Dice game, yahtzee Dice game, yahtzee Tempted to cheat? Check your language first. (Photo: Tom Schoumakers/Shutterstock)

You cannot tell a lie – in your non-native language

A new study finds that people are more likely to tell the truth when they're speaking a foreign language.

How can you tell when someone's lying? Is it their body language? Their tone? Their overuse of the phrase "trust me"?

Now, according to one study, you may be able to spot a liar by which language they're speaking; specifically, by whether that language is the speaker's native tongue.

The intriguing study, co-authored by researchers from the University of Chicago and Israel's Ben-Gurion University, finds that people are more likely to tell the truth when they're speaking a language that's foreign to them. The findings were revealed after asking groups of people in four countries – Spain, the United States, Israel and the Netherlands – to play a game that involved trying to deceive their opponents. Some were asked to play the game in their native language, while others were asked to do so in a foreign language. They could win money depending on which numbers they reported, and because the outcome was private, participants could cheat to inflate their profit without their opponents finding out.

And guess who the big cheaters were? The native language gamers, of course.

Which naturally begs the question: Why? Boaz Keysar, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, and Yoella Bereby-Meyer, professor in psychology at Ben-Gurion University, believe it's because using a foreign language is less intuitive, so the "automatic response systems" that might give rise to cheating may be disengaged.

How does the language you speak impact your decision-making process? How does the language you speak impact the words you say? (Photo: Zubada / Shutterstock)

“There is less temptation, so it becomes easier to refrain from impulsive behavior,” Bereby-Meyer said.

In other words, if you're speaking a non-native language, you usually have to think harder about what words to use. This essentially shuts off the impulse to cheat.

“When individuals have a chance to profit from dishonesty with no risk of being caught, their instinctive tendency is to cheat, while they refrain from cheating when they have time to deliberate,” Bereby-Meyer said.

Keysar believes this study contradicts commonly held beliefs about people with foreign accents.

“Studies have shown people with accents are perceived as less credible because they can be more difficult to understand,” Keysar said.

The research follows previous findings by the same team that links foreign language usage to better decision-making.


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