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Deception Detectives

Psychologists Find Link Between a Full Bladder and Effective Lying
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Will “holding it in” make you a better liar? Findings from a study by alumni and an associate professor of psychology say yes.

“The Inhibitory Spillover Effect: Controlling the Bladder Makes Better Liars,” to be published in the December issue of Consciousness and Cognition, shows that people are better deceivers when experiencing full-bladder pressure.

“When you engage in an act of self-control it helps you in another domain — so when you have to inhibit the urge to urinate, you also control your behavior mentally and emotionally, and do a good job at lying,” says Iris Blandón-Gitlin, associate professor of psychology, who worked with her former students on the study. “The whole goal is to find better ways to detect deception.”

The study was conducted by Elise Fenn ’10 (B.A. psychology), assistant professor of psychology at Cal State Northridge; Blandón-Gitlin; Jennifer Coons ’11 ’13 (B.A., M.A. psychology), pursuing a Ph.D. at UC Riverside; Catherine Pineda ’11 (B.A. psychology); and Reinalyn Echon ’13 (B.A. psychology), who is pursuing her Ph.D. in experimental psychology at Idaho State University.

“I wish you could have been a fly on the wall in our lab when we were running analyses. I still remember our reactions when we found statistical significance across many of our measures,” recalls Fenn, lead author of the study. “We were surprised not that we found the effect, but at how robust the effect was. No matter how you sliced it, liars’ ability to appear convincing was boosted when they had a stronger urge to pee.”

The brain-function results were interesting to the team, she adds, because they suggest that effective lying involves a great deal of mental effort, especially cognitive control.

“We think that liars worked hard to control themselves; they are likely inhibiting an accidental slip of true information and inhibiting behaviors that may make them appear guilty, more so than truth-tellers,” explains Fenn, who was Blandón-Gitlin’s mentee while at Cal State Fullerton and continues to collaborate with her.

“These results also suggest that liars can use easy-to-implement countermeasures that help them control their mental effort and appearance. We want to use this information to develop interview techniques that make sure we can outsmart liars who are trying to use such countermeasures.”

Blandón-Gitlin noted that the study is grounded in a large body of research that seeks to “better differentiate between truth-tellers and liars in the context of criminal investigations.”