Research News

Study about how lying varies with age receives Ig Nobel Prize

Gordon Logan playing electric guitar
Psychologist and musician Gordon Logan (Steve Green / Vanderbilt)

Centennial Professor of Psychology Gordon Logan is co-author of a paper on deception and lying that has received the 2016 Ig Nobel Prize for psychology.

According to the award website, “Ig Nobel Prizes honor achievements that make people LAUGH, and then THINK. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative — and spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology.”

This year’s awards were announced at the 26th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony held on Sept. 22 at Harvard University. The prizes are given by the Improbable Research group, which publishes a magazine, books, videos, a newsletter, newspaper column, podcast and blog.

“I don’t know why they selected this for the Ig Nobel prize,” Logan said. “It’s supposed to make you laugh and then think. Maybe the laughing is ‘why would anyone study lying?’ and the thinking is ‘because lying presents interesting cognitive challenges that liars must overcome.’”

The paper “From junior to senior Pinocchio: A cross-sectional lifespan investigation of deception” appeared in the Sept. 2015 issue of the journal Acta Psychologica. Logan’s co-authors were Evelyne Debey, Maarten De Schryver, Kristina Suchotzki and Bruno Verschuere at Ghent University in Belgium. The paper reports the results of a study of age-related differences in lying proficiency and lying frequency. According to the authors, it is the first study to map deception across the entire lifespan. They did so by recruiting 1,005 participants from visitors to a science museum in Amsterdam ranging from six to 77 years in age.

Participants filled out a questionnaire providing personal information and asking how many lies they have told in the last 24 hours. They were given a standard psychological test for lying proficiency during which they were given a series of simple true or false audible statements, such as is ‘is grass green?’ and ‘can pigs fly?’ At the same time labels flashed on the screen identifying the buttons they should push if is the statement is true or false. Finally, a color flag appears on the screen that instructs them whether they should lie or tell the truth.

The researchers conclusion, which probably won’t come as a great surprise to parents, is that lying accuracy and proficiency improves throughout childhood, peaks in young adults and then decreases during adulthood. They also found that most people don’t lie very often but a few people lie a lot.

The psychologists also gave participants a third test, called a stop-signal test. In this test, the subjects are given a signal to press a key and then, when they have started to do so, are given a signal to stop. This measures an executive function of the brain called inhibitory control. They found that the rise and and fall in lying frequency and proficiency mirrors the rise and fall in the strength of a person’s inhibitory control.

“This supports the hypothesis that lying places greater demands on the brain’s executive control. That is because lying involves keeping track of two separate stories – the true one and the false one – while making sure you don’t say the wrong thing, which requires inhibition,” said Logan.