Deception Detection Infographic

Detection Apprehension

Deception Detection Infographic

The Fear of Being Caught Lying

The fear of being caught lying

What is detection apprehension?

Detection apprehension, or the fear of being caught lying, is a common emotion felt when lying. When mild, it may actually help the liar avoid mistakes by keeping them alert. A moderate to strong level of fear can produce behavioral signs producing just what the liar fears- getting them caught!

If a liar could estimate how much detection apprehension they would feel if they were to embark on a lie, they could better decide whether it is worth the likely risk. Even if they already committed, an estimate of how much detection apprehension they are likely to feel could help them to plan countermeasures to reduce or conceal their fear. A lie catcher could also be helped by this information. They could be alerted to search for signs of fear if they expect a suspect would be very fearful of being caught.


The skill and experience of the liar and lie catcher

Many factors influence how much detection apprehension will be felt. The first determinant to consider is the liar’s belief about the target’s skill as a lie catcher. If the target is known to be a pushover, there usually won’t be much detection apprehension. On the other hand, someone known to be tough to fool, who has a reputation as an expert lie catcher, will instill detection apprehension. Parents often convince their children that they are such masterful detectors of deceit. “I can tell from looking in your eyes whether or not you are lying to me.” The untruthful child becomes so afraid of being caught that their fear betrays them, or they confess because they think that there is so little chance of success.


The shared fear of the innocent and the guilty

An important consideration, is that it is always an issue to distinguish between the innocent fear of being disbelieved and the guilty person’s detection apprehension. The difficulty is magnified when the lie catcher has a reputation for being suspicious and has not accepted the truth before. Each successive time, it will be harder for the lie catcher to distinguish fear of disbelief from detection apprehension. 

The polygraph lie detector works on the same principles as detecting behavioral traits of deceit, and it is vulnerable to the same problems. The polygraph exam does not detect lies, just signs of emotion.


Self confidence and practice

Practice in deceiving and success in getting away with it should always reduce detection apprehension. The partner who is having their 14th affair won’t worry much about getting caught. They are practiced in deceit. They know what to anticipate and how to cover it. Most importantly, they know they can get away with it. Self-confidence deflates detection apprehension. If it goes on too long, a liar may make careless errors. Therefore, some detection apprehension is probably useful to the liar to keep them on their toes.


Personality of the liar

Another factor influencing detection apprehension is the personality of the liar. Some people have a very hard time lying, while other people can do so with alarming ease. Much more is known about people who lie easily than about those who can’t. I have found out a bit about these people in my research on the concealment of negative emotions.  

Some people are especially vulnerable to detection apprehension. They have a great fear of being caught in a lie. They are certain that everyone who looks at them can tell if they’re lying, and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once, I gave my students an objective personality test and to my surprise found that those who had great trouble lying did not differ on the tests from the rest of their group. Apart from this one quirk, they seem no different than anyone else. Their families and friends know about this characteristic and forgive them for being too truthful.

I also tried to learn more about their opposite; those who lied easily and with great success. Natural liars know about their ability, and so do those who know them well.


What is at stake

Another important factor is the stakes of the lie. There is a simple rule: the greater the stakes, the more the detection apprehension. Applying this simple rule can be complicated, because it isn’t always so easy to figure out what is at stake, since this can include many individual and contextual variables. In some cases, what is at stake to a liar may be so idiosyncratic that no outside observer would readily know.

Detection apprehension should be greater when the stakes involve avoiding punishment, not just earning a reward. When the decision to deceive is first made, the stakes usually involve obtaining rewards. The liar thinks most about what they may get. Once it has been underway for some time, the rewards may no longer be available. Now they maintain the deceit to avoid being caught, as only punishment is now at stake. Avoiding punishment may be at stake right from the start if the target is suspicious or the deceiver has little confidence.

Furthermore, the severity of the punishment can be influential. Parents should know that the severity of their punishment is one of the factors that influence whether their children confess or lie about transgressions. In some instances, we may lose more by the very act of lying then we could have lost by being truthful. The severity of the punishment will influence the truthful person’s fear of being misjudged just as much as the lying person’s fear of being spotted–both suffer the same consequence.

Paul Ekman is a well-known psychologist and co-discoverer of micro expressions. He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2009. He has worked with many government agencies, domestic and abroad. Dr. Ekman has compiled over 50 years of his research to create comprehensive training tools to read the hidden emotions of those around you.

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