Video game trains people to better discern truth from lies—and how to spot deceptive behavior

July 10, 2018 by Shelly Leachman, University of California - Santa Barbara

All liars have classic tells: the lack of eye contact, the fidgeting, the overly elaborate stories. Except when they don't.

In fact, researchers say, the most adept deceivers often don't present any of those signs and, further, the average observer's tendency to rely on such impedes their ability to tell when someone is lying. But those detection skills can be improved markedly with as little as one hour of training.

That is among the primary findings of new research from Norah Dunbar, a UC Santa Barbara professor of communication who has been studying deception and credibility for 20 years, now online in the journal Computers in Human Behavior. The publication culminates a National Science Foundation-funded project to develop a video that trains participants in .

That game, VERITAS (Veracity Education and Reactance Instruction through Technology and Applied Skills), has now been built and tested repeatedly with college students and with officers.

And it works.

"This was a proof of concept prototype to see if we can move the needle, and it seems that we can," said Dunbar, chair of UCSB's communication department and faculty research affiliate with the Center for Information Technology and Society, who recently presented her research to members of Congress at special event put on by NSF. "Even a single session can improve the ability to accurately detect truth and lies."

Looking at whether or not participants could tell the difference between truth and lies, on average, players at the start of the game scored "not much better than chance—about 56 percent accurate. By the end of the game they're 68 percent accurate, and that's just playing for about an hour. Law enforcement participants started the game with higher accuracy, 62 percent, and improved to 78 percent. That's a big jump."

The game presents players with two different scenarios—one revolves around a job interview, the other a workplace theft—and challenges them to discern whether the actors in those scenarios are lying or telling the truth. They're also asked to identify the basis of their conclusion.

"Sometimes they guess right but are using incorrect cues, so we give feedback about what cues they should use instead," Dunbar explained. "There are some reliable cues for deception but the average person doesn't know about them. The average person thinks a lot of myths and stereotypes and they use their biases and make judgments based on things that aren't very accurate or scientific.

"If a person said, 'I think she wasn't truthful because wasn't looking at me,' the game would tell them, 'Eye contact not a reliable cue, instead you should rely on these real cues,'" she continued. "We try to teach people not to look for individual cues, like tapping a foot or looking up. There is no Pinocchio's nose, no one thing that will tell you definitively if someone is lying. People will be different, and do different things."

Here's where the training comes in. VERITAS improves knowledge of deceptive behavior, Dunbar said, by coaching participants to watch for clusters of cues, or patterns. One such cluster (and potential red flag): uncertainty, tension and cognitive load. Call it a liar's trifecta.

"Lying is cognitively difficult—you have to think about what you know, what you already said, what the other person said, if you're consistent—so liars will often indicate that they are thinking harder," Dunbar explained. "They might repeat themselves a lot, or repeat your questions before answering, or wait longer to answer. Those are all cognitive load cues. A liar may show signs of uncertainty or what we call a 'lack of embracement' of their story. They might seem tense—stiff, rigid, not gesturing much—like they're trying not to show anything. We call it 'freeze mode' and it's very unnatural.

"There is no one cue that's our magic bean to tell us when someone is lying," Dunbar added, "but all these cues added up together—that says something."

Intriguingly, when asked to assess statements made by actors in the game, most VERITAS players defaulted to the same determination: truth. That commonality reflects what is known as truth bias, "which is that we guess truth when we feel there is no good reason to suspect lying."

"One interesting finding is that people tend to be better at detecting truthful statements, because of that truth default," said Dunbar. (She also is studying how people develop trust when they are lying as part of a Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative grant funded by the Department of Defense.) "Their accuracy in assessing lies is often below 50 percent because they don't guess 'lie' often enough. And the game doesn't make them more accurate in guessing lies, but it does improve accuracy in guessing truth and overall knowledge about deception."

"We compared results from the game to those from a Powerpoint lecture and found that with the game, people were more engaged, they were more motivated, they got better at detecting and they improved their knowledge about deception detection," Dunbar added. "So it holds a lot of promise in how to train people how to detect lies."

Which is why she hopes to expand it.

With broad potential for application in a range of fields, VERITAS in its current iteration already has great success rates. And those numbers would surely grow, Dunbar said, with an extended version.

"If we get more funding we would like to make more scenarios for the game," she said. "Lie detection is an important skill in the medical community. Doctors sometimes have trouble telling if patients are being truthful—opioid seekers, for instance. I had someone contact me to say he wanted to use it for insurance fraud investigators. There are a lot of situations where it could be useful."

Explore further: People with ASD risk being manipulated because they can't tell when they're being lied to

More information: Norah E. Dunbar et al. Reliable deception cues training in an interactive video game, Computers in Human Behavior (2018). DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2018.03.027

Related Stories

People with ASD risk being manipulated because they can't tell when they're being lied to

May 22, 2018
A new study shows that the ability to distinguish truth from lies is diminished in people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) - putting them at greater risk of being manipulated.

Liars find it more rewarding to tell truth than fib when deceiving others

January 23, 2014
A University of Toronto report based on two neural imaging studies that monitored brain activity has found individuals are more satisfied to get a reward from telling the truth rather than getting the same reward through ...

The lying game

October 30, 2015
University of Huddersfield investigative psychology lecturer Dr Chris Street is making breakthroughs that are leading towards a clearer understanding of how humans tell lies and how their deceptions can be detected. For more ...

The unconscious mind can detect a liar—even when the conscious mind fails

March 24, 2014
When it comes to detecting deceit, your automatic associations may be more accurate than conscious thought in pegging truth-tellers and liars, according to research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association ...

Recommended for you

Researchers discover abundant source for neuronal cells

December 13, 2018
USC researchers seeking a way to study genetic activity associated with psychiatric disorders have discovered an abundant source of human cells—the nose.

New genetic clues to early-onset form of dementia

December 13, 2018
Unlike the more common Alzheimer's disease, frontotemporal dementia tends to afflict young people. It accounts for an estimated 20 percent of all cases of early-onset dementia. Patients with the illness typically begin to ...

Video game players frequently exposed to graphic content may see world differently

December 13, 2018
People who frequently play violent video games are more immune to disturbing images than non-players, a UNSW-led study into the phenomenon of emotion-induced blindness has shown.

How teens deal with stress may affect their blood pressure, immune system

December 13, 2018
Most teens get stressed out by their families from time to time, but whether they bottle those emotions up or put a positive spin on things may affect certain processes in the body, including blood pressure and how immune ...

Increased motor activity linked to improved mood

December 12, 2018
Increasing one's level of physical activity may be an effective way to boost one's mood, according to a new study from a team including scientists at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in collaboration with the ...

How bullying affects the brain

December 12, 2018
New research from King's College London identifies a possible mechanism that shows how bullying may influence the structure of the adolescent brain, suggesting the effects of constantly being bullied are more than just psychological.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.