting via an unfamiliar audio format (Burgoon et al., 2004; Burgoon, 2015). Thus, leaner and non-interactive media should attenuate cognitive effort.


This construct subsumes many related variables—advance thought, planning, rehearsal, or editing. Extemporaneous or unscripted discourse is produced in real time; planned, rehearsed, or edited discourse entails some intervening time interval between the deliberation and construction of a message and its ultimate delivery. Such ex ante preparation may be experimentally manipulated, as in a classic interviewing investigation by O’Hair et al. (1981), or it may be prompted by high-stakes circumstances such as queries about fraudulent financial reporting: “…individuals may, for example, prepare extensively before speaking to lower the cognitive burden that can accompany deception, or may undergo voice training in an attempt to sound vocally like the antithesis of someone engaging in deception” (Burgoon et al., 2015, p. 2).

Three meta-analyses (Zuckerman and Driver, 1985; DePaulo et al., 2003; Sporer and Schwandt, 2006) included preparation as a moderator and predicted that planning and rehearsal should facilitate deceptive performance by reducing cognitive/memory load. Although the meta-analyses yielded mixed results and weak effect sizes, planned messages were found to have shorter responses latencies and fewer silent pauses than unplanned ones. More recent research examining higher stakes deception has shown that fraud-relevant utterances were longer and more laden with details than non-fraudulent ones (Burgoon et al., 2015), a pattern duplicated by Braun et al. (2015) in their analysis of deceptive politicians’ messages. To the extent that detection accuracy is lower with planned than unplanned deception (Bond and DePaulo, 2006), some of that inaccuracy may be attributable to planned messages being indistinguishable from truth-telling. With advance preparation, communicators are better able to approximate normal, credible communication patterns.

Recency of Target Incident or Issue

Depending on how distant it is, the time frame for requested narratives and accounts will have expectations associated with it for what is a complete, accurate, and clear response. Whereas recent events should impose equal recall difficulty on truth-tellers and deceivers, long-ago ones should be harder to recall for conscientious truth-tellers trying to be thorough and accurate than for deceivers fabricating a story or borrowing details from similar events. Some interview protocols like the cognitive interview capitalize on this reversal of expectations in which longer and more effortful answers should be associated with truth. Comparison questions in polygraph testing which are intended to create more mental conflict for truth-tellers than deceivers can be made even more challenging when the time frame is open-ended. The question, “Have you ever lied to someone who trusted you?” may prompt truth-tellers to ponder and hesitate more than deceivers. Other aspects of cognitive work unique to deceivers are the activation of executive memory to make the decision to lie, the construction and selection among possible lies and the comparison to the truth, which may guide decisions about which form and content of the lie is likely to be the most efficacious.

Cooperative-Adversarial Relationship

Intertwined with the genre of discourse is whether the relationship between communicators constitutes a cooperative or adversarial one. Grice (1989) proposed that communicators enter encounters with a presumption of cooperativeness. In practice, however, many communication contexts and relationships are recognized as adversarial–criminal interrogations, litigation, labor disputes, negotiations, dispute mediations, and divorce proceedings that place the parties at odds with one another, among others–during which the assumption of cooperativeness is suspended. In adversarial interactions, one cannot even assume that interlocutors are using language in the same way. For example, in organizational contexts, management may practice strategic ambiguity as a way to reduce rather than facilitate understanding.

In other cases, participants with hidden agendas may wish to give the appearance of cooperativeness while covertly violating the Gricean maxims (McCornack, 1997). Under these circumstances the success of the deception will depend on how clandestine the deceit is. Predictions about how much cognitive difficulty is associated with lying should take into account how much cognitive “work” is needed to keep nefarious motives hidden. Unwitting interlocutors, for example, may lessen the difficulty for deceivers by proposing plausible explanations for a sender’s otherwise implausible response, thereby helping deceivers construct a believable narrative as a dialog unfolds.

Relational Familiarity

Buller and Burgoon (1996b) identified three types of familiarity, one of which is relational familiarity. People who are well acquainted with one another have prior knowledge and a history of behavior against which to judge anything that is said. For the deceiver, this can make devising a plausible lie that evades detection more challenging inasmuch as there are numerous touchpoints against which the deceiver must make mental comparisons before actually uttering the lie. At the same time, deceivers can capitalize on their familiarity with the receiver to adapt lies more specifically to the interlocutor’s knowledge bank and can watch the receiver for telltale signs of disbelief. Buller and Aune (1987) found deceivers interacting with familiar others successfully restored their original level of animation, while deceivers interacting with strangers became less immediate and animated over time. Thus, deceivers took advantage of their relationship to improve their performance over time. Burgoon et al. (2001) found similar results in that deceivers interacting with friends rather than strangers were better able over time to manage their informational content, speech fluency, non-verbal demeanor, and image. Presumably the improved performances were accompanied by a corresponding reduction in cognitive difficulty for deceivers relative to truth-tellers. Since receivers seldom expect to be lied to, relational familiarity probably confers more of an advantage on the sender than the receiver.

Communication Unit of Analysis

The sampling unit for deception research and meta-analyses typically has been the single utterance, turn at talk, or answer to a single question. Such samples may be less than 30 s in length. Yet deception may be woven into a series of utterances (e.g., an interview), interpenetrate an entire conversational episode, or span multiple conversations (e.g., multiple interrogations). The span of time from beginning to end of a deception event should affect how difficult it is to produce and maintain. Speculatively, as the number and duration of utterances related to an issue increases, the more cognitively challenging it should be to lie, inasmuch as one must remember what has been said previously, create consistency among utterances, reconcile what is being said with a potentially growing population of known facts, make decisions about which truthful details to divulge, decide what kinds of deception to enact, whether to change strategies (e.g., from concealment to equivocation), and so forth. Lengthy criminal justice interviews and interrogations depend on extended questioning to create more emotional and mental hardship for interviewees. Comparatively, producing brief utterances not only minimizes the amount of decision making, memory searching and message production demands that communicators incur (regardless of their veracity) but can also buy deceivers more time to concoct a credible response and to intersperse truthful details within one’s discourse to bolster believability.

The time course of the communication event thus may dictate its demand on cognitive and emotional resources. As the number of utterances or interchanges increases, demands on cognitive and emotional resources should increase differentially—up to an as-yet undetermined point. Beyond that, cooperative interactions should reduce the burden on deceivers by virtue of availing themselves of receiver feedback, making conversational repairs and meshing the dyad’s interaction patterns. We have witnessed this in several of our interviewing experiments. In one case, interviewees who were blindsided by unexpected questions initially gave non-fluent and improbable responses but with the aid of unwitting interviewers managed to spin out explanations that the interviewers accepted. Conversely, adversarial interactions such as interrogations may intensify the burden on deceivers. In drawing any conclusions, then, about whether lying is more difficult than truth-telling, it is necessary to specify the sampling unit for the respective truths and lies—short utterances or lengthy ones and single episodes or a series of them. Longer can be more difficult but may also introduce opportunities for countervailing repairs by deceivers.


What are the implications of this decomposition of moderators of cognitive effort? First, the relationship between deception and cognitive effort is complex and highly variable. In some respects, the issue is one of definition of terms: What constitutes effort? If activation of more brain regions and processes constitutes effort, then deceit can be construed as creating greater actual cognitive work than truth. However, if effort requires some level of awareness, then only under more serious circumstances involving complex lies with significant (favorable or unfavorable) consequences may lying be experienced as more cognitively effortful.

Moreover, a variety of moderators can alter the deception-cognition relationship, and sometimes in contradictory ways. These previously unidentified or untested moderators may account for the oft-times weak association between presumed cognitive effort and observable behavior. Only if the relevant influences can be parsed will it be possible to make sound and reliable cognition-based predictions and will cognition-based effects be replicable.

Also confounding the picture is that many factors like motivation and incentives exert similar influence on truth-tellers, thus making deceptive and truthful behavior patterns indistinguishable.

Too often, researchers have inferred backward from observable cues to likely cognitive causes, but such reasoning is fraught with indeterminacy due to the absence of single one-to-one correspondences between specific indicators and mental work. Even though more memory processes may be engaged, the observable indicators may not betray that work, they may arise from other causes, and they may be associated with both truth and deception.

Given these complicating factors, any cognitive load, cue-based approach may be difficult to utilize in practice. Only if the various moderators can be taken into account will such approaches be fully efficacious.


This research topic on whether lying is more effortful cognitively than truth-telling is meant to challenge long-held assumptions. Challenging assumptions is clearly a worthwhile scientific endeavor, and this collection of essays will doubtless enlighten the issue while raising a number of salient considerations.

In the process of addressing this assumption, however, let us not erect false dichotomies, straw-man arguments, or extreme positions that produce more heat than light. For example, the assertions by McCornack et al. (2014) that the differences between truth and deception should all be attributed to memory and information processing is serious overstatement, just as their assertion that current models of deception impute too much cognitive work to deceptive message production is an overly broad gloss. As with so many issues surrounding human cognition and behavior, simple answers are facile but inaccurate and will set our science back. The typology of 13 moderators I have proposed derives from modeling deception as a communication phenomenon, the properties of which can exacerbate or alleviate cognitive demands. The non-exhaustive collection of moderators includes: (1) sender memory demands, (2) sender motivation, (3) incentives and consequences, (4) discourse genre, (5) form of prevarication, (6) expected response length, (7) sanctioning of the deceit, (8) communication medium, (9) advance preparation, (10) recency of the incident/issue, (11) relationship among interlocutors (e.g., cooperative or adversarial), (12) relational familiarity, and (13) size of unit of analysis. I invite further formalization and empirical testing by other deception scholars to disentangle the effects of these significant moderators.

Conflict of Interest Statement

The author declares that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.


1Space limitations do not permit developing the idea that deception may also instigate emotional work to regulate the kind of emotional flooding seen, for example, with escalating conflicts. But investigations of high levels of cognitive arousal may be well consider emotional correlates and regulatory overrides.

2Although some meta-analyses have attempted to analyze the effects of communication context or genre on receiver detection accuracy (e.g., Bond and DePaulo, 2006; Hartwig and Bond, 2014), virtually no research has explicitly tested their effects on sender performance. Hartwig and Bond (2014), for example, had too few samples of different interview types to separate out different categories. Part of the challenge in deriving stable meta-analytic estimates is that only a small fraction of investigations have entailed interactions exceeding 1 min in length. Moreover, genre constructs such as interactivity are multidimensional. To test properly the effects of interaction on senders requires parsing the different attributes (e.g., participation, synchronicity, propinquity, multiplicity of modalities) and testing each independently to isolate the relevant features.

3The least taxing form is concealment or omission in which deceivers simply leave out deceptive information. Although McCornack et al. (2014, p. 353) assert in IMT2 that “Zipf’s PLE [principle of least effort] compels speakers to minimize the total number of spoken words produced and shift instead toward objectively ambiguous language,” a claim consistent with the principle that humans are cognitively lazy, it fails to comport with the empirical evidence that people sometimes produce longer messages when deceiving than when telling the truth (e.g., Burgoon et al., 2014; Dunbar et al., 2014). Brevity, then, or effort is not the controlling factor.

4It might be tempting to conclude that we can infer the degree of cognitive demands on senders by the accuracy with which their messages are detected by receivers. However, this would be a faulty inference inasmuch as detection accuracy is influenced by several factors other than sender performance (Burgoon et al., 2008; Burgoon, 2015). For example, deceivers may experience fewer cognitive demands under audio communication and yet inadvertently produce more telltale signs of deception due to lack of awareness or ability to manage the voice.


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