What does pausing before you answer say about you? A new study provides answers

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  • Honesty is highly valued in social interaction
  • A recent study shows that when you take longer to respond to a question, listeners may find you dishonest
  • These findings may have implications, especially in a court of law

An integral part of social interaction is sincerity. People constantly evaluate how sincere their conversational partners are, and it is used as a basis for building trust. 

A new psychological study revealed that pausing too long before answering a question could mean that you come across as being less sincere to your conversational counterparts.

Researchers found that even when listeners are told to ignore the response speed, they still perceived a slower response as a lie. 

The science behind slow responses and insincerity

Existing research shows that this perception is plausible, as a dishonest response takes longer than a truthful one because people take longer to respond when they are lying. A possible reason is because they must think harder when lying than when speaking the truth. 

Another study looked at how people tend to detect lies, with result suggesting that people rely on longer response times to detect deceit, e.g. they are lying because they “had to think hard” before answering.

While previous studies were mostly based on correlation, the present study went a step further by also considering confounding factors. The study included 14 experiments with over 7 000 participants from the US, the UK and France. 

The participants underwent a range of tests to establish how they would perceive slow responses in two different contexts: “trivial daily conversations” such as liking something their friend bakes or not, and “high stakes situations” such as police interrogations.

The scenarios were portrayed by actors, and participants could either listen to them as an audio, read a text or watch a video depicting the scenario. 

Evaluating sincerity

Overall, the researchers found that listeners perceived an immediate response to be more sincere than a slower response, even if the delay was mere seconds. 

“Our research shows that response speed is an important cue on which people base their sincerity inferences,” said first author of the study, Ignazio Ziano.

In less serious contexts, listeners disregarded slower responses more easily than in more serious contexts where they interpreted delayed responses as signs of deceit. The researchers noted that these findings could have severe implications in different social interactions, especially in courts where a jury is present. 

“It would be unfair for the responder, such as a crime suspect, if the response delay was misattributed to thought suppression or answer fabrication when it was in fact caused by a different factor, such as simply being distracted or thoughtful,” Ziano explained. 

“Our findings not only help ascertain the role of response speed in interpersonal inference making processes, but also carry important practical implication.”

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