Interpersonal deception theory

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Interpersonal deception theory (IDT) attempts to explain the manner in which individuals handle actual or perceived deception on conscious and/or subconscious levels while engaged in face-to-face communication. IDT assumes that communication is not static; it is influenced by not only personal goals, but also by the meaning of the interaction as it unfolds. The sender's overt and covert communications are affected by the overt and covert communications of the receiver, and vice versa. Intentional deception requires significantly greater cognitive exertion than truthful communication, regardless of whether the sender attempts falsification (lying), concealment (omitting material facts), or equivocation (skirting issues by changing the subject or offering indirect responses). IDT explores the interrelation between the sender's communicative meaning and the receiver's thoughts and behaviors in deceptive exchanges.

Theoretical perspective[edit]

Interpersonal deception theory views deception through the theoretical lens of interpersonal communication. As such, it considers deception as an interactive process between a sender and receiver. In contrast with previous studies of deception that focused on the sender and receiver individually, IDT focuses on the dyadic, relational and dialogic nature of deceptive communication. Behaviors between the sender and receiver are dynamic, multifunctional, multidimensional and multimodal.[1]

  • Dyadic communication refers to communication between two people. A dyad is a group of two people between whom messages are sent and received.
  • Relational communication refers to communication in which meaning is created by two people simultaneously filling the roles of both sender and receiver.
  • Dialogic activity refers to the active communicative language of the sender and receiver, each relying upon the other within the exchange.

Consider the framework of psychotherapy and psychological counseling. The dyadic, relational and dialogic activity between therapist and patient relies upon honest, open communication if the patient is to recover and successfully integrate into healthier relationships. Deception uses the same theoretical framework, only in reverse, as the communication of one participant is deliberately false.


Sigmund Freud studied nonverbal cues to detect deception about a century ago. Freud observed a patient being asked about his darkest feelings. If his mouth was shut and his fingers were trembling, he was considered to be lying. In 1989, DePaulo and Kirkendol developed the Motivation Impairment Effect (MIE). MIE states the harder people try to deceive others, the more likely they are to get caught. Burgoon and Floyd, however, revisited this research and formed the idea that deceivers are more active in their attempt to deceive than most would anticipate or expect.

IDT was developed by two communication professors, David B. Buller and Judee K. Burgoon. Prior to their study, deception had not been fully considered as a communication activity. Previous work had focused upon the formulation of principles of deception. These principles were derived by evaluating the lie detection ability of individuals observing unidirectional communication. These early studies found initially that "although humans are far from infallible in their efforts to diagnose lies, they are substantially better at the task than would result merely by chance." Buller and Burgoon discount the value of highly controlled studies – usually one-way communication experiments – designed to isolate unmistakable cues that people are lying. Therefore, IDT is based on two-way communication and intended to describe deception as an interactive communicative process.

18 propositions[edit]

IDT's model of how deception is played out in interpersonal contexts is presented in the form of 18 empirically verifiable propositions. Based on primitive assumptions associated with interpersonal communication and deception, each proposition is capable of generating testable hypotheses. While some propositions are original with IDT, many are derived from earlier research. The propositions attempt to explain the cognitions and behaviors of both the sender and receiver during each phase of the iterative process of deception, from preinteraction factors to the interactive process to postinteraction outcomes.[2]

The superordinate role of context and relationship[edit]

IDT's explanations of interpersonal deception depend on the situation in which interaction occurs and the relationship between the sender and receiver.

  • 1. Sender and receiver cognitions and behaviors vary systematically as deceptive communication contexts vary in (a) access to social cues, (b) immediacy, (c) relational engagement, (d) conversational demands and (e) spontaneity.
  • 2. During deceptive interchanges, sender and receiver cognitions and behaviors vary systematically as relationships vary in (a) relational familiarity (including informational and behavioral familiarity) and (b) relational valence.[2]

Other communication-relevant preinteraction factors[edit]

Individual communicators also approach deceptive exchanges with their own set of preinteraction factors, such as expectancies, knowledge, goals or intentions, and behavioral repertoires that reflect their communication competence. IDT posits such factors influence the deceptive exchange.

  • 3. Compared with truth tellers, deceivers (a) engage in greater strategic activity designed to manage information, behavior, and image and (b) display more nonstrategic arousal cues, negative and dampened affect, noninvolvement and performance decrements.[2]

Effects of preinteraction features on senders' initial detection apprehension and deception displays[edit]

IDT posits preinteraction factors influence the sender's initial detection apprehension and deceptive displays.

  • 4. Context interactivity moderates initial deception displays such deception in increasingly interactive contexts resulting in (a) greater strategic activity (information, behavior and image management) and (b) reduced nonstrategic activity (arousal, negative or dampened affect, and performance decrements) over time relative to noninteractive contexts.
  • 5. Sender and receiver initial expectations for honesty are positively related to degree of context interactivity and positivity of relationship between sender and receiver.
  • 6. Deceivers' initial detection apprehension and associated strategic activity are inversely related to expectations for honesty (which are themselves a function of context interactivity and relationship positivity).
  • 7. Goals and motivations moderate strategic and nonstrategic behavior displays.
  • 8. As receivers' informational, behavioral and relational familiarity increase, deceivers not only (a) experience more detection apprehension and (b) exhibit more strategic information, behavior and image management but also (c) more nonstrategic leakage behavior.
  • 9. Skilled senders better convey a truthful demeanor by engaging in more strategic behavior and less nonstrategic leakage than unskilled ones.[2]

Effects of preinteraction features and initial interaction on receiver cognitions[edit]

IDT further posits preinteraction factors, combined with initial behavioral displays, affect receivers' initial suspicion and continual detection accuracy.

  • 10. Initial and ongoing receiver judgments of sender credibility are positively related to (a) receiver truth biases, (b) context interactivity, and (c) sender encoding skills; they are inversely related to (d) deviations of sender communication from expected patterns.
  • 11. Initial and ongoing detection accuracy are inversely related to (a) receiver truth biases, (b) context interactivity, and (c) sender encoding skills; they are positively related to (d) informational and behavioral familiarity, (e) receiver decoding skills, and (f) deviations of sender communication from expected patterns.[2]

Iterative interactional patterns[edit]

IDT proceeds to describe the iterative process of receiver suspicion displays and sender reactions to those displays.

  • 12. Receiver suspicion is manifested through a combination of strategic and nonstrategic behavior.
  • 13. Senders perceive suspicion when it is present.
  • 14. Suspicion (perceived or actual) increases senders' (a) strategic and (b) nonstrategic behavior.
  • 15. Deception and suspicion displays change over time.
  • 16. Reciprocity is the predominant interaction adaptation pattern between senders and receivers during interpersonal deception.[2]

Postinteraction outcomes[edit]

Finally, IDT posits that a deceptive interaction culminates in a set of postinteraction judgements regarding sender credibility and receiver suspicion. In other words, the interaction between sender and receiver influences how credible the receiver thinks the sender is and how suspicious the sender thinks the receiver is.

  • 17. Receiver detection accuracy, bias, and judgments of sender credibility following an interaction are a function of (a) terminal receiver cognitions (suspicion, truth biases), (b) receiver decoding skill, and (c) terminal sender behavioral displays.
  • 18. Sender perceived deception success is a function of (a) terminal sender cognitions (perceived suspicion) and (b) terminal receiver behavioral displays.[2]

Receiver's role in IDT[edit]

Most people believe they can spot deception, but IDT holds that most cannot. There are a variety of things a deceiver must do simultaneously to ensure what they are saying comes across as true, most important of which is how the deceiver manages his or her verbal and nonverbal cues. According to IDT, the more socially aware a receiver is, the better he or she is at detecting deceit.

There often is a social contract people will be honest with one another and believe others will be honest with them. If a deceiver begins a deceptive exchange with an accurate, validated statement, that statement might guide the receiver to believe the rest of the deceiver's story is also true. Ultimately, the sender prepares the receiver to accept his or her information as truth, even if some or part of the dialogue is false. If the sender constantly uses the same tactic, however, the receiver will become more aware, and it may become apparent the sender is lying.[2]

Emotion in IDT[edit]

Emotion plays a central role in IDT, both as a motivator and a result of deception. Emotion can be a motivator of deception, as the sender relies on relevant knowledge – informational, relational and behavioral familiarity[3] – in order to achieve goals such as self-gratification, avoiding negative emotional outcome, or creating negative emotional outcome for the target of deception. Emotion can also be a result of deception, as a physical response occurs within the sender, usually in the form of arousal and negative affect.[4]


Leakage in deception is manifested most overtly in nonverbal signals. Some studies indicate over 90% of emotional meaning is communicated non-verbally. Fortunately, humans are highly sensitive to body signals. Often, communication is ambivalent: people communicate one thing verbally and the opposite non-verbally. Leakage refers to communicative incidents in which nonverbal signals betray the true content of contradictory verbal messages. Examples of leakage. In reality facial expression is very hard to read. The use of FACS, or the Facial Action Coding System, is a much more accurate way to uncover deception. Small facial movements known as micro-expressions can be detected in this system using AU’s.

Micro-expressions and Action Units[edit]

AU’s, or action units, can be examined frame by frame. These micro-expressions are often rapid and mentioned in vast variety over the web. From Dr. Paul Ekman’s research in the area of facial deception several constants appear with certain expressions. For instance, the automated unit relating to lip corner pulling (AU12) and cheek raising (AU6) are qualifiers for happiness in most people. In direct correlation to this, brow lowering (AU4) and lip stretching (AU20) prove as dis-qualifiers for happiness. The combination and presentation of these facial features let others know how you are feeling. Emotional leakage appears through these flashing expressions.

Many rules exist when examining and interpreting these leaks. In order to make the most accurate judgments one must be objective. In other words, one can’t let emotions influence the expressions observed. During a study of Ekman’s observations, it was observed that most AUs appear through over 90% of all expressions. Therefore, if presumptions are made before the AUs are observed it is very likely that certain expressions will seem more dominant, and become misconstrued.

Despite the progress of facial deception theory and the new use of video to capture micro-expressions it is more practical to search the body for signs of betraying what the sender is trying to communicate. If however, one should feel the need to search the face and verbals, these signs are usually effective for determining deception: • Increased, rapid, or strained blinking • Dilation of the pupils • Pitch change in voice • Increased tempo or rate of speech • Hesitations are more pronounced • Nonverbal and verbal channel inconsistencies • Sweating has also been attributed with deception but it is not reliable (Note that smiling and other facial expressions didn't make the list. (Also note that Nonverbal Cues are not completely reliable indicators of deception).

As University of Virginia social psychologist, Bella DePaulo, states, "Facial cues… are indeed faking cues." Most people are aware of their face's capacity to convey complex messages. This allows strategic monitoring and control that display far more than we do using our tone of voice or body movement. “Buller and Burgoon contribute to the discussion of leakage by moving beyond a concern with micro-behaviors and focusing on the decline of the deceiver's overall performance. Reflective of Burgoon' s work with expectancy violations, the theorists claim that an unexpected move signals that something is wrong. Skilled communicators operating in an interactive context have a better chance of crafting a deceptive performance that won't seem strange. Ultimately, the ability of the deceiver to "pull off" the deception depends on how suspicious the respondent actually is.” Valerie Manusov The respondent is then faced with dilemmas. Their interpretation and internal response affects the way their brain and body reacts. These four factors can influence the respondent • Expectation of honesty • Suspicion and resistance • Doubt that expressed indirectly • Indirect probes have an uncertain value and therefore illicit unintended nonverbal cues that can clutter and deter from the intended response

Facial expression[edit]

Eight basic emotions are communicated through facial expression: anger, fear, sadness, joy, disgust, surprise and contempt. These emotions are generally recognized universally across cultures. There are two main "routes" through which these expressions are developed: "route one," held to be innate, and "route two," which depends on processes of socialization.

Different cultures have varying display rules that govern the social use of facial expressions. For example, the Japanese discourage the display of negative emotions. Sometimes, individuals find it difficult to control facial expression. The face may "leak" information about how they feel. For instance, a person might be unable to hide his or her embarrassment when meeting someone who has a disfiguring scar, or he or she might find it difficult to disguise disgust when treating a wound or working with an incontinent person.


Main article: Eye contact

People use eye contact to signal threat, intimacy and interest. Eye contact is used to regulate turn-taking in conversation and is a key factor in deciding how interested the receiver is in what the sender is saying. Receivers usually look about 70–75% of the time, with each gaze averaging 7.8 seconds. If receivers look for only 15% of the time, they might be considered cold, pessimistic, cautious, defensive, immature, evasive or indifferent. If they look over 80% of the time, they might be considered friendly, self-confident, natural or sincere.


The use of gesture is one of the most culture-specific forms of nonverbal communication and can lead to misinterpretations and accidental insults. For example, holding out an arm and squeezing the thumb and forefinger together, used by the French and sometimes the British to indicate something is perfect, would be considered vulgar in the Mediterranean region, as it would be thought to denote the vagina.

Involuntary gestures described as self-touching actions, such as touching the face, scratching, gripping the hands together, or putting the hands in or near the mouth, often occur when people are experiencing intense emotions such as depression, elation or extreme anxiety.

An example of leakage as it relates to gesture is found the work of Ekman and Friesen, who showed a film of a woman with depression to a group of research participants. The participants were asked to judge the woman's mood. Those shown only the woman's face thought she was happy and cheerful, while the group who saw only her body thought she was tense, nervous and disturbed.


Touch can be a valuable means of reassurance and of demonstrating understanding. Humans touch one another to show sexual intimacy, affiliation and understanding; in greetings and farewells; as an act of aggression; and to emphasize dominance. Argyle writes that there "appear to be definite rules which permit certain kinds of touch, between certain people, on certain occasions only. Bodily contact outside these narrow limits is unacceptable" (1996). Those who touch others are seen as having enhanced status, assertiveness and warmth, while those who are touched are seen as having less.

Criticism of IDT[edit]

DePaulo, Ansfield, and Bell question the theoretical status of IDT. They write, "We can find the 'why' question in Buller and Burgoon's synthesis. There is no intriguing riddle or puzzle that needs to be solved, and no central explanatory mechanism is ever described."[5] They applaud Buller and Burgoon's 18 propositions as a comprehensive description of the timeline of deceptive interactions, but fault the propositions for lacking the interconnectedness and predictive power necessary to qualify as a unifying theory. DePaulo et al. also criticize IDT for failing to distinguish between interactive communication, which emphasizes the situational and contextual aspects of communicative exchanges, from interpersonal communication, which emphasizes exchanges in which the sender and receiver make psychological predictions about one another's behavior based on person-specific prior knowledge. They argue this conceptual ambiguity limits IDT's explanatory power.[6]

David Buller and Judee Burgoon[edit]

David Buller and Judee Burgoon have conducted over two dozen experiments in which they ask participants to deceive another person. These researchers explain people often find themselves in situations where they make statements that are less than completely honest in order "to avoid hurting or offending another person, to emphasize their best qualities, to avoid getting into a conflict, or to speed up or slow down a relationship.[7]


They asked participants to put themselves in the following situation; “You've been dating Pat for nearly three years and feel quite close ill your relationship. Since Pat goes to a different school upstate, the two of you have agreed to date other people. Nevertheless, Pat is quite jealous and possessive. During the school year you see Pat only occasionally, but you call each other every Sunday and talk for over an hour. On Friday one of your friends invites you to a party on Saturday night, but the party is "couples only" so you need a date. There's no way that Pat could come down for the weekend. You decide to ask someone from your class who you've been attracted to so that you can go to the party. The two of you go and have a great time. On Sunday afternoon, there's a knock on your door and it's Pat. Pat walks in and says, "Decided to come down and surprise you, tried calling you all last night, but you weren't around. What were you doing?" Buller and Burgoon discuss three types of response you might give if you decide not to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. First, you could lie: “I was at the library getting ready for my theory exam." Second, you could tell part of the truth while leaving out important details: "Went to a party at a friend's apartment." Or third, you could be intentionally vague or evasive: "Went out for a while." [7] -

Interpersonal Deception and Online Dating[edit]

In recent years, computer-media dated communication has not only become extremely popular but has also begun to hold an important function in daily social interactions. This qualitative study investigates the communication phenomena of deception as it occurs in the online dating environment. The research study focused on four questions: (1) About what characteristics are online daters deceptive? (2) What motivation do online daters have for their deception of others in the online dating environment? (3) What perceptions do online daters have about other daters' deceit towards them in the online dating environment? (4) How does deception affect the romantic relationships formed in the online dating environment? Through an online surveying tool data was collected with 15 open ended questions. A total of 52 participants were included in the study ranging in ages from 21-37. The results of the study found that the majority of online daters consider themselves and others to be mostly honest in their online self presentations. Those online daters that did use deception were motivated to do so by the longing to attract members of the opposite sex and project a positive self-image. Daters were also willing to overlook deception in others if they viewed the dishonesty as a slight exaggeration or characteristic of little value to the dater. Despite the deception that does occur, participants still believe that the online dating environment is capable of developing successful romantic relationships.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Buller and Burgoon, 1998
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Buller and Burgoon, 1996
  3. ^ Buller & Burgoon, 1996
  4. ^ Ekman & Friensen, 1969; Zuckerman, DePaulo et al., 1981
  5. ^ DePaulo et al., 1996, p. 298
  6. ^ DePaulo et al., 1996; see also Stiff, 1996
  7. ^ a b
  8. ^ Interpersonal Relationships and Online Dating


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