Interpersonal deception theory

Interpersonal Deception Theory (IDT) attempts to explain the manner in which individuals deal with actual or perceived deception on the conscious and subconscious levels while engaged in face-to-face communication. Communication is not static; it is influenced not only by one's own goals, but also by the context of the interaction as it unfolds. The sender’s conduct and messages are affected by conduct and messages of the receiver, and vice versa. Furthermore, deception differs from truthful communication. Intentional deception requires significantly more cognitive resources than truthful communication, whether the sender engages in falsification (lying), concealment (omitting material facts), or equivocation (skirting issues by changing the subject or offering indirect responses). IDT explores the interrelation between communicative context and sender and receiver cognitions and behaviors in deceptive exchanges.

Theoretical Perspective

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. [Buller and Burgoon, 1998]
* 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

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. [Buller and Burgoon, 1996]

The Superordinate Role of Context and Relationship

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. [Buller and Burgoon, 1996]

Other Communication-Relevant Preinteraction Factors

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 that 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. [Buller and Burgoon, 1996]

Effects of Preinteraction Features on Senders’ Initial Detection Apprehension and Deception Displays

IDT posits that preinteraction factors influence the sender's initial detection apprehension and deceptive displays.
*4. Context interactivity moderates initial deception displays such that deception in increasingly interactive contexts results 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. [Buller and Burgoon, 1996]

Effects of Preinteraction Features and Initial Interaction on Receiver Cognitions

IDT further posits that 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, (c) and 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, (c) and 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. [Buller and Burgoon, 1996]

Interative Interactional Patterns

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. [Buller and Burgoon, 1996]

Postinteraction Outcomes

Finally, IDT posits that a deceptive interaction culminates in a set of post-interaction 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. [Buller and Burgoon, 1996]

Receiver's Role in IDT

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.

How successful is the average receiver in detecting deception? Not very successful at all, according to recent studies.Fact|date=September 2007 This may be because there is a social contract that 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 might become apparent the sender is lying. [Buller and Burgoon, 1996]

Emotion in IDT

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 [Buller & Burgoon, 1996] 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 [Ekman & Friensen, 1969; Zuckerman, DePaulo et al., 1981] .

Emotional Leakage

Emotion in deception is manifested most overtly in nonverbal signals. Some studies indicate over 90% of emotional meaning is communicated nonverbally. Fortunately, humans are highly sensitive to body signals. Often, communication is ambivalent: people communicate one thing verbally and the opposite nonverbally. Leakage refers to communicative incidents in which nonverbal signals betray the true content of contradictory verbal messages. Examples of leakage:

Facial Expression

Eight basic emotions are communicated through facial expression: anger, fear, sadness, joy, disgust, curiosity/interest, surprise and acceptance. 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.


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

DePaulo, Ansfield, and Bell question the theoretical status of IDT. They write, “We cannot 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" [DePaulo et al., 1996, p. 298] . 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 that this conceptual ambiguity limits IDT’s explanatory power. [DePaulo et al., 1996; see also Stiff, 1996]

ee also

* Affect display
* Language expectancy theory



*Argyle M (1996). Bodily Communication. Routledge, London: 121.
*Axtell R (1998). Gestures. John Wiley, New York.
*Buller, D.B. and J.K. Burgoon (1996). Interpersonal Deception Theory. Communication Theory, 6(3), 203–242.
*Burgoon, Buller, White, Afifi, and Buslig (1999). Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 25, No. 6, 669-686.
*Burgoon, J.K. and T. Qin (2006). The Dynamic Nature of Deceptive Verbal Communication. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 25(1): 76 - 96.
*DePaulo, B.M., M.E. Ansfield, and K.L. Bell (1996). Theories About Deception and Paradigms for Studying It: A Critical Appraisal of Buller and Burgoon’s lnterpersonal Deception Theory and Research. Communication Theory, 6(3), 297-310.
*Finlay, L. (2001). Groupwork in Occupational Therapy. Nelson Thornes, Cheltenham: 43.
*Kleck, R. and W. Nuessle (1968). Congruence between the indicative and communicative functions of eye contact. British Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology (7):107-14.
*O'Sullivan, M. (2003). The Fundamental Attribution Error in Detecting Deception: The Boy-Who-Cried-Wolf Effect. Pers Soc Psychol Bull, 29(10): 1316 - 1327.
*Stiff, J.P. (1996). Theoretical Approaches to the Study of Deceptive Communication: Comments on Interpersonal Deception Theory. Communication Theory, 6(3), 289-296.
*Wainwright, G. (2003). Body Language. Hodder, London.
*Williams, D. (1997). Communication Skills in Practice: A Practical Guide for Health Professionals. Jessica Kingsley, London: 12.

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