Deception research at MSU aims to protect public

December 11, 2007

The research that communication faculty member Tim Levine conducts on liars could lead to advances in public safety. 

Via a grant from the National Science Foundation, Levine, who has published more than a dozen papers on deception and communication, is working on research which may provide law enforcement, homeland security and the general public with better cues on how to detect deception.

“Anything we can do with research to help police catch criminals is better.  Anything we can do to help catch the terrorists before they get on the plane is definitely in the public good.  And if there’s some behavioral thing that people can spot then it would be incredibly useful,” Levine says.

The main goal of the research is to collect a sample of truths and lies that will then be analyzed in hopes of finding behavioral or verbal indicators that reveal deception.  Levine explains that in order to collect this sample, three criteria must be filled.  First, the people who lie must be distinguishable from the people who tell the truth.  Secondly, lying in this situation must be consequential.  Finally, the subjects should decide to lie for themselves.  

To meet these three goals, Levine and his colleagues create a situation in which MSU undergraduate students are confronted with an opportunity to cheat on a game in which the prize is cash money.  They are then confronted about cheating, and either lie, tell the truth or confess.  This experiment is conducted with several students, and the entire process is video taped.  The subjects are then informed of the nature of the study, at which point they accept or decline participation.    

Levine’s research differs from most studies because his samples of truths and lies are unsanctioned.  This means the subjects are given a motive to lie, but not told to do so, therefore creating a realistic situation.  

“Rather than just telling people to lie, which that might not be especially realistic, we want situations where people decide for themselves whether to lie of be truthful.”

Researchers at the University of Arizona also collected deception samples, which the NSF will compile with Levine’s findings to compile a wide range of data.

As part of his own research, Levine then took the tapes and showed them to a group of MSU students and a group of police officers and detectives to measure their ability to detect lies from truth.

“The students were more accurate in distinguishing lies from truth than some law enforcement,” Levine says.  He believes this is a result the officers’ reactions to the nervous habits of the subjects, even the honest ones.

“The officers might be interpreting nerves as deceptive.  But this is a case where honest people might be more nervous because they are being discredited,” he says.

Doctoral student Rachel Kim works with Levine to collect samples for the NSF and assists in his research on detecting lies from truth.  She will apply the information gathered to her own studies in interpersonal and intercultural communication.

“I’m really fortunate to work with Dr. Levine because oh his high level of expertise on deception,” she says.

Michigan State University has been advancing knowledge and transforming lives through innovative teaching, research and outreach for more than 150 years. MSU is known internationally as a major public university with global reach and extraordinary impact. Its 17 degree-granting colleges attract scholars worldwide who are interested in combining education with practical problem solving.


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