How good are we at detecting lies?

Written by : Koh Tong Wey & Jeslyn Lim

catApparently, it is not good. Many previous studies revealed that people are only able to catch lies half the time; in other words, no better than flipping coins. That’s not too different from the experience of my gullible self.

But wait! Some of us may recall that sense of unease during the moment we were conned? In a recent study, Leanne ten Brinke and co-workers published data suggesting that we may be better at spotting lies at the subconscious level than at the conscious level.

The researchers had a set of undergraduate students performing an act of stealing $100 and another set who did not do it. They then recorded videos of in which the students attempt to convince the questioner that they did not steal.

Viewers of the videos were not able to make conscious identification of the liars better than chance. Then the researchers flashed them a picture of a liar, or a truthful participant, for 17 milliseconds, a time that is too short for the conscious mind to register, and allowed the viewers to choose from a collection of words associated with truthfulness and lies; the viewers showed a significant tendency to associate faces of the liars with lie-associated words, even though the pictures were flashed too quickly for conscious recall.


Knowing that our subconscious minds can spot lies is nice, but is there any way we can actively increase the odds of lie detection?

Stress Tests!~

Currently, researchers are exploring whether increasing the mental load during interrogations could make liars more likely to exhibit cues suggestive of lying than a truthful person would.

One recommendation from Aldert Vrij and co-workers is for the interrogator to ask the suspect to narrate an event backward. One can imagine this is tougher for a made-up story such as “How the dog ate my homework”!

To find out more…

In the upcoming Brain Fest 2017, we will have a series of expert speakers from Mind Culture and Duke-NUS Medical School, respectively, to speak on the roles of psychology in and neuroimaging in lie detection. For more information of Brain Fest, please visit:

About Jeslyn Lim…

She is a Developmental Psychologist and Certified Hypnotist at Mind Culture. With extensive experience working in the service and education sectors, she has attained vast opportunities to work with disadvantaged and disenfranchised children, youth, as well as adults.

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