Abstruse language implies improbity

The secret to telling a believable lie is simple.

University of Otago psychology PhD student Helen Owen has found people who use short simple sentences are perceived as being more honest - information which could be helpful for politicians and people wanting to get away with telling porkies.

Ms Owen's research involved testing the response to sentences of varying complexity. The study's participants were asked to judge how honest they thought the writer was being.

''What we found is simple use of language is associated with perceived honesty,'' she said.

This was especially the case if people described how they felt about the topic they were discussing.

The results had many applications and not just for liars but for people writing CVs and politicians trying to get messages across to voters.

One person who she felt could benefit from keeping it simple was Labour leader David Cunliffe, who was known for his verbose language.

''He could be selling himself short a wee bit,'' she said.

An example not to follow was former United States president Bill Clinton's famous denial he was having an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

This was a bad lie on multiple counts, firstly because calling Ms Lewinsky ''that woman'' created distance between himself and the situation.

Mr Clinton also ''rambled on a bit'' and was repetitive - something commonly associated with lying.

Ms Owen said people were more inclined to believe simple sentences due to a concept called ''cognitive fluency''.

''So, when something is easy to understand it produces a positive emotional response in the listener.''

This did not necessarily mean people who kept things simple were telling the truth, as there were good liars and, conversely, truthful people who did themselves a disservice through the types of language they used.

How to sound honest
• Keep it simple.
• Describe how you feel
• Avoid long meaningless words

- vaughan.elder@odt.co.nz


This is interesting 'applied science', and it might be better to read the research, rather than condemn on the basis of a news report. I am sure the bullet points are not by the researcher, and I'm reasonably certain she did not pose in pensive thought, for the accompanying photograph. However, I digress into mere speculation. This is all about communicating in Plain English, I posit. Sociolinguistically, those who bumble, hesitate, circumlocute, or say 'um' are trustworthy, because they are authentic. Not so the glib. Trust the vague; they too have their story. Even so, speakers should avoid the sub clause, as they will forget the actual topic in mid pitch.

What a joke

What a joke that this is what passes for doctoral research in psychology at the University. An elaborate empirical study designed to verify the obvious. I also find it interesting that rather than providing advice on how to better detect the lies of those in positions of power, counsel is instead offered to liars on how to deceive more convincingly. A brilliant political or corporate consultancy carreer ahead for this student! Looks like Steven Joyce's vision of applied research catching on.[Abridged]