Study: Why We Think Women Are More Trustworthy Than Men

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Let’s be honest: everybody lies. The question is whether people believe what you say. And a new study shows that your trustworthiness depends not just on the words you use, but on who you are and how you say them.

In this month’s Journal of Language and Social Psychology, Marilyn Boltz and colleagues delve into the intersection of gender, speech patterns and deception. “We found that people perceive women to lie less than men and that they perceive men and women to tell different kinds of lies,” says Boltz, a professor of psychology at Haverford College. “And we found some effects of response timing.” (More on Ways to Beat the Winter Doldrums)

Diary studies — in which participants are trusted to record their own falsehoods — have shown that men and women both admit fibbing in 20% to 35% of their social interactions. They’ve also shown that men tell — and are told — more “self-lies,” those that benefit the liar. Women, meanwhile, tell and are told more “other-lies,” those contrived for the benefit of others. It’s the difference between “You have a zit? I can’t even see it” and “That woman? I’ve never seen her before in my life.”

Boltz’ study, complementing the diary confessions, found that when the reality was unclear people were also more likely to perceive women as telling other-lies, and men as telling self-lies. Participants in Boltz’ study listened to a recorded conversation between “Jim” and “Claire,” a couple in a serious relationship. During the exchange, they were asked to determine whether each response was in earnest. Here’s an excerpt:

Jim: Were you happy with the steak?

Claire: Yeah, it was really good.* Was it your own recipe for the marinade? [*potential other-lie]

Jim: Yeah, it was.** It’s one I’ve been trying to perfect over the years. [**potential self-lie]

Whether or not listeners believed Jim’s and Claire’s statements depended in part on the timing of their speech. Boltz found that if the speaker responded after a longer-than-normal pause and spoke more quickly than the person who asked the question, their sincerity was more likely to be called into question. (More on Retail Therapy Works: Spending Money for Social Acceptance)

The percentage of study participants who believed Claire was telling the truth tanked from a high of 86% to a low of 16% when she responded late and spoke quickly while telling a potential other-lie. Jim’s believers dropped from a high of 77% to a low of 14% when he told a potential self-lie in the same style. We’re most suspicious, Boltz explains, when men might be indulging their self-serving side.

She theorized that people were less likely to believe the woman was lying, especially for her own benefit, because of how men and women are taught to play their respective gender roles. “Beginning at a young age, males are encouraged to boast about their abilities and assert themselves over others. In the context of adult conversation, accounts of one-upmanship are common and provide a means for establishing one’s dominance and status,” she writes. “Women, on the other hand, are encouraged to be more modest in their self-presentation and are taught the importance of intimacy and developing connections with others.”

Regardless of your gender, if you’re guarding a secret, you’d probably be wise not to take time for chin-stroking before impersonating an auctioneer, the findings suggest. “Normally, if [the pauses] are long, then it’s considered to be an unplanned lie, one that you’re constructing on the fly,” Boltz says. And fast-talkers can often be nervous ones.

But while long pauses or nervous chatter might make people seem suspicious, they’re not definitive evidence of actual falsehood. Researchers and behavioral experts cite a plethora of actions, from a changing pitch of voice to detail-free responses to lifted eyebrows, as telltale signs. And reality is inevitably more subjective. “You can train people to some extent,” says Boltz. “But still it’s very difficult to have a human lie detector, just because there are so many factors that can influence one’s behavior.” (More on Don’t Choke: 5 Tips for Performing Under Pressure)

In drawing conclusions from the way Jim and Claire spoke, the premise in Boltz’ study that the two speakers were in a “close relationship” was important. Mitra Lohrasb, who teaches courses in lie detection in British Columbia, warns that strangers may have unpredictable habits, and that their tells may not be discernible to those who aren’t familiar with them. “If you haven’t known them for a long time, don’t judge any of their physical movement or any of the pattern in speaking,” she says. “All that stuff is based on heart rate, based on nervousness.”

If you’re really interested in gauging their truth-telling, Lohrasb recommends doing some covert questioning on the spot to see where people’s eyes go when they’re accessing true memories, as opposed to creative or made-up responses.

Another deception guru, Daniel Madonia, who teaches lie-detection skills at his Massachusetts company, NeuroVelocity, goes further: he says hypnosis is the trick — hypnotizing the listener, that is, not the speaker. “The skills are both conscious and unconscious,” he says. Consciously we can learn some tips and tricks for what might be signs of lying, while unconsciously we rely on our instincts and learn to hone them, he explains, and using hypnosis puts people in a more receptive learning state.

“In general, you find that people are not very good at detecting deception,” says Boltz. “You kind of have to know the baseline behavior.” Which means that these lessons in deception perception may have limited usefulness in the real world, and are probably best applied to the ones we love.

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