Dishonesty Uncovered - Episode 1: Truth Default Theory

Posted on 05 August 2021

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.  Conversations on the legal topics affecting businesses and individuals today. 

In this episode, why do people lie and why can we be so easily deceived?  Are most people mostly honest most of the time and if this presumption of honesty is necessary to have functional communication, is society doomed to fall apart in a world of post-truth politics, catfishing and fake news?

Catherine Rogerson
Hello and welcome to Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions podcast.  I am Catherine Rogerson, an Associate in the Fraud Department at Mishcon.

Katy Ling
And I am Katy Ling a Cyber Intelligence Analyst in Mishcon’s Cyber Department.

Catherine Rogerson
And we are joined remotely by Dr Timothy Levine, a distinguished Professor and Chair of Communication Studies at the University of Alabama, Birmingham.  Tim, you are widely credited as having produced a new leading theory of deception, the Truth Default Theory.  What is it?

Dr Timothy Levine
So Truth Default Theory is the idea that when we are communicating with other people we generally believe them as a default.  In fact the idea or even thoughts about honesty or deception just don’t even come to mind unless something triggers and brings it to mind.  And by the same token when we communicate with other people we generally do so honestly unless we have a reason to do otherwise so we have to have a reason to deceive people otherwise we are basically honest and we have to have a reason to wonder about honesty otherwise we just tend to believe and the reason this is important is that it lets us communicate.  There’s maybe nothing more human about humans than our interactions with other humans.  Everything we do in life, pretty much all our survival skills require coordination and cooperation and all this requires communication and if we second guessed everything we just couldn’t communicate well.  The catch of course as you noted in your intro is that this makes us vulnerable to deception at least in the short-term.

Catherine Rogerson 
There seems to be a noteworthy departure of Truth Default Theory from most prior deception theories regarding how useful non-verbal behaviours are for detecting lies and so many TV series have ran with this idea and lead us to believe that by following a menu of non-verbal cues we can all become human lie detectors and I maybe definitely am talking about myself here but TDT suggests that reliance on demeanour and non-verbal communication doesn’t really get us anywhere.  Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Dr Timothy Levine
Sure.  So another part of the theory is a rejection of what I call cues which are specific behaviours often non-verbal but they can also be verbal that are kind of tells for truth telling and lying and the whole history of academic deception research can be understood largely as a quest to find, the unsuccessful quest I might add, to find the cues that are going to be the secret to distinguishing truth for lies and, and that just hasn’t panned out and in my belief it’s because it shouldn’t and if, if you are going to rely on cues and demeanour, demeanour being how people generally come off, kind of package of cues that’s going to push you down towards chance guessing rate because fundamentally cues and demeanour aren’t diagnostic across people and situations.

Catherine Rogerson 
That’s really interesting in a legal context actually because as you know with the pandemic so many in-person hearings etcetera have been… have migrated to the online space and I think that Courts are still tending to list cases involving dishonesty in person because there is still that generally held belief that it will assist to read someone’s non-verbal cues.  But does your research suggest however that we are just as capable of assessing someone’s honesty over Zoom as we are in person?

Dr Timothy Levine
I don’t think the difference would be so much Zoom versus in-person but if we could think of either in-person or Zoom although the different medium might benefit different types of communicators differently.  If we compared it to just comparing in-person to judgements that were rendered purely by looking at the evidence so if you could put a panel together who never meet the actual people, who just see kind of the facts as they are known and in written statements of what is said and make assessments that way, they might do better.  Being in-person is a tremendous asset to the extrovert right.  You see this in interviews all the time.  So people give the interview because of their resume and their qualifications but once they get into the interview then extroversion takes over and liking takes over and friendliness takes over and all these things and it is just not the case that the more likeable person or the more extroverted person is the more honest person.

Catherine Rogerson  
Just linking this back and staying within the Court room setting which we’ve got a certain fondness for, if we have a default to presume honesty and unless we are given a reason for suspicion or I think in your book you call it, a triggering event.  Are we more likely albeit counter intuitively to expect elements of deceit in a setting like a Court room when someone has just sworn an oath to tell you the whole truth and nothing but the truth or is the fact that you are in a Court room and somebody is you know, in a box and you know that there is a purpose behind their testimony, is that enough to then put you on notice and to increase your suspicion of deceit?

Dr Timothy Levine
I would think so you know, it would certainly make me pay attention to whether somebody is being honest or not.  Yeah I think there is situations like somebody is trying to sell you something, you are in a Court room, there are these situations we know we need to be on guard and so, so people are less vulnerable to the truth default, it doesn’t mean that they still won’t be true biased because even when people have reason to believe they still tend to err, the more likely to err to get the liar wrong than the honest person wrong.

Catherine Rogerson 
That’s, well that’s really interesting because if you are having a conversation in the street and there was no kind of triggering event then you would have more of a presumption of, of honesty to what you know, that person was saying whereas in a situation where the truth is held to the highest standard and has been explicitly framed and referenced then you are more on guard for deceit.

Dr Timothy Levine
Absolutely and this all gets into the idea that people lie for a reason right so in, in Court room people have a reason maybe to be dishonest whereas I, I hope the person who’s just like talking to you on the street doesn’t have anything much to gain from unclear 7.24.

Catherine Rogerson 
That makes sense.  If we stay in the online space which I find really interesting because you are allowed such anonymity in the online communication sphere, you can have such a contrary view online that you would never have face-to-face in a one-to-one interaction.  Does the anonymity of the online world change any aspect of TDT?

Dr Timothy Levine
I think for some people being online could be a trigger.

Catherine Rogerson 
So they are less likely to believe people if they are online and like hiding behind a user name that is maybe not like an actual name?

Dr Timothy Levine
Yeah you would think that, that people would be aware of this but I suspect particularly if you are in the online environment a lot and you are around particular people a lot that kind of fades into the background.  One of the idea, the truth default is we can be triggered but we don’t stay triggered right, we eventually kind of revert back to the default.  Because thinking about it requires awareness so we can, we can temporarily get into the state where we are really kind of assessing credibility but most people don’t chronically stay in that state.  We kind of revert back to your normal business as usual after a while unless there is a reason not to.

Catherine Rogerson 
And going back to that with fake news sort of you know, air quotes fake news, the first time you hear it you can question it but then if you were told that over and over again and you read it from various different sources then that’s what makes it you know, you start to believe it so I guess that is sort of, I guess what you are talking about in terms of the triggering event going into the background?

Dr Timothy Levine
Yeah so with fake news the first trigger of that might be, ah it’s a possibility.  So obviously some of the fake news going around is just absolutely absurd on its face but you know, then if you hear it from different sources and people you know seem to treat it’s true then there’s other things besides the truth default that can take over like unclear 9.31, appearance or verification and confirmation bias and other things that can increase susceptibility.

Catherine Rogerson 
I was thinking about fake news and I think when I am on Facebook for example, or you know, it becomes a natural scrolling process and it is so, I feel like it is a triggering event for me because I am so aware of this opportunity to present yourself, the presentation of the self you know, not to, not to sound Chandler Bing but these statuses, you know, could I be any happier.  I think I read them now with a, with a little bit more scepticism than I would if, if someone was having a conversation with me in the street because I am so aware of the ability yeah, to present yourself, it’s you know, idealisation.  I think you touched on Erving Goffman in your book, he talks very much about the kind of front stage and back stage and Facebook and all of these forms of medium very much give you a stage and so it is interesting you know, that heightened awareness lapses and you know, you scroll and you are taking this information in but with fake news, I find in the sphere of politics and media, what is true and what is not has actually become quite muddied and I think I end up in a situation where actually the system has just become so complex that it is actually really difficult to get an objective truth or fact and so you are left with these kind of gradations of what is true and what is not so it is just a very complex thing to digest.

Dr Timothy Levine
This is such a thing and I don’t think this is new at all you know, if we look back at you know, kind of the philosophy of epistemology right, philosophers have been struggling with this as long as there has been philosophy.

Catherine Rogerson 
Mm.

Dr Timothy Levine
And how do we really, really know something is true and you know, of course everybody kind of accepted Newton until Einstein came along.  So it, it’s really incredibly challenging and it always has been to really kind of know what’s real.  What’s, what’s different these days for social media is there’s just so many more people out there communicating to the masses.  The reach by a wider range of people and organisations than ever before and there’s just so much more information out there it becomes harder and harder to ask yourself.  In my daily kind of media consumption I find this to be an incredible challenge and given my field of study I tend to be probably more sensitised to it than most people.

Catherine Rogerson 
Mm and I know that one of your main recommendations for you know, if we can’t use verbal and non-verbal cues to detect lying then something that you recommend is just simply fact checking and questioning your sources and things but as you said, there’s just so much information out there now that, that can be you know, a lot of effort and very tiring so sort of where does this leave us?

Dr Timothy Levine
This is not going to be very satisfying but it leaves us in a position where we just have to tolerate being deceitful once in a while.  I view it as the cost of doing business.  But it also the case right that not all deceptions are equally consequential and just because you are deceiving in the short-term is different than being deceived in the long-term.  So you want to spend your efforts wisely right to fact check when it matters you know, if you are making a big purchase or somebody’s asking you to send money or you know, you’re thinking about getting married or otherwise making a consequential life decision then you want to invest in that but if it’s, it’s ultimately not so important.  If you can’t fact check you can follow some kind of easy rules of thumb.  Does the person have a reason to potentially be deceiving you, does what they are saying make sense, does it really matter?  And if you kind of sort through those you can filter in a way that will keep you from becoming a chronically paranoid individual.

Catherine Rogerson 
Yeah stay clear of that.  I think that the idea of scepticism is an interesting one.  There is… I was just thinking about this when you were talking, there’s a Hindu proverb that says, if you’ve been burnt once you can see the fire in ice and I think where does this come into play with your theory, kind of an inherited scepticism where you know, you have become chronically paranoid or you have been exposed to these situations and you fact check them and you’ve been deceived.  Can you revert to that default?

Dr Timothy Levine
Well most people do right, because we’ve all been deceived so I think there’s probably a few people out there that are really kind of in this chronic suspicion but I don’t think they are typical of the vast majority of humans and most of us have been deceived numerous times in our lives and have survived it perfectly well and, and moved past it and it hasn’t made us any more less defaulting to the truth than everybody else.

Catherine Rogerson 
Yeah.  The thing I find so complex about this, this theory is that as human beings I just think we operate so much within the grey and you know, I kind of tend to avoid anything that has like a binary, is a binary situation because I just think it is so muddied, so human, so messy.  How does your theory help to or suggest dealing with the deception that in some cases is honestly made.  So thinking back to online, thinking back to fake media when we essentially end up buying and selling our own narrative so you are thinking about the US and Donald Trump in the US Presidential Election and he genuinely I think believed the election was rigged.  Now if that is the case and he genuinely believed that and then he lacked you know, deceptive purpose, deceptive intent, the awareness, how does the theory account for that?

Dr Timothy Levine
So the answer is going to be probably overly academic.

Catherine Rogerson
Hit us.

Dr Timothy Levine
So it gets us into the question of what is deception and historically and probably conventionally too.  Deception is almost always understood as an intentional sort of thing and if you believe in kind of the non-verbal cues and everything then intent is very, very important because you wouldn’t experience these cues if you believed your own lies.  There wouldn’t be any difference between the sincere unclear 16.11 check and the sincere unclear 16.12 because all the things that give rise to the cues are, involve intentional states so people are aroused because they know they are lying or it’s more cognitively effortful because they are making things up etcetera.  But if you go for the truth default framework it doesn’t really matter you know, if you are fact checking things are true or false and you don’t have to get into people’s heads right and if you believe things that other people say it doesn’t matter whether they were intending them to be faults or not so that in some ways according to TDT kind of baggage and it’s kind of baggage from this old view of deception.  If you want to assess legal culpability maybe you have to go there because a lot of laws require a knowing awareness but for every day purposes the people who get fooled right, it doesn’t matter if they’re fooled for honest motives or not, they, they are still fooled and the consequences are the same for them, for the recipient and you can find out if something is true or false in the same way whether it’s intentional or not.  So, so this is for Truth Default Theory much less of an issue than it is for every other theory of deception I can think of.

Katy Ling
Yeah and I think that kind of leads on to the idea of conspiracy theories and echo-chambers and things like that, that as Catherine was saying, these people who are talking about them online and you know, on Twitter and everything else, most of the time they do generally believe them and that is why they are spreading them with such conviction.  Yeah so I guess you are right, it doesn’t really matter why they are being deceived but that is what makes it so dangers that TDT in some way if you say something enough and with enough conviction then it can be believed.

Dr Timothy Levine
Did you see the new article in Science, conservative susceptibility to political misconceptions?

Katy Ling 
No.

Dr Timothy Levine
So this was published June, 2nd so that was, that was quite recently in Science and it was an amazing, amazing, amazing study by Kelly Garrick and Robert Bond and so what they do is they scrape social media for the most viable stories every two weeks over a time frame and then fact check those and find the ten most viral honest things and the ten most viral things that are false and then they have a separate group of people rate them on whether they tend to be liberal or conservative and then they empanel a survey panel every two weeks and have people rate each of the twenty things, half true, half not in terms of whether they believe them or not and what the findings were is that – I am pulling this up right now – liberals and conservatives were really different in terms of truth bias or in terms of believing truths but there was, there’s huge, huge, huge difference in believing falsehoods and it is just kind of this almost linear progression that the more conservative people are, the more falsehoods they believe and the worse they were at discriminating truths from lies.  So the liberals were better than 75% at distinguishing truths and false while the conservatives were just barely over chance and then what they did is they look at what were the statements and most of the liberal statements were true and most of the statements that were false were much more likely to be conservatives.  So it seems to me that it’s not so much that liberals or conservatives are different, but it is more confirmation bias.  It’s that people are believing things that sound true to their beliefs and if you happen to have a set of beliefs where there is more falsehoods being distributed in your media environment, then you are more likely to be, more likely to be deceived.  They don’t cite deception research in this at all.  But from a TDT point of view are the things that would like trigger scepticism would be something outside your belief set right, so the results become really understandable.

Katy Ling 
Yeah and I guess that also for me, I would assume that maybe that’s because there’s a sort of big movement at the moment in conservative America against mainstream media and things like that so I guess that would again go back to sources and where some conservative American’s are getting their, their information from and you know if you are going to broadcast something on national television I assume and I hope that there is some sort of fact checking behind it but if it’s you know, random conservative Twitter account probably much less fact checking goes into it so yeah, I, I… those results are I guess shocking but not surprising.

Catherine Rogerson 
And I think belief systems and belief sets very much it sounds like come into this.  We have televised elections, huge audiences and there is a rigorous process that goes on after debates etcetera or fact checking but actually I think a lot of polls have shown that it actually doesn’t matter that you know, checking the facts and something kind of appearing false, it doesn’t matter if you already have that established belief system.

Dr Timothy Levine
Yeah it’s really hard to change people’s beliefs.

Catherine Rogerson 
Yeah, the old art of persuasion doesn’t carry what it, what it once did?

Dr Timothy Levine
Persuasions hard you know, you have to work at it over time.  People are very rarely persuaded with kind of one single message at one time.  It really matters what everybody else in your social system is thinking, it matters what you are hearing all the time and the idea of if you are hearing you know, message X all the time and all your friends believe message X the idea that you could come on with some PSA or something and change it to Y, it’s just not realistic at all.

Catherine Rogerson 
Yeah completely and I think so much of it is down to external factors and stuff that you know, the person trying to get the message cross can’t control it’s context, life circumstances and all of this that can I think play into people’s belief systems and it’s not just however many times you read something it’s all these other things that have the bigger influence.

Dr Timothy Levine
Absolutely.

Catherine Rogerson 
On a smaller scale it sounds like you know, honest communication whether it has elements of deception in it or not which I am sure lots of communication does merely because it’s, it’s a social lubrication, it affords you that ability to function within your, your social groups and that’s quite a positive in a way.  It enables these day-to-day interactions that you wouldn’t think twice about that you know, were they objectively honestly true if we fact checked them, no but they enable this smooth interaction and you know, really positive for boundaries and reinforcement etcetera and then if you extrapolate that it can have a negative effect if you look at belief sets at the moment with really contentious important issues like vaccines and vaccine uptakes and I’ve seen some really interesting polls about the split of vaccine uptakes along kind of political lines and things like that, it’s a very interesting observation and I think it goes to the, the study you’ve just mentioned actually about belief sets.

Dr Timothy Levine
There is so much there, one issue is kind of what percentage of communication is honest and deceptive and that’s something I hope we can talk about and then there is the issue of beagle eyes versus small eyes and there’s another question of distinguishing one truth from kind of normal, polite communication that might not be entirely true and full disclosure but it’s not really deceptive either and then there is the more important issues right, that really affect people’s lives like are you going to get vaccinated or not.  So there’s a tremendous amount there.  When we start in.

Catherine Rogerson
Let’s unpack.  Let’s do it.

Dr Timothy Levine
So part of Truth Default Theory, if we ask ourselves, do people really have a truth default because there’s a lot of people who believe that if deception exists then deception detection also has to exist and for the truth default to work and let us communicate it’s only functional if most communication is honest.  So believe it or not prior to TDT there wasn’t a whole lot of research on how honest are people and from a TDT point of view though this is really, really critical because the truth default has very different applications if deception is super prevalent versus honesty is the day.  So my colleague, Kim Schroeder and I started this programme of research looking at how often people lie and the answer is most people are pretty honest.  The average is people tell one or two lies per day but most people are below average because lying and deception like almost all forms of bad behaviour aren’t normally distributed across the population right, there’s a few people who are bad who do bad things, any given bad thing right, most people aren’t drug users but a few are really bad.  Most people aren’t problematic gamblers but a few, a few are, most people aren’t alcoholics but some are.  This is how, what lying is like to.  Most people are more honest than average, for kind of 75+% of the people, 80% of the people.  They might tell no lies on a given day, they might tell one, they might tell two, rarely are they going to do more than that but there’s a few people who consistently tell lots of lies, we call them the prolific liars.  So, so they’re the ones you want to be on guard for.  Furthermore, of those you know, kind of people who are telling you know zero, one or two lies on any given day depending on the day, 80 to 90% of those things are little white lies that are really of no consequence at all.  So kind of your average person very rarely tells a lie of any real consequence.  On the other hand when we look at the prolific liars and this is some new data that hasn’t been published yet, they are more likely not only more likely to tell big lies just because they tell more lies, but a greater percentage of their lies are consequential.  And if we think about why that might be, well they have things to lie about, they have important things to lie about so if you live your life in the sort of way where you have lots of things to hide, you know, if, if you are a criminal and you know you are doing criminal things, and especially if your nature of crime involves fraud, then deception is your occupation and you have to do this but, but for most of us this isn’t the case.  So, so the vast majority of communication is pretty honest and when there is deception it is pretty innocuous and not a big deal.  It’s the small group of people who are lying about bad things, even there the real issue isn’t that they are lying, it’s what they are lying about.

Catherine Rogerson 
Mm, well I’ve got to admit that that’s really encouraging to hear that most people are honest most of the time but the way you were describing it sort of made me think of you know, that saying that you get tangled up in your web of lies so I guess it’s you know, you start off on your way as becoming a prolific liar and then every day you’ve got to keep up with it and it’s more and it snowballs.

Dr Timothy Levine
Yeah so the, the cases of catfish, you start off false identity online maybe to, to con somebody.  But you have to keep that up right and…

Katy Ling 
Yeah and it just keeps going and keeps going and then by the time you know, you are a year in you’ve got ten different Facebook profiles going.

Dr Timothy Levine
Yes.

Katy Ling
The prolific liars they sound a little bit like super spreaders in this pandemic of ours.  They are the ones that are the you know, the most potent and the ones to look out for really.

Dr Timothy Levine
I’ve never seen a network analysis of deception but my prediction is, is that the model from super spreaders would unclear 28.52 almost perfectly to the model for deceit.

Katy Ling 
Ah good catch.

Catherine Rogerson 
Well you heard it here first.  Happy to share.

Dr Timothy Levine
Well the principles are the same right?

Catherine Rogerson 
Well yeah.  What I think is really interesting is, is the idea of prolific liars and that the prevalence of lying isn’t evenly or nominally distributed and I think it links very well to deception motives and the fact that constant deception is very goal orientated.

Dr Timothy Levine
So you know generally we just kind of go along in our communication autopilot but sometimes the truth is a problem and then in order to accomplish our communication goals the easiest way to do it is just to kind of go around the truth.  Maybe by leaving out this critical factor or going in a different direction and kind of evading or maybe we can get away with just being unclear and saying something ambiguous and with the idea that we are unclear 29.54.  I suspect that most lies happen in response to a direct question right so if there is something I don’t want you to know I am just not going to say anything and hope you don’t ask and it is only when you ask right, now that I have to say the, the false thing.  There might be some you know, scams that involve starting with the false stuff upfront but I suspect in every day discourse among everyday people right, we just kind of manoeuvre around the truth and hope, hope the people don’t go there and hope we don’t have to… because that’s the easiest thing in the world right, just not say anything.

Catherine Rogerson 
Yeah.

Dr Timothy Levine
And that has the huge advantage of if you then confront me about it, I can say… I can put it back on you, well you didn’t ask.

Catherine Rogerson 
Yeah well as lawyers we are very interested in both acts and admissions but I can see how that’s, that’s very handy yeah.  For swerving a confrontation about whether something is truthful or not.

Katy Ling 
Yeah definitely.  Actually something has just come to my mind the more we have been speaking about this sort of going in a different direction but, working in the Cyber Team at Mishcon we see so many cases of fishing emails all the time and obviously I’ve been now trained to sort of detect these and things like that but sometimes I think, how an earth can, can you look at this and believe you know, that it is actually someone wanting you know, 10 grand from this strange email address but so many people fall victim to it every year and I think it is exactly what you are saying that unless you have a reason to disbelief them, vulnerable people will just give all of their money to you know, a Prince in Nigeria or whatever it might be so yeah that’s just something I hadn’t actually thought of until now.

Dr Timothy Levine
My University it is a really big fishing thing now.  What I think they are doing is they go to the University website and notice that I am a Department Chair and then take my email and add Gmail on to the end and they email all the people who are working for me.

Katy Ling 
Oh no.

Dr Timothy Levine
Right and then send this message out that says, hey I need you to respond right now, we are doing this thing and so this, this is exploiting power right because it’s coming from boss and if they can get the people’s passwords into the system then what they can do is reroute their pay cheques because everybody gets paid on automatic deposit and then they can reroute their pay cheques and all they need to do is once right because after it works once then they close it off but they, they get a pay cheque and this happens all over and over and over again and I am repeatedly amazed at how many of the people who work for me will email me and say, is this you and it’s like look at the cue, you know, look at the email address.  No it’s not me but this is over and over and over again and it’s, it’s hard to break out of even if you are sceptical, going into the, oh this is a fraud is effortful and the advantage definitely goes to the scammer.

Catherine Rogerson 
And I guess you are just not on guard for that, you are kind of not on notice, you receive so many emails in your inbox you see a name that carries authority but I will say if there is delay now on my end from replying to a boss, I will be saying that I fact checking and verifying appropriately.  It’s a nice one to use.

Dr Timothy Levine
Well one would hope that simply the act of going on email should be a trigger, kind of like walking into a Court room.

Katy Ling
Yeah I also hope that.  Try and let all of our client’s know that in good time.  So leading on from what Catherine just said about authority actually you know, in my research for those podcasts I came across you know, Milgram’s famous authority study that did make me think of the TDT and as well as the authority side of things that these people were I think it was in a lab coat being told to shock another participant that was actually you know, an actor.  Do you think there was also the TDT playing a role there that you know, they were told to do it and they were told that this person would be fine and all of that.  Was TDT playing a role in that study at all?

Dr Timothy Levine
Absolutely and it is one of my favourite examples of TDT and I pull this one out particularly if I am speaking to an audience of  psychologist and I will begin my presentation with the study they all know about Stanley Milgram and obedience to authority and I tell them, I bet you all think this is a study of obedience to authority, it’s actually a deception detection experiment.  The person being shocked wasn’t really shocked, they were an actor.  What percentage of people realise that they were interacting with an actor in the study and the answer is zero.  They were all fooled.  Despite the fact that it’s just hugely, hugely, hugely implausible right so what’s the chances of walking into a lab on Yale and having some Yale professor ask you to shock this poor old guy with 450 volts several times.  The whole setup is absurd, and certainly brutal and yet nobody goes the obvious, this is a sham.  So this shows how hugely vulnerable we can be to identity deception because the poor victim in the Milgram study is really an actor and when we encounter people in everyday life we just assume they are who they say they are.

Katy Ling 
Did it not matter that, that degrees of harm was involved?

Dr Timothy Levine
Well one would think that because harm was involved this would be a trigger but it wasn’t you know, some went along with it and some didn’t but nobody goes, oh this is just a play acting setup, this is all contrived.

Katy Ling 
How much do peers influence our presumption of honesty?  You know, the idea of kind of contagion, if, if it was one student who was asked to be recruited into this experiment, would their suspicion have been aroused more so than you know, if they were part of a group and one person saw another person subscribe to etcetera?

Dr Timothy Levine
Yes and no.  So there’s all the bystander research which suggests what people do in ambiguous situations is look around and see what everybody else is doing right, and if everybody is looking around to see what everybody else is doing right, then everybody does nothing.  On the other hand, one of the main triggers is other people right because in real life unlike the Milgram experiment, our interactions aren’t one offs and there is not a limited number of players right so all of us are embedded and networks of family and friends and co-workers and one of the best ways to find out about deception is a prolific liar gets outed by somebody else.  If you in your security jobs come across a bad actor, you can tell other people in your community to be on guard for this so social networks play a huge, huge, huge role in uncovering deception.  So whereas all the old deception research is always trying to detect deception through watching the eye contact or how detailed is the statement or what kind of pronouns are they using.  Outside the lab what we can all do is talk to our friends and talk to our colleagues and triangulate on information and this way more effective.  And particularly if deception detection isn’t a momentary thing but there is a longer game here which is why I put in short-term upfront, it was an important qualification.

Katy Ling
Yeah exactly and in the long-term one of my main jobs at Mishcon actually is doing sort of red flag checks you know and due diligence on people that our clients are going into business with etcetera and like you said, we can ask around about the person or really usefully we can go online and do sort of adverse media checks and you know, now maybe it is harder to get away with deception because if you’ve got a blog post written about you or someone’s written a Facebook status or something then that just is you know, something to pivot off of and investigate more so year I definitely think that it’s maybe harder to lie now that social media and the internet exists or at least be a prolific liar.

Dr Timothy Levine
Well this is a really, really important point because so much of people’s intuitive understanding of deception thinks that the way to detect deception is to bring in a person and talk to them and one implication of Truth Default Theory is, no you want to do you know these red flag checks, you want to talk to people, know them, you want to do some background checks, you want to do some social media checks and piece together this, this bigger and you are going to be way, way, way better off.  Now it’s more work, it’s more effortful, everybody would like… wouldn’t it be nice if we could just pull people in, interview them, talk to them for five minutes and go, oh I can see into their heart, they’re honest, or, no sketchy but no communication doesn’t work that way. You know, you can talk to somebody who found the spectrum and they will come off awfully and it doesn’t mean they are deceptive and you can meet the you know, the outgoing friendly type who is lying through their teeth and you will totally misled.

Catherine Rogerson 
I’m just thinking about our job in, in kind of a you know, reading through someone’s narrative of events and trying to decide facts from emotions and opinions etcetera, where do confessions come into this?  So if somebody confesses to a partial truth or says, look I hold my hands up to that, so it puts you on a, you know, it puts you on notice that this person has previously deceived you but actually they are revealing the truth now after the fact, where does that land with TDT?

Dr Timothy Levine
So in TDT people owning up to the fact that they previously lied is one of the main ways lies are detected.  So if you ask people just you know, kind of recall at time when you detected a deception.  Some portion of those lies we detect are because the people later came clean about it. Maybe they felt guilty and wanted to tell you the truth.  Maybe they inadvertently slipped up at some later point but you can also persuade people to be honest with you.  So maybe one of the best, best ways to deal with deception is deception prevention and if you can convince people that it is in their interests to be honest and, and if people lie for a reason and you can communicatively cut out the reasons for lying then you can cut down on lying because there’s not a reason to.

Catherine Rogerson 
So it is really risk and reward.

Dr Timothy Levine
Yes and the other thing you can do is you can bluff people into, this is kind of sneaky, but you can bluff people into thinking you already know the truth and if you already know the truth then the value to lying goes away.

Catherine Rogerson 
I see that in a lot of detective dramas I think.

Dr Timothy Levine
Yeah this is, I am blanking on his name, but there was this very famous Nazi interrogator in World War 2 who was far and away the most effective person at getting secrets and what he was, he was nice and developed rapport but he convinced the prisoners of war that he already knew things that he didn’t know so they would be giving away information unknowingly thinking that they weren’t and then he would take that information and go the next one and bluff them into giving, giving something away.  So it is very kind of friendly of bluffing approached information seeking that worked very well for him.

Catherine Rogerson 
And presumably those being interrogated bought that he was you know, presumed he was telling the truth, there was no kind of triggering event because the situation was rapport building and…

Dr Timothy Levine
Yeah and apparently and they stayed friends with him after the War.

Catherine Rogerson 
Wow.  That’s a turn up for the books.  Wow.  So would you say in conclusion Tim that TDT is a trade-off then between efficient communication and social lubrication and just the fact that it’s a necessity really and the trade off to that is, is having this vulnerability to deception which sometimes is completely inconsequential and at other times actually is harmful and if that is the trade off, in your opinion, is it a worthwhile one?

Dr Timothy Levine
Yes I say that and absolutely its more than more it, it’s the best deal human kind has ever made.  If you think of all we get from our ability to interact with other people, so I am guessing that you didn’t make the headphones that you are wearing and I am guessing you didn’t make the mike and I am guessing you didn’t wire the internet and you didn’t create the electricity that’s powering all this and you didn’t make your automobile and you didn’t make your refrigerator, right, think about what life would be like if you had to hunt and gather for everything in your life.  We wouldn’t have civilisation so civilisation is made possible by people working together that requires communication.  That’s what we get, we get refrigerators, we get internet, we get social media, it comes at a cost.  One of the costs is we get fooled once in a while.  It’s totally worth it.  I would personally make that trade off 100 times out of 100 times with no, no second thought.

Catherine Rogerson 
Yeah I think I would have to agree, you’ve definitely convinced me, convinced me there.

Katy Ling 
I am just thinking wasn’t there a Jim Carey film when or was it Ricky Gervais, I can’t remember and he couldn’t lie, he told the truth and he had a horrific day.  It was very bad for him in many ways.

Dr Timothy Levine
We should not conflate blunt truth with general honesty.  Those are different things.  Being an honest person does not require me to go out saying mean things to people.

Catherine Rogerson 
Yeah I think that’s a really important distinction as well for sure.

Katy Ling 
But it sounds like this goes back to like the very beginnings of kind of, of human interaction.  It’s almost like Hobbesian and kind of the state of nature and this is kind of a way to advance civilisation really.  It’s a tool to which we have all you know, evolved and got to where we are now.

Dr Timothy Levine
This is exactly how I think about it.

Catherine Rogerson 
So it is fundamentally necessary and deception…

Dr Timothy Levine
Yes.

Catherine Rogerson 
…and deception need not be feared or harmful and we must remember that there are varying degrees and gradations of deception and honesty.

Dr Timothy Levine
Yeah and it… maybe it should be feared and it definitely can be harmful but for the most part we survive those harms and live to talk another day.  Whereas without communication I don’t think we as humans survive very long.  I don’t think as hunter gatherers we ever get the kind of world population we have and civilisation.  I think we have to deal with much higher infant mortality rates and I think our life spans are hugely, hugely, hugely shorter without modern medicine.  Because remember another thing communication does for us, it lets us pass along knowledge and pass down knowledge right and if you can’t trust things then there is no point going to school and there’s no point in picking up a book and learning about things and there’s no point in reading the research and we can’t have science and we can’t have medicine without the ability to pass down knowledge because we would have to discover medicine for ourselves you know, if every individual had to rediscover germ theory right, we’re never getting a Covid vaccine.

Catherine Rogerson 
Yeah so you have to buy into these paradigms shift.

Dr Timothy Levine
Yeah you have, you have to accept information and this lets us learn and advance knowledge and everything.  It has some negative trade-offs, the very thing that lets us create the knowledge that comes up with the vaccine let’s conspiracy theorists question the efficacy of the vaccine or the side effects of the vaccine but at the end of the day it is more than, more than, more than worth it.

Katy Ling
Great.  Well I think that’s probably a nice way to wrap up.

Catherine Rogerson 

I think I am on board.  Yes, well we’d like to say thanks so much to Tim Levine for joining us for this Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions podcast, I am Catherine Rogerson…

Katy Ling
And I am Katy Ling.

Catherine Rogerson
And in an upcoming episode we will be continuing our focus on dishonesty and exploring the pursuit and defence of dishonesty in legal practice.

The digital sessions are a series of online events, videos and podcasts, all available at Mishcon.com and if you have any questions you’d like answered or suggestions of what you’d like us to cover, do let us know at digitalsessions@mishcon.com.  Until next time, take care. 

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.  To access advice for businesses that is regularly updated, please visit mishcon.com.

Join Associate Catherine Rogerson, from our Fraud team, and Katy Ling, Cyber Intelligence Analyst at MDR Cyber, where they speak to Dr Timothy Levine, distinguished Professor of Communication at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and creator of the Truth-Default Theory.

Tim has spent over twenty years researching deception. In this podcast, we explore the following questions: why do people lie and why can we be so easily deceived? Are most people mostly honest most of the time? And if this presumption of honesty is necessary to have functional communication, is society doomed to fall apart in a world of 'post-truth' politics, cat-fishing, and fake news?

This podcast is part of our Dishonesty Uncovered series, exploring why and how deception occurs.


Visit the Academy for more learning, events, videos, podcasts and reports.

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