Louisiana Tech’s Dr. Jeffery Walczyk and his co-author Natalie Cockrell have published new findings on Walczyk’s popular theory of deception, the ActivationDecision- Construction Action Theory.
This most recent article, “To err is human but not deceptive,” was published in Memory and Cognition, one of the top journals in the field of cognitive psychology. This addition to Walczyk’s theory explores what there is to deception beyond simply answering a question incorrectly.
Jeffrey Walczyk, PhD is the Mary Robin Dorsett Endowed Professor in the Department of Psychology at Louisiana Tech University. He is currently working on a chapter for the edited scholarly text Morality and Creativity and has served as Guest editor for special edition of Frontiers in Psychology on “Deception, honesty, and cognitive load: Is lying always more effortful than truth telling?”
The Activation-Decision-Construction-Action theory, the ADCAT, is regarded as one of the leading cognitive theories of deception in psychology. Based on citation data, it is having an impact in terms of inspiring research and application.
Natalie Cockrell, now attending graduate school in clinical mental health, served as research assistant to Walczyk while an undergraduate psychology major at LaTech.
Walczyk ‘s work in lie detection has been ongoing but gained significant exposure in 2014 when he proposed refinements in his comprehensive cognitive theory of deception. He included four stages of mental processes that individuals engage in when telling “high stakes” lies, those situations with significant consequences.
His model explains that when an important answer is solicited by a questioner, such as during a job interview when the employer asks––“Have you ever stolen anything from the workplace?”––several factors come into play.
Walczyk and his co-authors explain that the question will cause the interviewee or respondent to search for truth and activate long-term memory, and then transfer to the working memory. Based on the information that has been activated, and the social context, the respondent may decide whether or not to lie and how to lie.
Lying becomes more likely in those situations when telling the truth would interfere with the individual reaching his or her goal, such as getting a job.
Next, the lie is embellished if needed in order to go undetected and achieve the respondent’s goal. This is the construction component. Individuals who lie will modify truths as much as possible to make their lies plausible.
Finally, the lie is delivered to the receiver during the action component.
“An obvious and important application of the theory pertains to lie detection,” said Dr. Walczyk. “The polygraph, the most commonly used method of lie detection, was not based on a theory. It was based on the questionable assumption that people exhibit more anxiety when lying than when truth telling. This assumption has been discredited,” he explained.
“ADCAT is an attempt to understand deception as a cognitive rather than an emotional event,” Dr. Walczyk said. “The more we understand deception from different perspectives, the more likely new cues to deception will emerge. For instance, my research suggests that lying takes about 250 milliseconds longer than truth telling. More cognitive cues may emerge as our understanding of deception deepens.”
In “To err is human but not deceptive,” Walczyk and Cockrell wanted to increase researchers’ understanding of the cognition of deception regarding what lying entails beyond simply erring.
“Guided by ADCAT, we hypothesized that, unlike intentionally erring, an intention to lie activates ToM [theory of mind] inferences and other social-cognitive processes needed to deceive plausibly when communicating with another. This intention also entails higher levels of proactive interference of honest responding with lying,” the authors noted.
Their findings regarding response-time data suggest important processing differences between truth telling, intentionally erring, and deceiving. There are implications for those who study deception in the laboratory. “Specifically, in order to capture authentic deceit, mental processes hypothesized by ADCAT (e.g., ToM inferences) must be activated in research participants by instructing them to communicate deceptively with another or imagine doing so,” authors noted. They concluded that research in which participants are instructed to intentionally err capture important parts of deception, but may ignore other aspects that are crucial.
What does Dr. Walczyk think are the most important findings from this recent publication and research?
“The most important finding is that when people decide to lie, they are not just intentionally erring,” Dr. Walczyk said. “Rather, they are considering what other people would find believable in generating a deceptive response. They are also thinking about how to solve social goals. Also, implausible deceptions are strongly inhibited.”
Dr. Walczyk explained his theory in his 2014 paper, “A social-cognitive framework for understanding serious lies: Activation-decision-construction-action theory.”
The publication laid out highlights of his work and included: The theory was the first cognitive account of high-stakes lying; It underscored the pervasive roles of cognitive load
and theory of mind; It detailed mathematically how decisions to lie are made; the roles of motivation, emotion, and social cognition were central to the theory; and The theory contained implications for lie detection The ADCAT theory elaborated on the
roles of executive processes, theory of mind, emotions, motivation, and specified cognitive processing, and considered the rehearsal of lies.
Dr. Walczyk’s and co-authors, in the 2014 article, gave the four processing components: (a) activation of the truth, the (b) decision whether and how to alter deceptively the information shared, (c) construction of a deception, and (d) action––acting sincere while delivering a lie.
Walczyk and colleagues addressed core constructs of “theory of mind” and cognitive resources. “Specifically,” they write, “throughout serious deception, individuals are inferring the current or potential mental states of targets and taking steps to minimize the allocation of cognitive resources during delivery to appear honest and lie well.”
Dr. Walczyk’s efforts are aimed at addressing the need for a cognitive theory of serious deception, he writes. Deception “… comes in many forms, including falsification (lies), equivocation (evasion, ambiguity), omission (withholding important information), exaggeration, and understatement […]
“The cognition of deception is poorly understood. We present a cognitive theoretical framework for understanding serious deceptions, including those that are fundamentally perceived as threats, transgressions and betrayals that result specifically in relationship problems; that endanger people’s reputations and that are forbidden by organized religion and indictable by law. […]
“Scientists studying lying have often postulated that it is more cognitively demanding than truth telling, an intuitively appealing notion that is not always so,” authors explain. “A theory can illuminate when lying draws more on attention and working memory.”
Walczyk and others have noted that one of the major criticisms of the Control Question Technique (CQT) of the polygraph as a lie detector is its lack of a valid theoretical foundation. A well-specified cognitive theory of deception can advance cognitive based lie detection efforts that overcome this limitation, the authors note.
The four components are believed to be initiated during most instances of serious deception. The sequence is usually in the order described, but not always occurring closely in time.
Although components are presented sequentially, write the authors, “… they often execute automatically, unconsciously, seamlessly, and in parallel. Moreover, they draw on modules of the mind providing output to WM whose processing occurs beneath conscious awareness.”
One caveat Walczyk and co-authors note is that, unknown to respondents, “truths” may be unavailable or inaccurate due to “memory distortions, especially with long intervals between encoding and retrieval. Essential to deception is respondents’ intent to deceive, not the accuracy of what they believe is true.”
In his earlier work, Walczyk assumed that lies were constructed and truths retrieved. However, the ADCAT notes that rehearsed deception entails retrieved lies, and truths sometimes are constructed. “The theory advances understanding of when lying is more cognitively demanding than truth telling, vice versa, and informs when indices of cognitive load signal deception.”
Some examples of Dr. Walczyk’s other research includes:
Walczyk,J.J., & Newman, D. (2020). Understanding reactions to deceit. New Ideas in
Walczyk, J.J., & Fargerson, C. (2019). A cognitive framework for understanding development of the ability to deceive. New Ideas in Psychology, 54, 82-92.
Walczyk, J.J., Sewell, N., & DiBenedetto, M.B. (2018). A review of approaches to detecting malingering in forensic contexts and promising cognitive load-reducing lie detection techniques. Frontiers in Psychiatry.
Walczyk, J. J., Tcholakian, T., Newman, D. N., & Duck, T. (2016). Impromptu decisions to deceive. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 30, 934-945.
Walczyk, J. J., Harris, L. L., Duck, T. K., & Mulay, D. (2014). A social- cognitive framework for understanding serious lies: Activation- Decision-Construction -Action Theory. New Ideas in Psychology. 34, 22–36.
Walczyk, J. J., Griffith, D. A., Yates, R., Visconte, S., & Simoneaux, B. (2013). Eye movements and other cognitive cues to rehearsed and unrehearsed deception when interrogated about a mock crime. Applied Psychology in Criminal Justice, 9, 1–23.
Walczyk, J. J., Igou, F. P., Dixon, A. P., & Tcholakian, T. (2013). Advancing lie detection by inducing cognitive load on liars: a review of relevant theories and techniques guided by lessons from polygraph-based approaches. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 1–13.
Walczyk, J. J., Griffith, D. A., Yates, R., Visconte, S. R., Simoneaux, B., & Harris, L. L. (2012). Lie detection by inducing cognitive load: eye movements and other cues to the false answers of “witnesses” to crimes. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 39, 887–909.
How did Dr. Walczyk first get into this area of research?
“I have always instinctively been a cognitive psychologist. I got interested in the cognition behind deception when watching a politician on television lie. I thought that this might be a interesting, new area of inquiry and it has been,” he said.
Dr. Walczyk earned his PhD in Educational Psychology, with Concentrations in Measurement, Statistics, & Cognitive Psychology, from Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY, in 1988.
He studied in New York for both his masters and undergraduate. He came to LaTech in 1996.
How does he like it at Louisiana Tech?
“Louisiana Tech is a great school. It is large enough to offer a variety of majors but small enough so that you can be part of the Tech family. I have enjoyed working here and interacting with our students,” Dr. Walczyk said.