Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
May 13, 2020

Being Ostracized Can Make You a Better Lie Detector

by Jennifer Eck
Young woman sits with coworkers

All of us are occasionally ostracized by other people. Children don’t allow other kids to play with them, coworkers don’t invite a colleague to join them for lunch, and friends sometimes don’t include us in their plans for the weekend.

Being ostracized is a strongly negative experience with detrimental effects on people’s well-being because ostracism threatens people’s fundamental need to belong. So, ostracized people are motivated to regain belonging and prevent further exclusion by identifying people with whom they might form positive and lasting friendships. But the search for good friends is complicated by the fact that other people often lie about themselves. How can you tell if someone would be a good friend if you don’t know whether the things they’re telling you about themselves are true?

People usually aren’t very good at detecting lies, partly because they have misconceptions about the nonverbal behavior of liars and truth-tellers. For example, people around the world believe that liars avoid making eye contact with the person they’re lying to, but this nonverbal cue isn’t actually related to lying. However, common beliefs about verbal cues to deception tend to be much more accurate. Research shows, for example, that lies are less plausible and include fewer relevant details than truthful statements. Therefore, people often are better at detecting lies if they focus on verbal rather than nonverbal cues.

Interestingly, research has shown that people rely less on nonverbal cues in judging someone’s truthfulness when they think carefully about what the person is saying. So, when people really pay attention, they tend to ignore cues that are typically not useful for detecting lies (such as whether the person is avoiding eye contact) and focus instead on cues that are typically more revealing (such as how plausible the person’s statements are and how many details are included).

Given that being ostracized motivates people to pay attention to whether other people would be good friends, my colleagues and I thought that ostracized people might rely more on what people say rather than on their nonverbal behaviors, particularly if the other person is saying things that are relevant to their potential to be a good friend. If so, ostracized people should have an advantage in detecting lies when other people say things that are relevant to friendships.

We conducted three experiments in which participants were either included or ostracized in an online game. After being included or ostracized, participants watched videotapes of people talking about themselves and rated the degree to which they thought that those people were telling the truth.

In Experiment 1, participants saw videotapes in which people made deceptive or truthful statements about their movie or TV series preferences, information that is relevant to friendships because friendships are often based on shared interests and types of humor. As we expected, our results showed that participants who had been ostracized were better at discriminating between friendship-relevant lies and truths than included participants.

In Experiments 2 and 3, we directly tested whether ostracized people rely more on what someone says rather than on how someone behaves when judging a person’s truthfulness. We created messages in which an actress made statements that were either high or low in plausibility and also behaved in ways that people believe indicate either truth or lying, such as making more or less eye contact.

As we expected, ostracized participants neglected nonverbal cues to deception when judging the truthfulness of what the actress said. Whereas participants who had been included used both verbal and nonverbal cues to judge whether the actress was lying, participants who had been ostracized based their credibility judgments only on verbal cues. Experiment 3 further showed that ostracized participants ignored nonverbal cues only if the messages contained information relevant to friendships but not if messages contained other kinds of social information.

In all of our experiments, participants didn’t expect to interact with the people whose truthfulness they were judging. So it wasn’t that ostracized people were trying to figure out if they should be friends with a particular person. Instead, ostracized people simply seemed to pay extra attention to information about whether someone might be a good friend. This extra attention to what someone says increases ostracized people’s chances of distinguishing honest from dishonest people, which can help them identify potential friends.

For Further Reading

Eck, J., Schoel, C., Reinhard, M.-A., & Greifeneder, R. (2020). When and why being ostracized affects veracity judgments. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 46, 454-468. doi:10.1177/0146167219860135

DePaulo, B. M., Kashy, D. A., Kirkendol, S. E., Wyer, M. M., & Epstein, J. A. (1996). Lying in everyday life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 979-995. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.70.5.979

DePaulo, B. M., Lindsay, J. L., Malone, B. E., Muhlenbruck, L., Charlton, K., & Cooper, H. (2003). Cues to deception. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 74-118. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.129.1.74


Jennifer Eck is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Mannheim, Germany, and co-editor of the book Social Exclusion: Psychological Approaches to Understanding and Reducing Its Impact.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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