Shades Of Truth: When Under A Time Constraint, People Tell Us What We Want To Hear

SANTA BARBARA, Calif — One of the oldest experimental surveying techniques in the book is to ask participants to answer a question as quickly as possible, without overthinking their response. This technique is intended to uncover people’s true beliefs or thoughts on a subject, but a new study finds that asking people to answer questions under a time constraint usually results in a socially desirable answer instead of a truthful response.

After performing a series of experiments on the matter, researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara say their results raise some serious questions about a tactic scientists have been using for decades.

“The method of ‘answer quickly and without thinking’, a long staple in psychological research, may be doing many things, but one thing it does is make people lie to you and tell you what they think you want to hear,” says study co-leader John Protzko, a cognitive scientist at UCSB, in a release. “This may mean we have to revisit the interpretation of a lot of research findings that use the ‘answer quickly’ technique.

“The idea has always been that we have a divided mind — an intuitive, animalistic type and a more rational type,” he continues. “And the more rational type is assumed to always be constraining the lower order mind. If you ask people to answer quickly and without thinking, it’s supposed to give you sort of a secret access to that lower order mind.”

The research team’s first experiment involved 10 yes-or-no questions or statements. Participants were separated into two groups; one group only had a maximum of 11 seconds to answer whether or not they agreed with each statement, while the second group was allowed to take as long as they wanted. Examples of such statements include: “I sometimes feel resentful when I don’t get my way,” and “No matter who I’m talking to, I’m always a good listener.”

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The fast-answering group was found to be much more likely to give socially acceptable answers, while the group with no time constraint showed more of a tendency to deviate from such responses.

Then, researchers conducted a second experiment, in order to determine if people give more socially acceptable answers under time constraints because they view themselves as a genuinely good person. The scientific term for this belief is “good-true-self bias.”

So, another group of participants were asked to answer the same questions or statements as the first group, but under a variety of different time constraints. Next, the study subjects were asked to participate in a social-judgment task intended to measure how much they believe good or bad behavior is derived from one’s true self. The study’s authors hypothesized that participants who scored lower on this task, indicating that they see themselves and others as a mix of good and bad qualities, would be less inclined to give socially desirable responses under time pressure.

However, they found that those who scored lower on the social-judgment task still responded in socially desirable ways under time constraints, disproving their hypothesis. So, these results suggest that time pressure does not reveal a person’s true self, beliefs, or motivations; if anything it is likely to cause people to misrepresent themselves in an effort to appear normal or good.

With all of these findings in mind, Protzko believes that people, when faced with a quick decision, fall back on a desire to appear good, even if that means lying. Moving forward, the research team want to examine previous studies that utilized the quick response method, in order to assess just how much people’s tendency to give socially desirable answers may have skewed results.

The study is published in Psychological Science.

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