Jan. 24, 2013 at 12:43 PM ET
You can get better at lying with more practice, a recent study suggests.
Researchers found that with a little training, people can learn to tell a lie more automatically and efficiently. It gets easier for folks to repeat the lies and becomes harder for them to differentiate deception from telling the truth.
The idea that lying becomes easier with more practice comes on the heels of news from the sports world of two high-profile athletes publicly admitting their tall tales. It's something cyclist Lance Armstrong and Notre Dame football player Manti Te'o may have both discovered while repeating their own lies about not using performance enhancing drugs or the "death" of Te'o's fake online girlfriend even after learning he was the victim of a hoax.
In this small study, published in the journal Frontiers in Cognitive Science, scientists looked at whether lying can be trained to become more automatic and a less demanding task for the brain. The research involved 48 college students from China who were assigned to either an instruction group, a training group, or a control group.
After all groups completed a task for the first time, the instruction group was told to speed up their deceptive responses and make fewer errors during their second attempt. The training group was also told to speed up their deceptive responses and make fewer errors, but they also received more practice and were given more time to prepare their lies. The control group simply repeated the task for a second time.
Researchers noticed that the reaction time needed to tell lies was reduced in both the training and instruction groups. But the results also revealed that only the training group, who had the most practice telling lies, no longer took more time to be dishonest compared with telling the truth.
"We were surprised to find that lying is more malleable than previously thought," said study author Xiaoqing Hu, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
Simply asking the participants to speed up and make fewer errors when telling a lie enabled the participants to do so, he explained. "In other words, a strong motivation makes people a better liar."
Exactly how does lying become easier and more automatic with practice?
As Hu explained it, lying is usually accompanied by conflicting thoughts because people are mostly honest and genuine during social interactions.
But what he believed happened during his study is that as participants repeatedly practiced retrieving a dishonest response from their minds, the original conflicts and barriers to lying were reduced, and people became better at stretching the truth.
Previous research had claimed that lying is more cognitively demanding than being honest and lying cannot be made easier. The thinking was that constructing lies and keeping them straight in someone's head required more mental work, so people typically took a little longer to give false responses compared with giving honest answers, and they made more mistakes when fibbing.
Yet Hu's study results indicate that this may not necessarily be the case. He said that lying can be more multifaceted, and repeating a lie makes it more fluent or easier.
"People can also become good at deceiving themselves, which is similar to a repeated lie," Hu pointed out.
Although Hu admits he did not follow the Armstrong or Te'o news closely, his research findings seem to suggest that once you repeat lies often enough -- and especially when you have a good reason to do so, such as to maintain a positive self-image or to avoid punishment -- you may no longer feel that you are lying.
"Once people feel their lying is justified, they may no longer experience the moral or mental conflict," Hu said.