What Mistakes Do People Make When Trying to Detect Deception?

Detecting deception by a romantic partner or spouse is difficult. And people often do things to make the task more complicated.

Specifically, when trying to determine if the truth is being told, people sometimes ask probing questions.

Questions such as:

  • What?
  • Really?
  • Are you sure?
  • How did that happen?

Asking "probing" questions is not as useful as people think. In fact, asking such questions actually makes it more difficult to determine if the truth is being told.

Every study on this this topic shows the same results: asking probing questions hinders a person’s judgment. Asking probing questions generally leads people to assume that someone, who might be lying, is telling the truth.

How and why does this happen?

Two explanations have been offered.

First, asking probing questions often helps the person who might be lying—it gives them feedback (see Stiff & Miller). Asking such questions only tips one’s hand—it reveals that you are suspicious. And if a husband or wife, boyfriend or girlfriend is actually lying, now they can adjust their behavior to appear more honest (also, see catch a cheater). When it comes to detecting deception, asking probing questions helps liars more than it helps those seeking the truth.

Second, asking questions makes matters worse because it also has an impact on a person’s ability to make decisions. People place too much faith on their ability to detect deception, especially when asking probing questions.

If you suspect that a spouse or partner might be lying, probe a bit, and if you still don’t see any obvious indicators of deception, well then, you are more likely to assume that the truth is being told. In other words, if you still can’t tell if a partner is lying after questioning him or her, then he or she must be telling the truth—otherwise, you would have surely discovered the truth (see Levine & McCornack)

This phenomena is called the "probing heuristic." Confidence at detecting deception interferes with one’s ability to actually detect deception. And probing others only makes people more confident, but less accurate, at seeing the truth (see Levine & McCornack).

Overall, every study shows that asking probing questions of a partner is not a good way of getting at the truth.