Dr Timothy Levine on deception: Truth-Default Theory, spotting liars and how not to be wrongfully convicted (#14)

Can you spot a liar? 

If I showed you videos of ten people who were asked if they had cheated on a test, do you think you could spot the five liars? 

You’d be surprised to know that your ability to spot the liars would be little better than a coin toss. 

But this should not be a surprise. After all, we’ve all been burnt at some point. We all know what it feels like to be fooled. 

Why are we so bad at spotting liars? 

Why do we not notice when our partners are cheating? 

Why do we only detect fraud after the damage is done? 

Why do we fall for scams or get-rich-quick schemes? 

If you’ve read Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell then you might already by familiar with the idea of Truth-Default Theory. We are super excited by the opportunity today to dig deeper into deception and Truth-Default Theory by talking to the very person who developed the theory! 

Dr Timothy Levine is one of the leading researchers in the area of deception and he is an expert on interpersonal communication.  He is Distinguished Professor and Chair of Communication Studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Dr Levine’s teaching and research interests include deception, interpersonal communication, persuasion and social influence. He has published more than 140 journal articles. His research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, Department of Defence, and Department of Justice. His work has received press coverage from New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, NBC, CNN, Discovery Chanel, and National Geographic.  

His latest book was released last year. I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the topic of deception. The book is called Duped: Truth-Default Theory and the Social Science of Lying and Deception. The book details Dr Levine’s 30-year program of research on deception which has led to the development and testing of Truth-Default Theory. 

We hope you enjoy this eye-opening conversation with Dr Timothy Levine. 

You can find Dr Timothy Levine at his website

You can listen to the episode on Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher or Simplecast

Show Notes

3:15 – the importance of interpersonal communication.
6:38 – causes of breakdowns in communication.
8:58 – how a student challenged Dr Levine’s thinking on deception.
14:34 – the value of being open-minded and humble.
16:36 – how good are we at telling lies?
18:37 – why are we not better at spotting lies?
20:07 – being truth biased is helpful.
21:05 – how prevalent is lying?
23:26 – why do people lie?
25:46 – lying to protect other people’s feelings.
28:35 – most common lies.
31:04 – is evasion deception?
34:09 – the role of motive in detecting lies.
35:27 – what is truth default theory and how did it help deception detection?
37:34 – non verbal cues cannot help us detect lies.
38:09 – how we can actually detect lies.
42:15 – cheating experiments.
46:34 – are federal agents better at detecting lies?
48:14 – what questions can we ask to tell if someone is lying?
49:57 – how even professionals can get it wrong. The Amanda Knox case.
52:11 – how to be more believable.
56:43 – your reaction to being accused can make you look guilty.
58:39 – finding the balance between scepticism and truth default.
01:00:48 – What got Tim into deception.
01:02:05 – is love really blind?
01:03:37 – Is Santa is real?
01:06:30 – importance of character in deciding whether to believe someone.
01:08:16 – two big take-aways.
01:08:58 – how to connect with Dr Timothy Levine.

Links to References 

Dr Hee Sun Park, professor at Seoul University in Korea 

Truth-Default Theory 

Amanda Knox  

McCormack, S. and Parks M.R. (1986), Deception Detection and Relationship Development: The Other Side of Trust, Annals of the International Communication Association 9(1):377-389

Trumps’s 20,000 deceptive statements 


Talking to Strangers by Malcom Gladwell 

Duped: Truth-Default Theory and the Social Science of Lying and Deception by Timothy Levine 

Key Quotes

“Communication is essential to us as a species.” 

“We were so good at working together…very few animal species can work together in large groups like we humans can.” 

“Humans can pass along knowledge and learn from people we have never even met.” 

“Good social integration and relationship are fundamental to our health.” 

“…a strong relationship between mortality and social integration…the health advantages of social integration is about the equivalent to smoking or not smoking 15 cigarettes per day.” 

“The top 2 …disagreements about factual matters…and difference of definition.” 

“This brand new student was telling me that I didn’t understand my own work.” 

“She earned a lot of respect…immediately…these days we are married…” 

“As this ties in specifically to communication… two points…one is the real value of being open minded and the second is that narcissism is the enemy of good communication. If you are too full of yourself and too worried about your own image and own ego you are not going to be very good at relating to other people…being a good communicator has to be to some extent be about the other person” 

“People are almost invariably truth biased …people pick truth more often than lying…they get the honest ones right and are missing the lies.” 

“Most communication is honest, believing other people works well for us, most of the time.”

“You wouldn’t go to school if you didn’t believe or trust what the professor was saying.” 

“We asked how many times have you lied in the last 24 hours….two people out of 600 who claimed not to have told lies in 90 days.” 

“Lying is not random, people lie in particular situation…when the truth is a problem for us.” 

“If you like the gift you got for Christmas you are going to be perfectly honest in telling the person how much you like it, it is only if you don’t like it that you might hide that fact.” 

“I don’t equate brutal honest with honesty.” 

“Self-serving lies are more frequent.” 

“Avoidance lies is a super common category of lies…’I have other plans'”

“In social science experiments…other people pretending to be participants…..really acting…..you find people almost never pick up on that fact.” 

“Matched communicators seem like what they are, mismatched communicators are the opposite to what they seem like ….a really socially awkward honest person is mismatched.” 

“Our impressions of other people are a packaged thing…body language, tone of voice…all weave together to create an impression”

“What I like about deception is the puzzle…I like that it is not well understood…that gives me a chance to make a splash with my research.” 

“Generally, the closer you are to somebody, the more you think you can tell they are lying, the more you believe them and the more you miss the lies.” 

“Any given lie probably doesn’t say much about them as a person…in cases where there are patterns of a lie…that is good to know…we need to be on guard and we are at risk…I try to turn off my truth default with them.” 

“People are more honest than you think, people lie less than you think they do.” 

About the author

Divan and Mark are co-hosts of the Candour Communication Podcast where we discuss interpersonal communication and all the human stuff that gets in the way.