Cover Story

Scientists' considerable work on detecting interpersonal deception includes both content-analytic approaches (what information is being communicated) and behavior-analytic approaches (how the information is being communicated) and usually focuses on detecting lies, as opposed to detecting omissions or obfuscation.

However, despite this significant scientific work on detecting deception, there is surprisingly little on actually conducting it, note experts in the field. Questions that remain largely unasked by scientists include: What are the most effective methods for deceiving? What are the key personal and environmental variables for success or failure? What factors shorten, prolong or amplify the effect of deception?

Such questions could all be investigated empirically, yet this hasn't happened either among scientists or those in professions or vocations where deception features prominently, says Scott Gerwehr, a doctoral student in psychology and policy analyst for the RAND Corp. For example, he notes that agents in undercover police and intelligence work lack written doctrine on how to deceive and rarely subject any existing doctrine to rigorous scientific inquiry.

To help remedy this situation, APA in June coordinated a meeting of internationally recognized experts on deception at Marymount University in Arlington, Va. Attendees examined a range of deception-related issues to:

  • Identify gaps or untested hypotheses regarding the practice of deception in the scientific literature and professional knowledge base.

  • Formulate a "road map" of scientific experimentation to address shortcomings, inaccuracies and gaps in existing doctrine.

Among the topics discussed was the potential to glean--from the scientific literature of deception-detection studies--hypotheses reversing those studies' findings. For example, notes Gerwehr, who conceptualized and attended the meeting, if appearing tense and giving a negative impression can be cues to deception, then scientists may hypothesize that a means to achieving deception is appearing relaxed and likeable.

Moreover, says Gerwehr, from interviews with those who professionally practice deception, scientists may discover principles of effective interpersonal deception that generalize across a range of fields, such as acting, smuggling, unscrupulous sales or con artistry.

Mining both the scientific literature and the expertise of practitioners could, adds Gerwehr, ultimately help in the training of intelligence and other law-enforcement officers doing legitimate undercover work.


Geoffrey Mumford, PhD, is APA director of science policy.