SNHU study shows new approach to lie detection

Monday, February 08, 2010
SNHU Communications Office

Researchers at Southern New Hampshire University have found a new application for an established experimental procedure in psychology. They used the implicit association test (IAT) to reveal more about the cognitive processes involved in lying.

The implicit association test (IAT) was originally used by social psychologists as a measure of subtle prejudice. For example, participants might see a series of pictures of either young faces or elderly faces, followed by word attributes that are either positive (like “beautiful” or “joyful”) or negative (like “tragic” or “horrible”) on a computer screen.  Participants indicate as quickly as possible whether the attribute is positive or negative. Participants often respond more quickly and easily if positive attributes share the same response key with pictures of young faces and negative attributes share the same key with pictures of elderly faces than vice versa.  The IAT is based on the assumption that if the object of an attitude elicits a subconscious attitude that is more negative, then pairing that object with positive attributes should lead to slower response times than if the object of an attitude is more positive.

SNHU Professor of Psychology, Dr. Peter Frost, along with students Roland Denomme and former students, Michael Adie, Annabel Lahaie, Angel Sibley, and Emily Smith, recently investigated whether the IAT could be used to detect people engaged in lying.  In a series of experiments, subjects were first asked to study a description of a crime scene with certain key details that they were told were either correct or incorrect.  During a second phase of the experiment, subjects participated in an interview in which they were either instructed to lie or tell the truth about the key details read in the crime scene description even though the interviewer asked for truthful responses.  In the final phase of the experiment, subjects took the IAT.

Subjects sometimes pressed one key if they saw truthful details or positive attributes and another key if they saw deceptive details or negative attributes. Other times, subjects followed the opposite rule (pressing a key for truthful details or negative attributes and another key for deceptive details or positive attributes).

Frost found that subjects who had lied during the interview were slower at responding when deceptive details shared the same response key with positive attributes than when deceptive details shared a response key with negative attributes. Frost and his research team intend to continue their investigation into whether a subconscious, negative attitude towards lying might slow down associations between deceptive details and positive attributes.

According to Frost, the implications of this new application remain to be seen.  “We haven’t yet examined whether subjects can alter the results if asked to fake their reaction times,” he said.  “At the very least, though, these experiments provide us theoretical clues into the cognitive processes involved with lying.” “Our findings are consistent with past research that has shown certain inhibitory parts of the brain can slow down response times when we lie.” Frost’s findings are scheduled to be published this year in the second issue of the American Journal of Psychology.

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