Lying is Easier in a Foreign Language

Samara Khan ‘19

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Figure 1. Individuals speaking a foreign language may have an incentive to lie in order to procure a better outcome for themselves.

As globalization increases, more and more communication is taking place in a language that might be foreign to some of the people in the conversation. Although there has been a lot of research regarding the perceived trustworthiness of people speaking their native and non-native languages, very little exploration has gone towards investigating how people lie in a non-native language. In situations such as business negotiations, many individuals could have an incentive to lie in order to procure a better outcome for themselves.

Kristina Suchotzki, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Department of Psychology, and Matthias Gamer, Professor of Experimental Clinical Psychology at the University of Wurzburg, explored this issue in their latest study. The researchers asked 50 people to answer a number of questions in both their native language and a foreign language. The test subjects were asked to answer some questions truthfully and some questions deceptively. The questions also ranged in subject matter. Some questions were neutral, such as “Is Berlin in Germany?,” while others evoked emotion, such as “Would you work as a nude model?”. While the participants answered the questions, the researchers measured their response time, skin conductance, and heart rate. The researchers found that when participants answered a question in their native language, it took much longer to tell a lie than it did to tell the truth for both neutral and emotional questions. However, when participants answered both neutral and emotional questions in a foreign language, this time difference was much less pronounced. The researchers explained their findings though two theories: the cognitive load theory and the emotional distance theory. The cognitive load theory suggests that lying takes more time because it is a more cognitively demanding task. The emotional distance theory suggests that lying in a foreign language is easier because communicating in a foreign language is less emotionally taxing. Since lying is an emotionally demanding task, often causing individuals to feel stressed or anxious, lying in a foreign language decreases the emotional demand on an individual. Suchotzki and Gamer believe that the emotional distance caused by speaking in a foreign language mediated the increased cognitive load of lying for each test subject, resulting in the decreased time difference.

These results, once validated further, can be used in conjunction with other factors to determine if someone is telling the truth when they are speaking in a foreign language. This could be helpful in business negotiations, court proceedings, police investigations, and a variety of other situations.

 

References

  1. K. Suchotzki, et. al., The language of lies: The behavioral and autonomic costs of lying in a native compared to a foreign language. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 147, 734-746 (2018). doi: https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000437  
  2. Image retrieved from: https://digitaladdictsblog.com/best-foreign-language-apps/
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