Implicit attitudes and associations can tell us a lot about a person. It’s a way to find out if they might have a racial or gender bias, and recently there has even been some work suggesting that an implicit association test can tell us whether someone is lying — it’s called the autobiographical Implicit Association Test (aIAT). Here’s how it works:
Suppose you’re an American soldier and you want to know if an Afghan you’ve captured is really a member of the Taliban, despite his assurances that he supports your side and only carries a Kalashnikov for self-defense. You fire up the aIAT software on your laptop and give him a quick test:
First, he’s shown true and false statements unrelated to his allegiance in the war: “I am at a computer;” “I am at the tea house.” The task is to press a button identifying the statement as quickly as possible: A for true or L for false. Next he reads statements indicating guilt or innocence: “I am a member of the Taliban,” “I support the American troops,” and again asked to press one key for “guilty” statements and one key for “innocent” statements. Finally the two tasks are mixed: Press A for a true or guilty statement; press L for a false or innocent. Then the associations are reversed: A for true or innocent; L for false or guilty. Reaction times are measured. If he’s truly guilty, then he should react faster to “guilty” statements paired with “true.” If he’s innocent, then he should react faster to “innocent” statements paired with “true.”
But might it be possible to outwit the test?
A team led by Bruno Verschuere administered a similar test to 36 undergraduate students. Half of the students were instructed to act out a “crime” before taking the test: go to a professor’s office and steal a CD containing the answers to the final exam. Half the students were “innocent” and read a newspaper account of the “crime.” Then all the students were given the aIAT. As expected, the guilty students failed the test, and the innocent students passed.
But next they were all instructed on how to fake a “not guilty” result on the test: Deliberately slow down when the statements expressing innocence were paired with true statements (and statements demonstrating guilt were paired with false statements). Here are the results:
As you can see, in the original (unfaked) test, students who really did steal the CD had positive scores, indicating guilt, while students who didn’t steal the CD had negative scores, indicating innocence. But after they were instructed on how to fake, the results of the guilty students were statistically indistinguishable from those of innocent students — they had successfully cheated the test, after only a moments’ worth of instruction on how to do it.
In a separate experiment, the researchers found the same result even when students took the guilt/innocence test only once. And in a third study, even when the amount of time to respond was limited (potentially preventing people from deliberately slowing down), the students were still able to fake their results.
So it appears that while the IAT can tell us a lot about individuals, it’s quite easy for a savvy malfeasant to cheat the test when it’s used as a lie detector.
If you’ve never tried it, I highly recommend visiting the Project Implicit website and trying the IAT for yourself — always an enlightening experience.
Verschuere, B., Prati, V., & Houwer, J. (2009). Cheating the Lie Detector: Faking in the Autobiographical Implicit Association Test Psychological Science, 20 (4), 410-413 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02308.x