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It's easy to lie in a foreign language, according to new research

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Research shows that non-native speakers are perceived as less trustworthy than native speakers. This means that if you are a non-native speaker you’re likely to be judged as making less truthful statements, compared to native speakers. But research investigating whether people lie less effectively in a non-native language is scarce.

Recently researchers conducted a study based on two research theories. Research from cognitive load theory suggests that lying is more difficult in a foreign language, as it presents an additional cognitive load thereby hampering lying. On the other hand, according to emotional distance hypothesis, lying is easier in a foreign language. Apparently, lying is associated with more emotions than being truthful and communication in a non-native language is perceived as less emotionally arousing.

This slight difference was not a result of faster deceptive responses but rather telling the truth in a foreign language takes longer than in one’s native language.

The psychologists conducted three experiments involving 50 participants. They were asked to answer neutral and emotional questions in their mother tongue (German) and in a foreign language (English). Depending on the colour cues, they had to answer the questions either truthfully or deceptively both in German and in English.

The scientists found that the results across all experiments consistently revealed smaller reaction time (RT) differences between lying and truth-telling in the non-native language, compared to the native language. This slight difference was not a result of faster deceptive responses but rather telling the truth in a foreign language takes longer than in one’s native language.

The study also revealed:

  • It takes longer to answer emotional questions than neutral ones.
  • Responses in a non-native language take longer than those in native language participants.
  • Generally, it takes longer to tell a lie than to tell the truth.
  • The time differences between telling the truth and lying are generally smaller in a foreign language for both kinds of questions.

The researchers explained that increased cognitive effort is responsible for the prolongation of the truth response in the foreign language. The absence of this prolongation in lying (in a foreign language) is explained by the emotional distance hypothesis — the higher cognitive load of lying in a foreign language is neutralised by the greater emotional distance of lying in a foreign language.

As a result, most people will not find it difficult to lie in a foreign language but will find it more difficult to tell the truth in a non-native language.

Source: Journal of Experimental Psychology: General


Meena Azzollini

Meena is passionate about holistic wellbeing, alternative healing, health and personal power and uses words to craft engaging feature articles to convey her knowledge and passion. She is a freelance writer and content creator from Adelaide, Australia, who draws inspiration from family, travel and her love for books and reading.

A yoga practitioner and a strong believer in positive thinking, Meena is also a mum to a very active young boy. In her spare time, she loves to read and whip up delicious meals. She also loves the smell of freshly made coffee and can’t ever resist a cheesecake. And she gets tickled pink by anything funny!