The decision of the White House to allow only audio recordings of some of the press briefings, instead of the full audiovisual airing, has caused a stir. People wanted to know why that was happening. Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that when the cameras are off, the discussions are more substantive. Jake Tapper of CNN said, “People in power like to hide things from the public.”
It was enough to make me set aside my passionate interest in all things single, just for a moment, and weigh in on the audio-only debate. Before I became a scholar of single life, my area of expertise was in deceiving and detecting deceit. I did many studies and published many papers on the topic.
In one of my articles, Charlie Bond and I analyzed the results of every study ever conducted on adults’ abilities to detect deception. We found more than 200 relevant articles. More than 24,000 people participated in the studies we reviewed; their role was to try to tell when other people were lying and when they were telling the truth.
All the study participants had to go by was what they were shown – typically, either an audiovisual recording of the liars and truth-tellers, an audio-only recording, or a recording of just the visuals (the liars’ and truth-tellers’ faces, and sometimes the rest of their bodies, too). They were trying to detect deception from nonverbal and verbal clues. They had no access to other ways of figuring out whether to trust the people they were judging – for example, by digging up relevant facts.
Usually, people in the studies observed a number of different statements. Half the time, the statements were true, and the rest of the time, they were lies. That means that if the participants were just guessing, they would be correct in their judgments 50% of the time.
If you have heard that people are not very good at detecting lies, that claim was probably based on the studies I just described. When Charlie Bond and I averaged the accuracy of the thousands of study participants across all the different ways the information was presented to them (such as audio-only, audiovisual, and visual only), we found that people were right 54% of the time. That’s better than chance but hardly gives anyone bragging rights.
Now for the key results. Were people any less accurate at knowing when others were lying and when they were telling the truth when they had just an audio recording to go by rather than a full audiovisual recording?
The answer is no. When people only had access to an audio recording, they were right about their judgments of lies and truths 53% of the time. When they could hear and watch the people who were lying or telling the truth (full audiovisual), they were right 54% of the time. That difference was not statistically meaningful.
If Jake Tapper was correct in suggesting that the White House may have been trying to hide things by allowing only an audio recording and not a full audiovisual airing, the attempt was probably not successful. Or it wasn’t if we can make the leap from the behavior of ordinary people who took part in the studies we reviewed to that of White House press briefers and those who judge their statements.
There’s another way to look at people’s judgments other than to ask whether they are accurate. It is also possible to see how often they think other people are telling the truth, regardless of whether those people are actually telling the truth or lying. Suppose that people who only get to hear an audio recording of the press briefings more often judge the press secretaries to be telling the truth than if they saw the full briefing, including the visuals. The White House might like that outcome.
Across all the judgments made by the thousands of people who participated in the studies we reviewed, there was a truth bias. If the participants were even-handed in their judgments of truthfulness, they would have judged half of the statements as truths and half as lies (which was the actual distribution of truths and lies). Instead, they guessed that about 56% of the statements were truths.
Were the people who only got to hear the audio recordings any more likely to believe what they were hearing than the people who got to see the full audiovisual recordings? Not significantly so. People who only heard the audio recordings thought that 59% of the statements they heard were truthful. Those who got to see and hear the full audiovisual recordings thought that 56% of the statements were truthful. Again, the difference was not statistically meaningful.
The White House has never made available only videotapes of the briefings, with no sound. But social scientists studying deception often include that condition, in part because some scholars have suggested that facial expressions and body movements can provide clues to deception. That’s not what Charlie Bond and I found in our review. People who only got to watch videos, without any sound, were only correct 50% of the time. That’s the same as if they were just guessing. The liars and truth-tellers who could only be seen and not heard were not perceived as very truthful, either. The study participants thought that 52% of the visual-only statements were truths. Remember that the participants who listened to audio-only recordings thought that 59% of the statements were truthful, and those who heard and watched the audiovisual recordings thought that 56% were truthful.
Occasionally, social scientists include a transcript condition, in which study participants make their judgments based only on a typed transcript of what the liars and truth-tellers said. There are no visual cues, and no tone of voice cues. Charlie Bond and I found only 5 studies comparing judgments based on transcripts to judgments based on full audiovisual recordings, and the findings were only about truth bias and not accuracy. The study participants who only had a typed transcript to go by were less likely to believe the statements than were the participants who got access to the full audiovisual recordings. Being disbelieved is probably not what anyone wants.
Bond, Charles F., Jr., & DePaulo, Bella M. (2006). Accuracy of deception judgments. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10, 214-234.