How psychologists can tell if you’re lying about your travel plans

A new study in the scientific journal Psychology, Crime & Law provides evidence that a particular way of questioning individuals can help detect deception, regardless of the cultures the individuals come from.

“The detection of deception has been studied in depth for over 50 years and an unequivocal finding is that not everybody lies in exactly the same way. This is particularly true when looking at individuals from different cultures,” said Louise M. Jupe of the University of Portsmouth, the study’s corresponding author.

“Having studied the Verifiability Approach (a verbal veracity tool used in aiding the distinction between truth tellers and liars) in identity, police suspects, insurance and malingering scenarios, we wanted to see if the approach could be applied to a situation representing a wide variety of individuals from different cultures. An airport setting is one of the most culturally diverse singular areas and also one of the most critical in terms of security,” Jupe continued.

“Previous research has often highlighted difficulties with applying methods of highlighting suspicious individuals in an airport setting (such as the Screening Passengers by Observation Technique) and therefore deception research in this area is of paramount importance. The consequences of poor decisions within airport security can be catastrophic.”

In their study, the researchers recruited 399 travelers from Europe, Asia and Africa at an international airport. The travelers were split into two groups: Half of the participants were told to lie about their plans while the other half were told to tell the truth. Interviewers — who did not know which group the participants were in — then questioned them about their travel plans.

The Verifiability Approach assumes that liars will provide fewer verifiable details than truth tellers, and that is what the researchers found. Participants in the truth telling group provided a higher ratio of potentially verifiable details to total details. A statement such as “I am attending the Biennial Conference on Chemical Education in Singapore” was considered verifiable, while one such as “I am going to visit some different shops in Verona to look for a dress” was considered a non-verifiable detail.

“What we found in the current study was that the VA has the potential to be used when individuals under study are from different cultural backgrounds,” Jupe told PsyPost. “In other words, the VA shows promise when being used as a cross-cultural veracity tool. The VA is not dependent on subjective decisions, but rather the verifiable details in an individual’s statements. This, therefore, has the potential to allow security agents to make preliminary veracity assessments, irrespective of the travellers background.”

There did appear to be some cultural differences. Individuals from Europe, Asia and Africa tended to provide different levels of details about their trips. But the levels of verifiable details were not significantly different, suggesting that the VA can be used across multiple cultures.

“One of the limitations of the current study is that whilst we sampled a wide range of individuals from different cultural backgrounds (Western Europe, Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, Russian, South Asia, East Asia, South East Asia, West Asian, West African or East Africa), there is still a vast array of cultures which need to be included in future research, to further assess the applicability of the VA as a cross-cultural veracity tool,” Jupe told PsyPost.

“The VA is not only less susceptible to individual biases, but is also less exhaustive on the scare resources available within airport security. Building upon the current findings has the potential to allow us to work towards increasing positive hits on suspicious individuals, whilst reducing the number of individuals who are wrongfully flagged as suspicious. This in turn reduces the financial burden and should also allow for more efficient security processing in airport settings.”

The study, “Applying the Verifiability Approach in an international airport setting“, was also co-authored by Sharon Leal, Aldert Vrij and Galit Nahari. It was published online May 19, 2017.