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Distraction and Lying


Explanations > Behaviors > Lying > Distraction and Lying

Description | Discussion | So what



Liars may use distraction in various ways to avoid being caught out.

External distraction

In external distraction, liars provide excuses not to talk about the subject or otherwise try to distract the interrogator away from the signs of lying, for example:

  • Changing the subject.
  • Latching onto another, unrelated point that the interrogator has said.
  • Drawing attention to available physical items, from things outside to elements of clothing.
  • Getting emotional, changing focus to 'me being upset'.
  • Accusing the interrogator about something, trying to put them on the defensive.
  • Trying to get the interrogator to look elsewhere rather than at their face when they are lying.
  • Offering to tell about something else that is less damaging.

External distractions are visible to the interrogator and may consequently be taken of signs of discomfort and avoidance of subjects where the person may lie.

Internal distraction

Internal distraction is done within the mind of the liar, taking their own thoughts away from the subject where they might feel a need to tell lies. Some of the things they may do internally include:

  • Self-justification as to why it is good and right for them to lie.
  • Thinking of the interrogator as a bad person who would not understand and does not deserve the truth.
  • Thinking about some completely different so they do not have to feel bad.
  • Pretending they are answering another question where their answer would be really true.


Unless they are have a personality disorder where they have no conscience, most people find lying uncomfortable and stressful as they experience sensations of guilt and shame. Liars know that this is likely and so they will try to avoid having to lie or otherwise reduce the likelihood of them

Distraction takes attention away from the subject at hand and so avoids the need to lie.

Internal distraction is a particularly clever way of avoiding the signs of lying as it allows the liar to answer the question whilst reducing the chance of being caught out.

Ganis et al (2011) did an experiment by putting people's heads into an fMRI scanner and asking them to tell the truth and to lie. The simple test was to ask them if their birthday was on each of a set of dates, with instructions to press a 'no' button to all dates. When they lied this was visible on the scanner.

They were then asked to move a specific finger when they were lying. Just this simple act led to a significant reduction in neural signs of lying.

There are several possible causes of this effect. First, moving your finger is a distraction. Thinking about moving the finger means you are thinking less about how wrong it is to tell lies. Secondly, the action lent salience to lies, making them more meaningful. Thirdly, by associating the lies with something which is not 'wrong', the wrongness of the lies are reduced.

In doing this work, the researchers were particularly interested in testing the robustness of using scanners for lie-detection (clearly there are issues with this).

So what?

Try not to send signals that you are about to ask a question that the other person will want to lie about. This will give them less preparation time and the shock of the question may lead to clearer signals that they may be lying.

See also

Distraction principle


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