You might have a better chance of detecting workplace dishonesty if you aren't consciously trying to do so, new research from UC Berkeley suggests.
The study, as explained by the journal Psychological Science, tasked a group of students choose whether or not to take money from an empty room. The students were then brought to one of the experimenters, who questioned them as to whether or not they took the cash. Regardless of whether or not they did so, every student involved was instructed to deny knowing anything about the money.
Another group of students watched the questioning and were tasked with trying to determine whether or not they were lying. Those students were able to accurately judge who was lying and who was being honest at a worse rate than the flip of a coin--less than 50 percent of the time.
This sort of active lie-detecting experiment was then compared to the results of a more subconscious method. Students were far more successful at identifying liars when they took what's called an "Implicit Association Test," which had them match words like "honest" and "deceitful" with participants based just on their initial reaction to the subjects at hand. In other words, gut feeling made for a better lie detector than real questioning.
But let's not go crazy with this info.
It's fascinating (and, of course, peer-reviewed) stuff that tells us a little bit about the human unconscious. But can you use it?
Research, provided it's legit, almost always serves as a way to further understand how stuff works. That doesn't always mean it's prescriptive, however.
Relying on your gut to seek out office dishonesty sounds like a recipe for disaster, with potential to incite lawsuits and paranoia run amock.
Not to mention, questions arise as to whether knowledge that your subconscious is good at detecting lies ultimately undermines your subconscious in the first place. Follow me here: If you're conscious of your subconscious, and plan to use it as a tool, is it really a subconscious after all? (In an email to Inc., study author Professor Leanne ten Brinke says that more research would be required to show whether or not there was an effect.)
The researchers, I should note, don't see a suggestion in the findings (though some news reports have). ten Brinke tells Inc., "These findings suggest few practical implications at present, but the research is very important in that it opens up a whole new set of possibilities for the detection of deception."
So what can you do with the info? Well, to some extent it serves to validate your spider sense. If you have a bad feeling about somebody, that might mean it's worth looking into it. Even so, how 'bout we all commit to not disciplining anybody based on a hunch alone? "More research is necessary before we know if and how we can access this unconscious insight in the 'real' world," says ten Brinke.
More than anything, though, the research might best serve as a reminder that we get so often and yet can always use again: The human brain is a tricky, tricky thing.