Deciding when people are telling the truth is a difficult task. Several decades of research indicate that people are rather inept lie detectors (Levine, Park, & McCornack, 1999). This unimpressive ability to detect deception is due, in part, to the fact that deceivers inconsistently mark their deceptive practices. As a result, deceptive message judgments are often based on the use of cognitive heuristics rather than an accurate set of deception cues. This research explores how situational and personality factors influence veracity judgments in the context of intimate relationships. Ultimately, the findings presented are linked to larger theoretical implications regarding factors that may activate the use of the truth-bias heuristic.
Deceptive Message Judgments
Although some research still appears to be driven by the quest to identify the behavioral correlates of deception, many critical challenges to this line of inquiry have arisen. In particular, scholars raise serious doubts about the idea that people consistently mark deceptive practices. First, scholars question the assumption that increased arousal and/or cognitive demands lead to behavioral manifestations when lying (e.g., Fiedler & Walka, 1993; McCornack, 1997). Most deceptive practices are not particularly challenging or arousing given that such acts are repeatedly performed (DePaulo, Kashy, Kirkendol, Wyer, & Epstein, 1996) with little awareness (Lippard, 1988) and effort (Di Battista, 1994). Moreover, persuasive claims have been made that truth-telling involves the active construction of messages and therefore can be just as cognitively demanding as lying (McCornack, 1997). Second, even if one assumes a consistent link between lying and changes in cognitive load or arousal, this does not mean that such changes would be manifested in a consistent manner (Fiedler & Walka, 1993).
The empirical evidence does not support the theoretical claims currently under attack. Despite decades of work, researchers consistently acknowledge an inability to identify a universal set of deception cues, even though both popular belief and theoretical expectations would suggest their presence (Zuckerman, Koestner, & Driver, 1981). The deception cues that emerge represent small, average differences that vary across situational contexts rather than diagnostic indicators regarding what any given individual is likely to do in any given context. In short, deception cues vary across individuals, situational features, interactional dynamics, and the nature of the lie being told (Buller, Burgoon, Buslig, & Roiger, 1996; Buller, Burgoon, White, & Ebesu, 1994; Burgoon, Buller, Ebesu, White, & Rockwell, 1996; Ebesu & Miller, 1994). Compounding the problem, detectors tend to focus on more nondiagnostic indicators rather than focusing on cues that might, on average, lead to slightly more accurate judgments (e.g., Stiff & Miller, 1986; Zuckerman et al., 1981). Taken together, neither theoretical arguments nor empirical evidence strongly supports the idea that people should be able to consistently detect deception based on observation alone.
The lack of reliable deception cues, however, does not prevent people from making veracity judgments. In fact, most people think they can always tell when others are lying (Shippee, 1977), especially in close relationships (Miller et al., 1984 cited in Miller & Stiff, 1992). Ironically, people's confidence in their ability to detect deception is often inversely related to their actual skill (see, for review, Kalbfleisch, 1992) and people frequently overestimate their lie detection competency (Miller & Stiff, 1993).
These results suggest an interesting question: If people lack adequate information, how do they make veracity judgments with such assurance? To solve this dilemma, researchers cast lie detection as an …