Why Do People Overestimate Their Ability Detect Lying and Deception?

Most people think that they are really good at detecting deception, especially with a loved one (a spouse or boyfriend or girlfriend).

Again, the exact opposite is more likely to be true (see Levine & McCornack; McCornack & Parks; DePaulo; Charlton; Cooper; Lindsay; and Muhlenbruck).

If you are confident that you can catch a lover lying, that is a good sign that you are probably not very good at it (same holds true for parents and children). In fact, people who are unsure of their ability to detect deception tend to be better at it.

There are several reasons why people place too much faith in their ability to detect deception.

First, confidence judgments are based on highly selective events. On occasion people catch a lover lying. When this happens, people typically think they are good at detecting deception—after all, I just caught someone lying to me, so I must be good at spotting lies.

There is, however, a problem with this way of thinking. It is wrong to assume that you are good at detecting deception simply because you notice someone lying on occasion.

This kind of reasoning is problematic because you are only paying attention to a highly selective class of events—an instance where you catch someone in a lie. To accurately assess your skills at detecting deception, however, you need to know about all the lies you were told—those you caught as well as those you failed to catch.

Unfortunately, we only notice our successes and not our failures. And there are many, many more failures than successes—probably close to a 100 failures for every success—it is estimated that people get away with almost all of their lies.

So, in reality, when you catch a lover lying, you have undoubtedly failed to detect A LOT of deception. But, because you failed to detect most of the lies you were told, you are not able to use that information when making an accurate assessment about your detection skills.

Accordingly, people overestimate their ability to catch a lover lying because such confidence judgments are based on limited evidence of success while ignoring the majority of mistakes were made.

Second, it is also psychologically comforting to think that you can detect deception. Such a belief provides a sense of comfort and security. No one wants to live in a world where they are uncertain about what is going on. Confidence at detecting deception, even when it is misplaced, helps reduce uncertainty and gives people a (false) sense of control.