When is deceptive message production more effortful than truth-telling? A baker's dozen of moderators

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Deception is thought to be more effortful than telling the truth. Empirical evidence from many quarters supports this general proposition. However, there are many factors that qualify and even reverse this pattern. Guided by a communication perspective, I present a baker's dozen of moderators that may alter the degree of cognitive difficulty associated with producing deceptive messages. Among sender-related factors are memory processes, motivation, incentives, and consequences. Lying increases activation of a network of brain regions related to executive memory, suppression of unwanted behaviors, and task switching that is not observed with truth-telling. High motivation coupled with strong incentives or the risk of adverse consequences also prompts more cognitive exertion-for truth-tellers and deceivers alike-to appear credible, with associated effects on performance and message production effort, depending on the magnitude of effort, communicator skill, and experience. Factors related to message and communication context include discourse genre, type of prevarication, expected response length, communication medium, preparation, and recency of target event/issue. These factors can attenuate the degree of cognitive taxation on senders so that truth-telling and deceiving are similarly effortful. Factors related to the interpersonal relationship among interlocutors include whether sender and receiver are cooperative or adversarial and how well-acquainted they are with one another. A final consideration is whether the unit of analysis is the utterance, turn at talk, episode, entire interaction, or series of interactions. Taking these factors into account should produce a more nuanced answer to the question of when deception is more difficult than truth-telling. Common sense tells us that lying should be more difficult than truth-telling. After all, the truth is ready-made; the lie must be invented. Ceteris paribus, more effort is involved in fabricating a falsehood than in accessing and producing a veridical account of something that is already stored in memory. But common sense is not always the best teacher. There are many circumstances under which truth-telling imposes more challenges than deceiving. I therefore want to advance the hypothesis that the effort associated with deceiving vice truth-telling is a function of the characteristics of the communication event in force and that deeper analysis of critical elements of the communication process will bring more clarity to the issue of the cognitive effort associated with deceit. Although many such elements have been included as moderators in deception meta-analyses, their impact has not necessarily been attributed to cognitive (or emotional) exertion, and reliable empirical associations are few. A more coherent framework is therefore wanting.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number01965
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Issue numberDEC
StatePublished - 2015


  • Cognitive effort
  • Deception
  • Deceptive message production
  • Moderators of deception displays
  • Truth

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)


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