The Voice of a Cheater

How effective are verbal cues in exposing our emotions and character?

Throughout this blog, we have dwelled extensively on deception detection but have also focused almost exclusively on nonverbal cues. However, a new study in the journal of Evolutionary Psychology, subtle verbal cues can reveal a wealth of detail about a stranger, even including past infidelity!

In an effort to see how revealing our voices were, Dr. Susan Hughes of Albright College procured a series of audio clips of different people simply counting from one to ten. Half of the speakers had elsewhere admitted to having cheated on a romantic partner in the past, while half had not.

Then, Dr. Hughes asked a series of participants to listen to various audio clips, asking them to extrapolate what they could from just the sound of the voices. These participants were given no outside details or context besides the mundane numerical recitation.

Amazingly, when asked to rank the speakers’ likelihood to cheat, the participants’ rankings matched closely with whether the speaker had a history of infidelity!

These results do have some precedent. Past research has found that verbal cues can reveal a great deal of accurate information, including the speaker’s sex, age, race, height, weight, and even social status. Perhaps most relevantly, previous studies found links between one’s voice and the emotional states beyond deception and past sexual activity.

However, despite the groundbreaking nature of Dr. Hughes’ research, there are still many unanswered questions. For example, she declined to offer a comprehensive explanation for how this is possible!

Dr. Hughes attempted to test whether the pitch of the voice had any effect on participant evaluations. She adjusted the pitch in many of the audio clips, so that the same voice was presented with a higher or lower pitch. This had very little effect, except that men tended to associate infidelity with low pitches in female voices.

This was surprising, as previous research found that pitch does impact listener judgments. Still, while pitch has some role, it “does not represent the entire picture,” as the authors wrote. Instead, “other vocal cues such as clarity of articulation may have also contributed to perceptions of infidelity.”

Perhaps this study asks more questions than it answers, but it brings the verbal aspect of deception detection into a new light.

While we wait for more information, it might be helpful to work on strengthening your ability to detect lies face to face. Similarly, you can read some previous blogs about using microexpressions to tell when you are being lied to here and here!

Income and Emotional Recognition

Would it surprise you that wealthier people are actually worse at reading emotions?

A growing body of research is beginning to show that the less well off a person is the more they have learned to read other people’s emotional expressions. While it might seem counterintuitive, this skill connected with the increased practical necessity of detecting emotions when one is of a lower economic background.

For instance, in a 2010 study, a team of researchers performed a series of experiments on emotional recognition as it related to socioeconomic status. In one experiment, participants were shown a series of portraits and asked to identify the emotions displayed. In another, they engaged in mock job interviews, trying to detect emotions during an actual interaction with another person.

The results were divided between participants with college educations and those without, as the authors saw educational level as an important indicator of economic background. In both instances, the less educated participants scored higher in emotional accuracy, with women unsurprisingly testing higher than men.

A particularly interesting takeaway is the fact that these results did not depend on an actual interaction, as emotional accuracy was also demonstrated from just an analysis of a picture and its facial expression!

One of the authors, Dr. Michael Kraus of Yale University, remarked “Other people’s thoughts, intentions, or wishes loom larger in my outcomes if I’m lower income… That’s because, if something happens to me, I need to recruit other people to help me deal with situations.”

This may also be due to wealthier individuals simply paying less attention to other people in public than those from higher socioeconomic statuses. A 2016 study examined participants as they walked down public streets, using Google Glass technology to track their eye movements.

The study authors found that those with higher incomes tended to look at other people less frequently than those with low incomes. These same results held when participants simply examined pictures of busy streets.

These results, while perhaps surprising, fit with the idea of emotional recognition as a skill rather than some sort of inherent trait. People who need to develop the skill, and have high stakes opportunities to do so, will become better at emotional recognition.

Similarly, past research shows that emotional intelligence is something that is heavily shaped by upbringing, so people raised in low-income households may be more likely to have this skill as a major part of their early education.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t develop this skill, regardless of your income. Teaching people to become better at reading emotions is exactly what Humintell does!

Adaptation to Deception

It seems intuitive that lying gets easier the more we do it, but that may actually be supported at the neurological level!

New research found that, when we lie frequently, our brain begins to adapt to the practice of deception, to the point that we no longer feel the emotional stress that normally comes with lying. These results are important both for informing on how we practice deception but also for shedding light on the ways in which our brains adapt to patterns of, perhaps immoral, behavior.

Typically, when we tell a lie, our brain’s amygdala produces a negative emotional state, essentially making us feel stressed or uncomfortable during the process. However, a new study in Nature Neuroscience contends that, the more people lie, the less their brain produces negative stimuli.

In this study, participants were given images of glass jars filled with pennies. They were asked to report the number of pennies but were often incentivized to exaggerate the amount. While they often told the truth, they often engaged in deception when given self-interested reasons to do so.

Over the course of repeated deceptions, the researchers tracked each participants’ amygdala’s functioning, finding that they became less intensely activated each time. This even remained the case when the magnitude of the lie increased.

This last point is especially troubling, as it suggests that minor lies can escalate into major acts of deception the more accustomed to them we become. Study author Dr. Tali Sharot emphasized this point saying, “[the amygdala] response fades as we continue to lie, and the more it falls the bigger our lies become. This may lead to a ‘slippery slope’ where small acts of dishonesty escalate into more significant lies.”

In fact, the study also found that, not only did people begin to feel better about lying the more they did it, but they also became more likely to do so.

While this experiment demonstrates how our brains react to deception, it may also reflect broader trends in our ability to adapt emotionally to other actions. The lead author, Dr. Neil Garrett, alluded to the possibility of these results being replicated during troublesome behaviors besides lying.

Dr. Garrett remarked “We only tested dishonesty in this experiment, but the same principle may also apply to escalations in other actions such as risk taking or violent behavior.”

What do the results of this study mean for efforts to detect deception? In fact, it bolsters many of the challenges with lie detection, namely that habitual liars can be incredibly good at it. Not only do they learn how to lie, but their brain actually adapts to the practice!

This is all a great reason to let Humintell train you to become a better lie detector! But in the meantime, check out some helpful tips here and here.

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