AMHERST, Mass. - The most popular students in school sometimes are the best liars, according to a study conducted by University of Massachusetts psychologist Robert S. Feldman and published in the most recent Journal of Nonverbal Behavior. ----
"We found that convincing lying is actually associated with good social skills. It takes social skills to be able to control your words as well as what you say non-verbally," said Feldman.
Feldman asked the parents of a group of 32 middle- and high-school students between the ages of 11 and 16 to complete questionnaires providing information about their children's activities, social relations, and school performance. Based on that data, the children were divided into high and low social-competence groups. Student participants from both groups were asked individually to sip a pleasant-tasting, sweet drink, and a sour, unsweetened version, as part of a taste test. Next, they were instructed to persuade an interviewer that they liked or disliked the drinks, even if that was not the case. This meant each participant gave one truthful and one deceptive interview.
According to Feldman, the interviews were videotaped, and the tapes were edited into equal segments in a random order. Fifty-eight college students watched clips of all 64 interviews, then evaluated the participants' effectiveness in expressing their convictions. The results were tabulated against the drinks tested, the ages and genders of the testers, and the social competency ratings provided by parents.
"We wanted to find out if having high social skills can make it easier for you to deceive others, or if being a better liar can make you more popular," said Feldman.
The study found that older adolescents were more adept at deception than the younger ones. Younger or older females were more likely to excel at lying than their male counterparts. Among all ages and genders, those adolescents with the highest level of social competence were the most talented liars. They were able to verbalize untruths while controlling their nonverbal behavior, including facial expression, vocal pitch and mannerisms, posture, and eye contact. Those youths with the poorest social skills had the most trouble controlling their nonverbal behavior when lying.
"This study tells us something about people: It's unrealistic to expect them to always tell the truth. In fact, it's not even the way we want people to always behave," Feldman said. "Children are taught at an early age to be polite and say something nice in social situations, even if it's not the absolute truth. In fact, pretending is part of many children's and adult's games."
Robert S. Feldman can be reached at 413-545-0130.