Can People Tell When a Husband or Wife, Boyfriend or Girlfriend, is Lying?

"One is easily fooled by that which one loves."--Jean Baptiste Poquelin Moliere

roll of dice – convey chanceAgain, people have a very difficult time spotting deception with a complete stranger. All the research shows that people are no better than tossing a coin when trying to detect deception by someone they do not know (see nonverbal cues).

A reasonable person might think that it would be easier to tell if a spouse or lover is lying. After all, people are more intimate with their romantic partners. People know their husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, and how they typically behave.

It should be easy to catch a spouse or lover in a lie by watching their body language. This makes a lot of sense, but unfortunately, the opposite is more likely to be true.

Love is blind. Love makes it difficult to see a partner’s negative behaviors and flaws (see oxytocin may induce blindness).

When people are in love, they place a lot of trust in their romantic partners and think they know them well. While this trust provides people with a sense of security and comfort, it creates an opportunity for deception.couple in love

Every study conducted shows that lovers have a very difficult time actually telling when their partners are lying. Even though detecting deception is difficult with complete strangers, lovers manage to take this skill to a new low (see Levine & McCornack; McCornack & Parks; Millar & Millar; Stiff; Kim & Ramesh; Cole).

This finding is called the "truth-bias" and it is one of the best documented findings when it comes to deception, love and romance. As people become more intimate and more emotionally involved they also become less accurate at detecting their partner’s deception. People are too willing to give their romantic partners the benefit of the doubt.

The "truth-bias" helps explain why deception is almost always discovered by accident (see discovering deception). More often than not, people have a difficult time imagining that their partner could be lying.

Perhaps the easiest way to see the "truth-bias" is not in your own relationship, but a friend’s relationship. Have you ever had a friend, who was in love with someone, but your friend could not see how his or her lover might be lying? Of course, it is always much easier for other people to see the truth.

When we become emotionally involved with someone it is much harder to spot their lies—seeing the truth would simply cause too much pain, especially when it comes to serious issues such as infidelity.

Ironically, while we have a difficult time spotting our lover’s lies, we do not realize it. Most people think they are really good at telling when their partner is lying, but research shows that thinking you are good at detecting deception does not make it so (see detection confidence).

We think we can detect deception because we trust our "gut reaction"—our instinct, if you will. And while we occasionally catch a lover lying, we probably only catch about 1-5% of the lies we are told. So, based on these few successes, we assume we can detect deception better than we can.

Taken together, an interesting pattern begins to emerge.

As intimacy increases:

  • People’s confidence at detecting deception increases.
  • People’s actual ability to detect deception declines.
  • Partners have more reasons to lie (see expectations and lying).

What does this mean?

More often than not, people place the most trust in the person who is most likely to deceive them.

And unfortunately people are the most likely to deceive the person who loves and trusts them the most.