fb-pixel Skip to main content
Uncommon Knowledge

Sounds true, but you seem like a liar

And more surprising insights from the social sciences


Can you spot a liar? No, but you can sense a liar. That’s the implication of new research from psychologists at the University of California Berkeley. After watching videos of suspects being interrogated about a mock crime, people couldn’t reliably discriminate guilt from innocence when explicitly asked to do so. However, they did do better than chance when given tests measuring automatic or even subliminal associations of the suspects’ faces with the words “truth” or “lie.” In other words, it looks like “less-conscious parts of the mind are equipped with the architecture for accurate deception detection, but that conscious reasoning compromises accuracy by imposing attribution biases and incorrect stereotypes about how liars behave.”

 ten Brinke, L. et al., “Some Evidence for Unconscious Lie Detection,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Less cash, less crime

Cash is the lifeblood of the criminal world. So it stands to reason that reducing the availability of cash could also reduce crime. Analyzing crime trends across Missouri as its counties rolled out debit-card-based welfare benefits, researchers found that counties that made the transition saw significantly reduced rates of larceny, burglary, and assault—but not rape, which is “unlikely to be motivated by the immediate acquisition of cash.”

 Wright, R. et al., “Less Cash, Less Crime: Evidence from the Electronic Benefit Transfer Program,” National Bureau of Economic Research (March 2014).

Democracy: good for GDP

Right now, the economy in authoritarian China is on the rise, while that of the democratic United States is apparently stagnant. But in the long term, says a group of economists, the smart money may be on a democratic system: “Our results show a robust and sizable effect of democracy on economic growth. Our central estimates suggest that a country that switches from nondemocracy to democracy achieves about 20 percent higher GDP per capita in the long run (or roughly in the next 30 years).” Moreover, this benefit accrues to both rich and poor countries, though it may be enhanced for countries with better education.

 Acemoglu, D. et al., “Democracy Does Cause Growth,” National Bureau of Economic Research (March 2014).

The happy, half-drunk couple

Are couples more likely to fight when they drink? A recent study by the Research Institute on Addictions, University at Buffalo, offers some surprising answers. One or both partners in a sample of married or cohabiting couples were given alcohol prior to discussing a subject of disagreement in their relationship. There was no greater negativity or less positivity after both partners had alcohol, compared to neither partner having alcohol. After only one partner had alcohol, however, there was greater positivity and less negativity, even for partners with a history of domestic violence. The researchers speculate that this encourages couples to drink, because they “perceive alcohol’s effects on relationship functioning as positive (as its immediate effects appear to be) and fail to recognize that drinking episodes increase the likelihood of conflict or aggression occurring later in the day.”

 Testa, M. et al., “Effects of Administered Alcohol on Intimate Partner Interactions in a Conflict Resolution Paradigm,” Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs (March 2014).

When shareholders meet on Mars

If you own stock in a corporation that just announced its annual shareholder meeting is being held in the middle of nowhere, consider getting out. According to the authors of a new study: “We find a systematic pattern of poor company performance in the aftermath of annual meetings that are moved a great distance away from headquarters. Companies are more likely to announce unfavorable quarterly earnings in the aftermath of long-distance meetings, and these firms’ stock prices significantly underperform market benchmarks over the six months following the meeting date....We find little evidence that meetings are moved to distant locations when a firm has had a bad year, or when public information suggests that firms should expect confrontation; in fact, analysis of the agendas for the meetings in our sample suggests that companies are more likely to meet near headquarters when they expect hostile shareholder proposals or board elections that may be subject to protest voting....Instead, we find that managers schedule long-distance meetings when the firm is experiencing adverse operating performance that is not already known to the market....By moving the meeting far away, the managers might forestall shareholder or news media questioning that could lead to the early disclosure of adverse news.”

 Li, Y. & Yermack, D., “Evasive Shareholder Meetings,” National Bureau of Economic Research (March 2014).


Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.
He can be reached at kevin.lewis.ideas@gmail.com.