Lie detection is a notoriously difficult skill to master. In fact, even most so-called lie detection experts — experienced detectives, psychiatrists, job interviewers, judges, polygraph administrators, intelligence agents and auditors — hardly do better than chance. In a massive analysis of studies with more than 24,000 people, psychologists Charles Bond Jr. and Bella DePaulo found that even the experts are right less than 55 percent of the time.
Still, some people are better judges of character than others. So when we need to count on people to assess honesty, we tend to turn to the skeptics among us, expecting that they’ll be thorough and discerning.
Consider a clever study by psychologists Nancy Carter and Mark Weber, who presented business professionals with a scenario about an organization struggling with dishonesty in its hiring interviews. They had the chance to choose one of two highly competent senior managers to be the company’s job interviewer. The major difference between the two managers wasn’t experience or skill, it was a matter of personality: One manager was skeptical and suspicious, whereas the other manager had a habit of trusting others. Eighty-five percent chose the skeptical manager to make the hiring decisions, expecting the trusting manager to be naïve and easily duped.
But are we right that skeptics are better lie detectors? To find out, Carter and Weber created videotapes of eight business students interviewing for a job. Half of the interviewees told the truth throughout the interview, while the other half was instructed to tell three significant lies apiece.
Carter and Weber recruited a group of people to watch the videos. Several days beforehand, they had completed a survey about whether they were generally skeptical or trusting of others. After watching the videos, the participants placed their bets about which candidates lied and which told the truth, and then made a choice about which ones they would hire.
The results were surprising. The more trusting evaluators better identified the liars among the group than the skeptics did, and were also less likely to hire those liars.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s the skeptics who are easiest to fool. Why would this be? One possibility, according to Carter and Weber, is that lie-detection skills cause people to become more trusting. If you’re good at spotting lies, you need to worry less about being deceived by others, because you can often catch them in the act.