Deception Detection

Evolutionarily speaking (and commercially speaking for that matter), people could have benefitted from committing deception. Humans are not the only primates that lie, but they are the only ones with the unique intelligence to be able to construct elaborate, self-serving lies. Therefore, they have used this skill throughout history to gain wealth, build social status, attract a mate, or to acquire and hoard information.[1]

Lying is a tried-and-true human function used to achieve wealth and status that is pervasive today.[2] In the world of commerce and international diplomacy, lying and getting away with it are common endeavors. It might be more pervasive if people were good at lying and good at detecting when someone is trying to lie to them. But people are not very good at detecting deception.[3]

What People are Actually Trying to Hide

One person is on the deceiving end, and one is on the receiving end. The deceiver is trying to conceal or misrepresent the truth to the receiver to create a false understanding, so the receiver does not have an accurate perception of reality.[4] It is an attempt to convince another party, possibly an adversary or competitor, that something is not true or that the truth is something other than what it is.[5] There are two sides to this social interaction; the teller of the fiction is willfully concealing something from the receiver who is not privy to the information to begin with. This behavior is akin to corruption and can support other forms of dishonest and self-serving conduct.[6]

Detecting Deception

As mentioned, in general, people are not good at detecting if someone is lying to them. The signs someone is trying to lie might be there, such as displays of nervousness and intentional suppression of displays of nervousness. Physical manifestations of one’s cognitive load may present themselves through obvious physical signs of stress.[7]

This does not mean that the presentation of signs of deception is as obvious as one might think. When engaging in deceptive behavior, people deliberately or subconsciously act differently than when they go about their normal, honest activities.[8] In fact, deceptive behavior operates more at the subconscious level. People who deceive others or even themselves do so more unwittingly, unaware of the motives for their actions.[9]

Low-Ranking vs. High-Ranking Cheaters

Some thought about who is more likely to deceive whom centers around one’s place in the social hierarchy. Scholars have hinted that higher-status or higher-ranking people in society are more likely to detect when someone is trying to deceive them than lower-ranking people are. In this ranked society, dominant individuals who have priority access to resources must detect and punish cheaters to maintain their status.[10] For lower-ranking people to have a better chance of deceiving higher-ranking people, they might first deceive themselves before trying to deceive a superior.[11]

Denise Cummins ran two experiments looking at how cheater detection was influenced by dominance theory. From an evolutionary perspective, dominance theory describes how certain people at certain levels of the social hierarchy have priority access to resources. From a cognitive perspective, dominance theory describes the accepted social norms and the obligations of these people in monitoring violations of those norms. Dominance theory suggests that higher-ranking individuals in the social order are more likely to detect cheating in lower-ranking people, and not the other way around.[12]

Competition over resources within society can be quite fierce, and the consequences of getting the short end of the straw quite costly. The ‘haves’ want to maintain their hold over resources, be they material wealth or access to information, and the ‘have nots’ want to increase their status and access. Dominance theory maintains that those at the top are motivated to monitor the activities of those at the bottom to prevent them from cheating to encroach on their material wealth. Therefore, higher-ranking individuals would have developed a greater ability to detect deception through time than lower-ranking people would. This is assuming that lower-ranking people would resort to lying and cheating to advance their position to achieve competitive resources. This deception would be a violation of the social norm that higher-ranking people would strive to prevent, but, according to the theory, lower-ranking people would need to perform to attain a higher-ranking position.[13]

People are generally not good at lying, so it goes to assume that they are not good at deceiving anyone, either themselves or others. Some scientists believe people who reside at a higher stratum of society are better at detecting deception than people in a lower stratum because they need to maintain their status and access to wealth. This may not be a hard and fast rule as people generally are weak liars.


  • people are not good at detecting deception

  • deceivers act differently when they attempt to deceive than when they go about normal, honest activities, and they may be unwitting of the differences

  • some believe that higher-ranking people in society are better at detecting deception than lower-ranking people

[1] Williams et al. (2009) [2] Williams et al. (2009) [3] Persaud (2005) [4] Nicolaides et al. (2018) [5] Shulsky (2000) [6] Fleming and Zyglidopoulos (2007) [7] Von Hippel and Trivers (2011) [8] Craig et al. (2013) [9] Peck (1983) [10] Cummins (1999) [11] Lu and Chang (2011) [12] Cummins (1999) [13] Cummins (1999)

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