“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” – Mark Twain.
This quote might seem perplexing to the average person that doesn’t understand the cognitive processes behind lying. However, if you stop to think about it for a second, it really makes sense, doesn’t it?
It’s human nature to lie, but the reality is it takes a lot more effort, mental capacity, and planning to lie than it does, to tell the truth. Do you remember the last lie you told? You probably don’t have a great recollection of the details you used in the lie.
That’s because it never happened.
Lying covers several domains of cognitive function. While the argument of its moral implications confounds philosophers, religions, and societies, it’s a common element of human behavior, and no one is completely honest all the time.
However, the cognitive component of lying is extensive, involving memory, attention, and creative processes. This post examines the frameworks around telling lies and how our brain formulates deceptive behavior.
Lying – A Definition
We can define lying as the act of deliberately feeding another person false information by misleading them through verbal or written communication. Research shows that almost everyone lies regularly, and some do it daily while others do it occasionally – but we all do it.
While it’s common behavior, that doesn’t mean it’s doing our mental health and function any favors. Telling a lie is far more mentally taxing than telling the truth. When we lie, we undergo the following processes.
- We must decide whether we’re going to tell a lie.
- We must suppress the truth in our minds.
- We must fabricate the lie as a plausible alternative to telling the truth.
- We must ensure the details of our deception make sense to the other person.
There are many more steps involved in telling a lie than there are in speaking the truth. For instance, let’s say a teenager is crawling out the window to go to a party at 11 pm, and their parents catch them in the act.
Do they confess to what they’re doing or decide to tell a lie? If they lie, what story will they tell their parents to justify their behavior? How will they deliver the lie to make it believable to their folks?
The teen must make these mental decisions in seconds, or they’ll have to face the consequences of their actions – that’s going to take some serious mental gymnastics.
Lying and Memory
Telling a lie on the spot is challenging for most people. It takes time for our cognition to override the autonomous processes involved with telling the truth. As mentioned, lying isn’t only about coming up with false information to feed to others; it also involves suppressing our instinct for telling the truth.
The need for inhibition when telling lies has physical and mental manifestations in our minds and body. For instance, when people choose to lie, it usually results in a slowing of body language, verbal hesitation, and a dilation of the pupils.
We’ve all experienced this firsthand when telling lies. You can notice a liar by the way they use words like “um” and “uh” when formulating the lie because they’re struggling to complete the mental gymnastics involved with the task.
They’re running out of mental capacity to hold the details of the lie they create. This is where memory gets involved with the process. Any lie we tell relies on long-term memory to provide a substitute for actual events or relies on our internal database’s general knowledge to construct it.
Telling lies relates to our working memory and ability to process and remember several pieces of information simultaneously. An example of working memory is remembering the order of events in a story when someone tells it to you.
We utilize working memory in deception to recall the details of previous lies while verbally communicating that information to others. So, the role of working memory when telling lies is to recall the lie and update our responses to follow-up questions when someone suspects us of acting deceptively.
Since lying requires balancing multiple contradicting information, liars with better working memory can manage the cognitive load involved with lying more efficiently, making them better at deception than those that can’t.
The Methodology of Lying
Since the cognitive load on the mind is much higher when lying than when telling the truth, why do we do it? The reality is while lying might take more mental effort, it’s not impossible to do. We master the art of lying through practice – it’s all about the repetition of the process. The more often we do it, the better we get at it.
So, people who are good at lying aren’t necessarily smarter; they’re just better practiced and more experienced with the behavior. Therefore, lying is more about methodology and memory than morals or motivations. Since we’re creatures of habit and learn through repetition, it makes lying easy.
7 Perspectives on the Cognitive Processes of Deception
There are seven general perspectives on the cognitive processes behind telling lies. Let’s look into each of them in detail.
#1 The Four-Factor Theory of Deception
In 1981, Zuckerman outlined the “Four-Factor Theory of deception.” The cognitive processes involved with this theory include the following.
- Generalized arousal.
- Guilt and emotions.
- Cognitive facets.
- Attempts to control non-verbal and verbal cues to avoid detection.
This concept speculates that telling lies creates a larger cognitive load on the brain than telling the truth. As a result, the liar has a longer response time to inquiries. However, the theory doesn’t expand on the cognitive processes involved with telling lies. Instead, it focuses on the multi-faceted, complex nature of deception.
#2 Preoccupation Model of Secrecy
The cognitive load created by formulating lies of omission is central to the theory devised by Lane and Wegner in 1995. It suggests that if an individual keeps a secret, such as withholding the truth of an affair from their romantic partner, the primary cognitive strategy involved in the suppression of thoughts.
In other words, they would stop thinking about the affair to avoid accidentally blurting it out during a conversation with their partner. However, over time, the suppression of these thoughts will actually cause the secret affair to creep into the person’s thoughts. Hence, “I can’t stop thinking about the affair and what I did.” “I must try harder to block out these memories.”
This suppression cycle advances to the point of obsession over these memories, even after confessing the secret to their partner. The Preoccupation Model of Secrecy model acknowledges the challenges involved in hiding guilt, underscoring the memory processes involved in deception.
#3 Cognitive Load and Dishonesty
In 2010, Vrij and Granhag identified six ways dishonest cognitive load can exceed those processes involved with honesty. While they don’t have a working theory, they outlined the following six processes involved in telling a lie.
- Formulating the lie is cognitively demanding on the brain’s processes, resulting in the need for a novel response when others don’t take their credibility for granted.
- Liars will monitor and control their behavior to appear honest.
- Liars will monitor the other person’s reactions to see if they believe the lie.
- Liars must remind themselves of the need to role-play.
- Liars must suppress the truth in their minds as they formulate the lie.
- Registration and activation of the truth is an autonomous response that happens immediately. However, the formulation and activation of lies are more deliberate and take longer for the brain to process.
#4 The IMT – Information Manipulation Theory II
Information Manipulation Theory II, developed by McCornack in 1992, outlines how we deceptively alter information in our communications. The theory relies on the foundation of Grice’s “Cooperative Principle” from 1989, outing the expectations of two conversing parties.
- IMT2 suggests deception is a violation of the following unspoken conversational agreements.
- The receiving party in the conversation expects the other to tell them accurate information. The other party tells a lie when they knowingly communicate false information.
- The receiving party in the conversation expects the other to share everything and not withhold important information. Lies of omission violate this agreement.
- The receiving party expects the information from the other to be relevant to the conversation. Any attempt to sidetrack the other party from the information they need is deceptive.
- The receiving party expects the information from the other to be ordered, clear, and expressed briefly. If the other person delivers the information ambiguously or obscurely, it’s an attempt to divert the receiving parties’ attention from the information they want to hear.
IMTII guidelines show why information sharing might be deceptive, explaining spontaneous lying in normal conversations. However, it’s not as useful in identifying long-winded lies in in-depth discussions with others.
#5 Working Memory Model of Deception
The Sporer and Schwandt “Working Memory Model of Deception” from 2007 says telling lies requires more cognitive effort due to the additional load placed on cognition than telling the truth. As we know, telling the truth requires retrieving or reconstructing memories.
People must invent a new story or modify one from their past experience or a script when they lie. The story’s narrative must be plausible to the target and not contain contradictions to the knowledge of the account held by the target.
The liar must also monitor the target for any signs of suspicion when telling a lie. When the liar doesn’t have any past experience or script to present to the target, it creates extra pressure on the working memory, resulting in lowered speech production.
#6 ADCM – Activation-Decision-Construction Model
The ADCM model from Walczyk in 2005 & 2009 analyzes the act of lying to questions into four components.
- A read or heard question automatically activates the long-term memory of the liar.
- The liar lies based on the truth and the social context of the question, usually to advance their goals.
- This decision actively inhibits the ability, to tell the truth.
- The liar develops a context-appropriate story that’s plausible and coherent.
Experts believe the ADCM theory is accurate but does not explain the roles of emotional, executive, social, and motivational factors involved with telling a lie.
#7 ADCAT – Activation-Decision-Construction-Action Theory
ADCAT is a “high-stakes” cognitive theory of deception. The liar is usually involved in a serious situation, such as being questioned by police, being confronted as a cheater by their wife, or being interviewed and asked about inconsistencies on their CV.
These lies usually require extensive planning and rehearsal by the liar. The theory goes into more detail about the emotional, executive, social, and motivational factors involved with telling a lie than the ADCM model.
ADCAT relies on the established constructs involved in cognitive science, such as the liar’s dependence on their “working memory” and their “theory of mind.” It emphasizes the liar’s manipulation of information over the monitoring and controlling of their non-verbal behavior.
The Roles of Emotion & Motivation in Lying
Motivation plays a huge role in the successful deception of others. A liar’s motivation to succeed with deception will moderate the verbal and physical cues they produce when telling a lie. For example, a highly-motivated liar usually exhibits physical cues in their attempt to control their expressive behavior.
The ADCAT model interprets the liar’s level of motivation as the cognitive resources the liar is willing to use to ensure the lie is believable. The more incentive they have, the more cognitive resources they commit to the process to sustain it.
Emotions play several important roles in this cognitive process. They act as strong motivators for deception. For instance, if the liar feels anxious when telling a lie, it creates extra cognitive load when creating the lie, reducing the number of cognitive resources they have available for telling a lie.
Emotions or the memories and emotions created by telling the truth, the social context of the lie, or the anticipation of the reaction in the target to the lie, or their potential to detect the lie impact the liar’s decision to create and tell the lie.