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Deception, honesty, and cognitive load: Is lying always more effortful than truth telling?

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Deception scholars long have assumed that lying is inherently more cognitively demanding than truth telling. In fact, many past and present deception theories and programmatic lines of research are guided by this presumption (e.g., Buller & Burgoon, 1996; Sporer & Schwandt, 2007; Vrij, Granhag, & Porter, ...

Deception scholars long have assumed that lying is inherently more cognitively demanding than truth telling. In fact, many past and present deception theories and programmatic lines of research are guided by this presumption (e.g., Buller & Burgoon, 1996; Sporer & Schwandt, 2007; Vrij, Granhag, & Porter, 2010; Zuckerman, DePaulo, & Rosenthal, 1981). The belief that lying is intrinsically more effortful than truth-telling, in turn, derives from a set of secondary presumptions about the nature of cognition, memory, and speech production: specifically, deception requires more complex, novel, or memory-dependent responding; deception imposes more concurrent cognitive tasks than truth telling; and deceivers monitor the behaviors of the self and others in a more vigilant fashion than truth-tellers. In sharp contrast, a subset of deception scholars recently have been calling these presumptions into question; suggesting instead that lying and truth-telling share many basic production processes in common (Information Manipulation Theory 2, McCornack et al., 2014; Activation-Decision-Construction-Action Theory; Walczyk et al., 2014). These latter accounts posit that both lying and truth-telling are heavily reliant on memory, problem-solving, speech production, and other cognitive processes – most of which execute unconsciously – and consequently, lying is not intrinsically more effortful than truth-telling. Instead, either lying or truth-telling may be difficult or easy; depending upon the context and the nature of the information possessed in memory. In addition, both accounts suggest that real-world deception rarely involves the generation of “bald-faced lies” – that is, messages involving the presentation of complete falsehood, without any disclosure of relevant truth. Rather, deception typically involves only those shadings of information needed by individuals to achieve their goals, and – most commonly – discourse that simply edits out the contextually problematic information (i.e., messages commonly described as “white lies”). Such deception forms carry with them little, if any, elevated cognitive load beyond that which occurs during truth-telling; as they rely upon the same speech production processes utilized during truthful message construction. What is clearly needed in the deception literature is more empirical work and theoretical advancement, specifically addressing whether deception, as it occurs in the real-world, always imposes greater cognitive load than truth telling; by requiring more complex, novel, memory-dependent responding along with imposing more concurrent tasks. As a recognized expert in the field, we encourage you to submit proposals in the form of abstracts of theoretical pieces, empirical work, review articles, or a commentary that can advance this debate. Contributions to this Research Topic of Frontiers in Psychology will not only be of interest to those in the field of deception research, but are likely to impact the emerging field of cognitive lie detection as well.


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