WARNING: This blog post is not an endorsement for lying!
Here’s an interesting discovery made by a team of psychologists from a university in Germany. It appears that not telling the truth is easier if you do it in a foreign language. People don’t have a hard time lying using their second language as compared to doing it using their native language.
Conducted by University of Würzburg psychologists Kristina Suchotzki and Matthias Gamer, the study was published in the May 2018 Volume 147(5) of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Suchotzki is a postdoctoral research fellow at University of Würzburg Department of Psychology while gamer is a professor of Experimental Clinical Psychology. The study is titled, “The Language of Lies: Behavioral and Autonomic Costs of Lying in a Native Compared to a Foreign Language.”
The research enlisted 50 volunteers who were asked to complete specific tasks. In particular, they were asked to answer a set of questions. The research participants were told to provide truthful answers to some of the questions and deceptive answers to other questions based on a color cue. The set of questions included neutral questions like (true or false?) “Berlin is/isn’t in Germany,” and questions that provoke emotions like “Would you work as a nude model?” or “Have you used illegal drugs?”
The participants were asked to provide answers first in their native language (German) and in a foreign or second language (English). The researchers then observed physical changes among the participants as they lied or told the truth. Specifically, their heart rate, response time, and skin conductance were documented. Skin conductance is an electrodermal response wherein the skin becomes a better electric conductor when physiologically arousing stimuli are introduced to a person. It is measured by a special device, usually a device with a silver-silver chloride reference electrode.
Here’s a summary of what the researchers found as they completed the study:
- In general, telling a lie entails a longer response time compared to telling the truth.
- The participants had longer response times as they answered the questions in their second or non-native language.
- The questions considered emotional recorded longer response times among the participants (in comparison to questions considered neutral).
- It usually took more time to state a lie than to say the truth in one’s native language.
- When using a foreign language, telling the truth recorded longer response times.
- The difference between response times when providing truthful and deceptive answers became obscure when the participants were made to answer in a foreign language, regardless of whether the questions were emotional or neutral.
The researchers noted the differences in the response times of the participants as they answered the questions with truths or lies in their native and second languages. They found that there was a pronounced difference in the time it took for the participants to answer the questions with a lie and when they answered with a truth (fast truth answers, slow lie answers). The same pronounced difference in response times, however, was not observed when the participants answered the questions in their second language. The researchers found that the time it took for the study participants to answer the questions (in a foreign language) with a truth or lie was roughly the same. There was barely a difference in the response times between telling the truth and a lie when using a foreign language.
Interestingly, the results of the research reveal that the use of a foreign or second language can be conducive to not telling the truth. This is based on the longer response times logged by the research participants when they responded to the questions with a lie or deception in a foreign language. The significantly reduced difference between the response times when answering with a lie and answering with a truth (using a foreign language), however, is not caused by being able to answer faster with a lie. Instead, this was because the participants had longer response times when answering with a truth as they used a foreign language.
The researchers attribute this partly to the theory that it takes a longer time to answer questions that involve emotions. Generally, answering questions truthfully entails a more massive perceived emotional load. Answering questions with a lie, on the other hand, is believed to involve a higher cognitive load. The researchers believe that these more massive perceived emotional load and higher cognitive load cancel each other out when a person uses a foreign language. As such, the response times turn out to be somewhat comparable, creating the impression that using a second language makes it easier for someone to withhold truths.
Two contrasting theories
There are two contradicting research theories Suchotzki and Gamer apparently sought to clarify with their research.
The first is the cognitive load theory, which proposes that it is harder to lie in a foreign language. This theory suggests that the act of concealing the truth is cognitively more demanding.
The second theory is referred to as the emotional distance hypothesis. This suggests that lying is more easily done when using a foreign language because the act of lying is associated with more emotions. It takes into account the presumption that liars suffer from higher stress levels and tend to be more tense. Under the emotional distance hypothesis, people are believed to be able to lie more easily when using a foreign language because the act of using a non-native language is considered less emotionally arousing. They become less attached to the thoughts they utter when they speak a foreign language. The emotional distance hypothesis is supported by research from the fields of psychology, psychophysiology, and linguistics.
Based on the research results, it can be said that there are manifestations of both theories in how the test subjects behaved. Neither theory alone is bolstered nor invalidated. Researchers Suchotzki and Gamer say that their findings show the antagonistic outcomes of cognitive load theory and the emotional distance hypothesis.
The cognitive load hypothesis is demonstrated in the increased effort for lying in a foreign language. On the other hand, the emotional distance theory manifests in the longer response time in telling the truth in a foreign language. What these mean is that the use of a foreign language creates an emotional distance that tends to offset the higher cognitive load involved in lying.
To emphasize, the conclusion reached by the researchers does not say that people can respond faster with a lie (as compared to telling the truth) when using a foreign language in the same way they can tell a lie for an answer more quickly (as compared to telling the truth) when answering in their native tongue. The conclusion is based on the findings that the response times between answering with a lie and answering with a truth when using a foreign language are not that pronounced compared to the significant response time difference in giving lie and truth answers when using a native language. It’s not because it becomes faster to say a lie in a foreign language but because the ease or difficulty in telling a lie or a truth become comparable.
Emphasis on research about lying in a foreign language
The study sought to fill the scarcity of research when it comes to how “less well” people lie using a foreign language. There are already a number of researches that explore the perceived trustworthiness of non-native speakers, most of which suggest that non-native speakers of a particular language are viewed as less trustworthy as compared to native speakers. When it comes to how “less well” people lie in a non-native language, though, the studies conducted are few, and their results have been mostly inconsistent.
This study is different from previous similar studies because it does not focus on the perceived trustworthiness of people when communicating in their native tongue and in their second language. It slightly expands the scope by measuring the changes when someone is lying and telling the truth in their native and second languages.
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