Spotting a Liar: The Health Effects of Deception

People who get away with cheating—when they suspect no one is hurt by their deception—are more likely to feel upbeat than remorseful afterwards, found a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In experiments conducted among more than 1,000 participants, researchers found that people experienced a “cheater’s high” after engaging in duplicitous behaviour.  These findings contradicted the predictions of participants themselves, who expected to feel guilty about their deceit.

In one of the experiments, participants tackled a series of math and logic problems using a computer. Some of them were given access to a “correct answer” button, which revealed the right response to any given question when clicked. Although they were asked to ignore the button, 68% of them used it during the test. Afterwards, those who clicked the button reported greater feelings of happiness than those who acted honestly.

Honesty linked to greater mental and physical health

In contrast to the findings above, researchers from the University of Notre Dame have recently linked honesty to greater physical and mental health.  

Over the course of ten weeks, 110 participants in the “Science of Honesty” study completed weekly health and relationship measures, as well as weekly polygraph tests. Half of the participants were asked to stop lying, while the other half acted as a control group.

When participants told fewer lies, they reported improvements in their close personal relationships and social interactions. They also reported fewer physical and mental-health complaints, including sore throats, headaches, and feelings of tenseness or melancholy.

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Honesty may be a virtue, but lying is commonplace

Even people who champion truthfulness often cheat and lie. In fact, research suggests that dishonesty plays a large role in our lives. It occurs relatively commonly:

  • When we’re short on time. People are more likely to resort to deception when facing time restraints, suggest recent findings published in the journal, Psychological Science. When given more time, they are more apt to do “the right thing.”
  • In e-mail exchanges. People may be almost 50% more likely to lie when communicating by e-mail, compared to more traditional paper-and-pen methods, found a study presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management in 2008.
  • Among caregivers. The vast majority of parents lie, report researchers working in the United States and China. They often mislead their children in order to promote good behaviour, positive feelings, or belief in fantasy characters, such as the Tooth Fairy.
  • Between lovers. Kisses and cuddles may mask feelings of discontent, according to a recent study published in Communication Quarterly. The investigators found that non-married couples expressed “deceptive affection” about three times a week, using loving gestures to hide negative feelings towards one another. Such acts of dishonesty may seem unethical, but they can have positive effects, helping to maintain romantic relationships.

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Subtle cues can give away liars

Most of us have a hard time recognizing deceit, but some clues may help you ferret out frauds:

  • When sending untruthful text messages, people typically take longer to reply, make more edits, and write shorter responses than usual, caution researchers from Brigham Young University.
  • Up to 80% of people enrolled in online dating sites lie about their weight, height, age, or other personal information, found a recent study published in the Journal of Communication. When writing untruthful statements, they tend to use fewer words, avoid the first-person pronoun “I”, and express themselves in negation – for example, by writing “not sad” instead of “happy.”
  • People who are hiding the truth often repeat questions before answering them, according to a review of more than 60 research studies lead by R. Edward Geiselman, professor of psychology at UCLA. Dissemblers also tend to say as little as possible, while providing unprompted justification for the few things they do say. They are also more likely to press their lips together when asked a sensitive question and play with their hair or engage in other grooming behaviours.

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