Interpersonal deception theory

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Interpersonal deception theory (IDT) attempts to explain how individuals handle actual (or perceived) deception at the conscious or subconscious level while engaged in face-to-face communication. IDT assumes that communication is not static; it is influenced by personal goals and 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 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 responding indirectly). IDT explores the interrelation between the sender's communicative meaning and the receiver's thoughts and behavior in deceptive exchanges.

Theoretical perspective[edit]

IDT views deception through the lens of interpersonal communication, considering deception as an interactive process between sender and receiver. In contrast with previous studies of deception (which focused on the sender and receiver individually), IDT focuses on the dyadic and relational nature of deceptive communication. Behaviors by sender and receiver are dynamic, multifunctional, multidimensional and multi-modal.[1]

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

In psychotherapy and psychological counseling, dyadic, relational and dialogic activity between therapist and patient relies on honest, open communication if the patient is to recover and be capable of healthier relationships. Deception uses the same theoretical framework in reverse; 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.


IDT's model of interpersonal deception has 18 verifiable propositions. Based on assumptions of interpersonal communication and deception, each proposition can generate a testable hypothesis. Although some propositions originated in IDT, many are derived from earlier research. The propositions attempt to explain the cognition and behavior of sender and receiver during the process of deception, from before interaction through interaction to the outcome after interaction.[2]

Context and relationship[edit]

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

1. Sender and receiver cognition and behaviors vary, since deceptive communication contexts vary in access to social cues, immediacy, relationship, conversational demands and spontaneity.
2. In deceptive interchanges, sender and receiver cognition and behaviors vary; relationships vary in familiarity (informational and behavioral) and valence.[2]

Other factors before interaction[edit]

Individuals approach deceptive exchanges with factors such as expectancy, knowledge, goals or intentions and behaviors reflecting their communication competence. IDT posits that these factors influence the deceptive exchange.

3. Compared with truth-tellers, deceivers engage in more strategic activity designed to manage information, behavior and image and have more nonstrategic arousal cues, negative and muted affect and non-involvement.[2]

Effects on sender's deception and fear of detection[edit]

IDT posits that factors before the interaction influence the sender's deception and fear of detection.

4. Context moderates deception; increased interaction produces greater strategic activity (information, behavior and image management) and reduced nonstrategic activity (arousal or muted affect) over time.
5. Initial expectations of honesty are related to the degree of interactivity and the relationship between sender and receiver.
6. Deceivers' fear of detection and associated strategic activity are inversely related to expectations of honesty, a function of context and relationship quality.
7. Goals and motivation influence behavior.
8. As receivers' informational, behavioral and relational familiarity increase, deceivers have a greater fear of detection and exhibit more strategic information, behavior and image management and nonstrategic leakage behavior.
9. Skilled senders convey a truthful demeanor, with more strategic behavior and less nonstrategic leakage, better than unskilled ones.[2]

Effects on receiver cognition[edit]

IDT also posits that factors before the interaction, combined with initial behavior, affect receiver suspicion and detection accuracy.

10. Receiver judgment of sender credibility is related to receiver truth biases, context interactivity, sender encoding skills and sender deviation from expected patterns.
11. Detection accuracy is related to receiver truth biases, context interactivity, sender encoding skills, informational and behavioral familiarity, receiver decoding skills and sender deviation from expected patterns.[2]

Interaction patterns[edit]

IDT describes receiver suspicion and sender reaction.

12. Receiver suspicion is displayed in a combination of strategic and nonstrategic behavior.
13. Senders perceive suspicion.
14. Suspicion, perceived or actual, increases senders' strategic and nonstrategic behavior.
15. Deception and suspicion displays change over time.
16. Reciprocity is the predominant interaction pattern between senders and receivers during interpersonal deception.[2]


IDT posits that 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 after an interaction are functions of receiver cognition (suspicion and truth bias), receiver decoding skill and final sender behavior.
18. Sender perceived deception success is a function of final sender cognition (perceived suspicion) and receiver behavior.[2]

Receiver's role[edit]

Although most people believe they can spot deception, IDT posits that they cannot. A deceiver must manages his or her verbal and nonverbal cues to ensure that what they are saying appears true. According to IDT, the more socially aware a receiver is, the better he or she is at detecting deceit.

In a common social agreement, people are honest with one another and believe that others will be honest with them. If a deceiver begins a deceptive exchange with an accurate statement, the statement may induce the receiver to believe the rest of the deceiver's story is also true. The sender prepares the receiver to accept his or her information as truth, even if some (or all) of the dialogue is false. If the sender repeats the same tactic, the receiver will become more aware that the sender is lying.[2]


Emotion plays a central role in IDT as a motivation and result of deception. Emotion can motivate deception, with the sender relying on relevant knowledge (informational, relational and behavioral familiarity)[3] to achieve goals such as self-gratification, avoiding a negative emotional outcome or creating a negative emotional outcome for the target of deception. Emotion can be a result of deception, since a physical response occurs in the sender (usually arousal and negative affect).[4]


Leakage in deception is manifested most overtly in nonverbal signals; studies indicate that over 90 percent of emotional meaning is communicated non-verbally. Humans are sensitive to body signals, and communication is often ambiguous; something is communicated verbally and its opposite non-verbally. Leakage occurs when nonverbal signals betray the true content of a contradictory verbal message. Facial expression is difficult to read, and the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) is a means of uncovering deception. Small facial movements, known as micro-expressions, can be detected in this system using action units.

Micro-expressions and action units[edit]

Action units (AUs) can be examined frame by frame, since these micro-expressions are often rapid. Paul Ekman’s research in facial deception has found several constants in certain expressions, with the action units relating to lip-corner pulling (AU12) and cheek-raising (AU6) qualifiers for happiness in most people. Brow-lowering (AU4) and lip-stretching (AU20) are disqualifiers for happiness. Emotional leakage appears in these fleeting expressions.

A study of Ekman’s observations revealed that AUs appear in over 90 percent of facial expressions. Despite the progress of the facial deception theory and the 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. The following signs may indicate deception:

  • Increased, rapid, or strained blinking
  • Dilation of the pupils
  • Pitch change in voice
  • Increased tempo or rate of speech
  • Hesitations more pronounced
  • Nonverbal and verbal inconsistencies
  • Sweating

University of Virginia social psychologist Bella DePaulo has said, "Facial cues ... are indeed faking cues".[citation needed]

Facial expression[edit]

Seven basic emotions are communicated through facial expression: anger, fear, sadness, joy, disgust, surprise and contempt. These emotions are recognized universally. These expressions are innate of develop through socialization.

Cultures have a variety of rules governing the social use of facial expression; for example, the Japanese discourage the display of negative emotions. Individuals may find it difficult to control facial expression, and the face may "leak" information about how they feel.


Main article: Eye contact

People use eye contact to indicate threat, intimacy and interest. Eye contact is used to regulate turn-taking in conversation, and indicates how interested the listener (receiver) is in what the speaker is saying. Receivers make eye contact about 70–75 percent of the time, with each contact averaging 7.8 seconds.


Gestures are among the most culture-specific forms of nonverbal communication, and may lead to misinterpretation. Involuntary self-touching, such as touching the face, scratching, gripping the hands together or putting the hands in (or near) the mouth, occur when people experience intense emotions such as depression, elation or extreme anxiety.

Ekman and Friesen demonstrated gesture leakage by showing films of a depressed woman to a group, which was 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 and disturbed.


Touch can reassure and indicate understanding. Humans touch one another in sexual intimacy, affiliation and understanding; in greetings and farewells; as an act of aggression, and to demonstrate dominance. According to Argyle (1996), 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".


DePaulo, Ansfield and Bell questioned IDT: "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] Although they praised Buller and Burgoon's 18 propositions as a comprehensive description of the timeline of deceptive interactions, they said the propositions lacked the interconnectedness and predictive power of a unifying theory. DePaulo et al. criticized 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 the other's behavior based on specific prior knowledge; this conceptual ambiguity limited IDT's explanatory power.[6]

David Buller and Judee Burgoon[edit]

Buller and Burgoon have conducted over two dozen experiments in which they ask participants to deceive another person, and the researchers have found that people often find themselves in situations where they make statements that are not completely honest "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]


Buller and Burgoon asked participants to put themselves in the following situation: "You've been dating Pat for nearly three years and feel quite close in 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?'" The researchers listed three possible responses: lying ("I was at the library getting ready for my theory exam"), telling part of the truth while omitting important details ("Went to a party at a friend's apartment") or being intentionally vague or evasive ("Went out for a while").[7]

Online dating[edit]

A qualitative study investigated deception in online dating. The 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 romantic relationships formed in the online-dating environment? In an online survey, data was collected from 15 open-ended questions. The study had 52 participants, ranging in age from 21 to 37, and found that most online daters consider themselves (and others) mostly honest in their online self-presentation. Online daters who used deception were motivated to do so by the desire to attract partners and project a positive self-image. Daters were willing to overlook deception in others if they viewed the dishonesty as a slight exaggeration or a characteristic of little value to the dater. Despite deception, participants believe that the online-dating environment can develop 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. ^ Wagner, Lyndsey. Interpersonal Relationships and Online Dating (Master's thesis). Liberty University. Retrieved July 23, 2015. 


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