Scientists have found that psychopaths lie. At face value, it may seem pretty obvious. But they were looking at the trait as an identifying marker of someone with antisocial personality disorder (the umbrella term the National Institutes for Health uses to define psychopathy).
It was previously assumed that people with antisocial personality disorder were natural-born liars – that something about the way their brains are wired made them inherently better at deceiving those around them. But a small new study suggests that’s not the case. Instead, it appears that people who score highly on so-called “psychopathic traits,” such as impulsive behavior and a lack of remorse, may actually be better at learning to lie than people who don’t.
The new study, published July 25 in the journal Translational Psychiatry, involved 52 college students – roughly half of whom showed low levels of psychopathic traits and half of whom showed high levels of those traits. Tatia Lee, a neuropsychologist at the University of Hong Konand fellow University of Hong Kong researcher Robin Shao had the students look at photographs of friends and strangers. When asked whether they knew the person in the photo, the participants were given a cue to either lie or tell the truth. During the exercise, the researchers measured how long it took them to respond and used fMRI technology to look at their brain activity. The students were subsequently given a computer training designed to teach them to lie faster, then were asked to repeat the photo exercise.
The lie-training seemed to change their performance remarkably – when the students with high levels of psychopathic traits were instructed to lie, they did so much faster than the students with low levels of the traits. The students with low levels of psychopathic traits, on the other hand, performed about the same before and after the training.
In addition to being able to lie faster, students with high levels of psychopathic traits also appeared to do so with less cognitive effort, judging by the fMRI scan data. Lee said this could suggest that for psychopaths lying is more like a skill that can be learned – and learned fast.
So people with higher psychopathic tendency may not have a ‘natural’ capacity to lie better, but rather show better ‘trainability’ of lying. In other words, they might simply learn to lie better.
Other studies delve deeper. What personality type lies better? Did you guess that frequent liars are more likely to be manipulative and scheming people than are more honest folks? If you did, surprise! I’m not going to tell you to abandon your preconceived notions about liars. People who are more manipulative (as measured by a Machiavellianism scale and a measure of Social Adroitness) lie more often than people who are less manipulative.
Guess who else lies more? Extraverts. Here’s where it mattered that we kept track of people’s social interactions and not just their lies. If we only counted lies, then extraverts would have many more opportunities to tell lies than introverts, because they spend more time around other people. Instead, we looked at rates of lying — the number of lies people told relative to the number of opportunities they had to tell lies. Extraverts lied at a higher rate than introverts (though the difference was not big).
Why do extraverts tell more lies than introverts? I think it is because the little lies of everyday life can make social interactions run smoothly. Extraverts are versed in social niceties, and practice them so often that they probably do not even realize how often they are lying. In fact, we found some evidence for that among the college students. At the end of the week, when the extraverts saw the total number of lies they had told, they said that they were surprised at how often they had lied. We don’t really know for sure, though, why extraverts lie more, so feel free to share your insights.
The results for one other personality trait are totally obvious. That trait is responsibility, as measured by a scale by the same name that picks out people who are responsible, honest, ethical, dependabl, and reliable. Responsible people were less likely to tell lies than less responsible people — especially the kinds of lies that are self-serving.
But then again, take everything with a little pinch of salt. Don’t start to profile the people around you because I think that the mind is a deep and wondrous place. And if the above is true then poor Pinocchio!