Interpersonal Deception Theory

Unfortunately, it is not all information shared in the course relational interaction or in interpersonal communication is truthful. DeceptionOpens in new window involves the deliberate manipulation of information, behaviour, and image in order to create in another person a false belief. A person who deceives typically engages in strategic behaviour that distorts the truthfulness of information. Listeners often detect such strategies and become suspicious that they are being deceived.

David Buller and Judee BurgoonOpens in new window conducted an array of studies in which they see deception and its detection as part of an ongoing interaction between communicators involving a back-and-forth process; they developed interpersonal deception theory to explain these processes.

Statement From The Source ...

Birds do it. Bees do it. All manner of creatures do it, and humans are especially adept at doing it. “It” is deception. As a powerful resource in our communication repertoires, deception needs to be understood as a communication phenomenon, not just a psychological one. Interpersonal deception theory takes the bird’s eye view of examining the who, what, how, when, and why of interpersonal deception and proposing testable relationships among the key context, actor, relationship, message, interaction, and outcome factors. It is a “big picture” theory.
— Judee Burgoon

The deceiver may experience a certain degree of apprehension about being detected, and the receiver may experience a certain degree of suspicion about being deceived. These “internal” thoughts often can be seen in “outward” behaviour—so receivers look for signs of lying, and liars look for signs of suspicion. Over time, in this back-and-forth process, the sender may come to perceive the deception was successful (or not), and the receiver may come to see that the suspicion was warranted (or not).

Deception apprehension and suspicion can appear in strategically controlled behaviours, but they are more apt to show up in nonstrategic behaviours, or behaviours that are not being manipulated. This is a process called leakage. You might be suspicious that you are being lied to because of behaviours of which the other person is not aware. If you are trying to deceive another person, you may experience apprehension based on the fact that the receiver could detect it through some behaviour you are not controlling. For example, you might have perfect control of your voice and face, but movements for your feet or hands give you away.

Communicators’ expectations are significant anchors from which to judge behaviour. Not surprising, then, expectations play a definite role in deception situations. When receivers’ expectations are violated, their suspicions may be aroused. Likewise, when sender’s expectations are violated, their concern about possibly being deceived may also be aroused.

Factors Affecting Deception Detection

Many factors affect this ongoing process—for example, the degree to which the communicators can interact fully. This variable is called interactivity. Talking face-to-face is more interactive than talking on the telephone which is more interactive than communicating by email.

Interactivity can increase immediacy, or the degree of psychological closeness between the communicators. When we have high immediacy, we pay close attention to a variety of live cues. We may stand closer, look more attentively at what is going on, and generally avail ourselves of a richer set of actions, such as the ways the eyes look or whether the cheeks turn red.

You might predict that the more access communicators have to one another’s behaviour, the more cognitive data they have to assess one another’s intentions or suspicions in regard to deception. Research seems to indicate, however, that the opposite can also happen. Immediacy and relational closeness can cause you to feel more engaged with fewer suspicions of others.

In a close relationship, we have a degree of familiarity which make us have certain biases or expectations about what we are going to see. A truth bias makes us less inclined to see deception. Most married couples, for example, do not expect, and thus, do not see, deception—adding to the devastation that occurs when learning about an extramarital affair or other deception. In a positive relationship, communicators more or less assume that they are telling one another the truth. They are unlikely to be suspicious about lying and may not pay close attention to behavioural deception cues. On the other hand, a lie bias may accentuate our suspicions and lead us to think people are lying when they may not be. If someone repeatedly lies to you, you are likely to be suspicious about everything that person says.

Our ability to deceive or detect deception also is affected by conversational demand, or the amount of demands made on us while we are communicating. If several things are going on at once or if the communication is complex and involves numerous goals, we cannot pay as close attention to everything as we would if the situational demands were light.

Two other factors that affect the deception-detection process are the level of motivation to lie or to detect lying and the skill in deception and deception detection. Where motivation is high, our desire to deceive may override our apprehension about being caught. At the same time, if the receiver knows that our motivation is high, her suspicions will be increased. Some people are more skilled at deception than others because they have a larger range of behaviours they can perform. This could be counteracted, however, by the other person’s ability to detect deception.

Remember, however, that communicators engage in both strategic and non-strategic behaviours. When we lie, we typically exert a great deal of control over how we manage information, behaviour, and image (all strategic behaviours); at the same time, some of our behaviour that is not being controlled (nonstrategic) is sometimes detected by others, depending on their motivation and skill. In highly interactive situations—those in which we are fully engaged with one another—deceivers are able to adjust their strategic and nonstrategic behaviours to hide their deception.

The purpose of deception is also considered here. Those who deceive for personal gain may have a harder time hiding it than those who deceive for more altruistic purposes. Of course, the results of deceptive behaviour depend in part on how motivated the receivers are to detect deception. If the receivers are suspicious or attuned to the possibility of a particular lie, they probably will put considerable effort into detecting it. Many professors, for example, are extremely bothered by student deception about absences, missed assignments, and the like. In these cases, they scrutinize students very carefully in an effort to detect a lie.

Interpersonal deception theory continues to be a popular theory. For example, Lina Zhou and colleagues used the theory to explore deception in an online community. They examined factors that affected both the effectiveness and the efficiency in detecting deception in this group. They found that familiarity with the other’s behaviour has a positive effect on detecting deception, but gender diversity in the group has a negative effect on detecting deception. That is, people in a mixed group of men and women are worse at detecting deception than people in a group of all men or all women. Further, familiarity with the other’s behaviour has a negative effect on the efficiency in detecting deception, and functional diversity (i.e., different roles in the group) has a positive effect on efficiency.