You Can’t Be Fooled by a Con? Don’t Count On It

Sobering April Fool’s news from research on deception



See the column on the Wall Street Journal site


A friend recently discovered a surprise on her credit-card account: nearly $20,000 in cash withdrawals, along with charges for private-jet flights and a trip to Acapulco. This was no April Fool’s joke. A young family friend, to whom she had offered moral support and a couch in her basement when he was in dire straits, had conned her.

If you think that you couldn’t be tricked so easily, you’d be wrong. Some 35 million Americans fall for scams each year, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

One reason for our susceptibility to deception is that evolution has tipped humans toward trusting and cooperating with each other for mutual advantage. “Any of us can be fooled, because con artists give us the best possible version of ourselves,” says psychologist Maria Konnikova, author of the 2016 book “The Confidence Game.”

Research shows how hard it is for us to detect a swindler. Hundreds of lie-detection studies suggest that we succeed at it less than half the time—flipping a coin would be more accurate. This may be because most of our stereotypes about liars are wrong. People don’t avoid eye contact or fidget when they’re lying, says Leanne ten Brinke, a researcher on deception at the University of Denver. A telling clue, “such as Pinocchio’s nose,” just doesn’t exist, she writes.

A forensic psychologist, Dr. ten Brinke had long suspected that people’s indirect assessments of deception might be more effective than their conscious attempts. After all, studies have found that nonhuman primates like chimpanzees can detect fakery designed to distract them from hidden food; other research shows that some people who can’t understand speech due to brain damage are better at sussing out swindlers than people with no language deficits. Could it be that the unconscious mind is better than rational focus when it come to detecting lies?

In a study published in 2014 in the journal Psychological Science by Dr. ten Brinke and her colleagues, a total of 138 subjects participated in two experiments designed to answer this question. In the first experiment, researchers randomly set up two groups. The first was told to steal $100 from an envelope deliberately placed in the testing room and then to lie about it. A second group was told not to steal the money and to tell the truth.

The experimenters posed questions to both groups like, “Did you steal the money?” along with neutral queries about subjects like the weather. Later, when a new set of participants saw the video footage of one truth-teller paired with one liar, they could distinguish between honesty and fibs only 45% of the time—a dismal figure in line with previous research.

The researchers then tried to get below the mind’s surface with a second experiment. They tested whether the image of someone telling a lie—even if glimpsed for just fractions of a second—would prime the viewer to recognize notions related to dishonesty, and conversely, if a very brief flash of a truth-teller would do the same for ideas related to honesty.

The experimenters showed participants still photos from the first experiment’s videos and then asked them to categorize a set of words related to veracity. They found that viewers were able to categorize lie-connected words—such as dishonest and deceitfulmore quickly and accurately when they had just glimpsed an image of someone who was lying. Similarly, after a subliminal flash of a truth-teller’s face, the participants responded more quickly and accurately to words like genuine or sincere. This suggests that they had somehow registered who was telling the truth and who was lying.

But the priming only went so far. When shown the images of people lying and telling the truth and specifically asked to judge which was which, the participants didn’t do nearly as well at the task.

The sobering April Fool’s message for the rationalists among us is that a sucker is born every minute. And that sucker is us.