Published on 5 May 2014
A University of the Sunshine Coast Psychology Honours study has found that it’s surprisingly difficult for many people to detect a lie – until they get older.
The research by Holly Warland, 22, of Mooloolaba, also found that this lie-detection ability was no better among women than men, and no worse among people with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
Ms Warland’s study also examined people’s ability to read facial expressions. These results were more in line with expectation, showing above average scores for the general population and much lower scores for ASD participants.
USC Lecturer in Psychology Dr Rachael Sharman, who supervised the research, said the study compared people with and without ASD because it was believed that both types of abilities were often impaired in individuals with ASD.
Almost 800 survey participants were tested on their ‘Theory of Mind’ intuitive skills, which allow people to consider others’ thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
Dr Sharman said the findings suggested that certain Theory of Mind tasks in the general adult population were not as well-developed as past research indicated.
“There were no significant differences in gender either, despite the popular proposition that women are often better at these tasks than men,” she said.
“Surprisingly, the deception tasks proved to be very difficult for a significant proportion. However, this ability improved with the age of participants, supporting the ‘with age comes wisdom’ theory.”
Ms Warland said the age correlation was intriguing. “People over 35 did quite a lot better than younger people in detecting lying,” she said.
She was also delighted by the large sample size for her study.
“It spread like wildfire around Australia,” she said. “People are really interested in seeing how well they can socially communicate or read facial expressions.”
She is now doing a PhD at the University on therapy intervention for autism, with the goal of helping children learn social skills.
“In my PhD I want to help children with autism read facial expressions better, by associating this task with something they enjoy, not making it a chore.”
Ms Warland was the recipient of a $12,000 Renouf Family Scholarship for academic excellence when she started at USC as an undergraduate in 2009.
— Julie Schomberg