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The Worst Lies Involve Raccoons

“A good memory is needed once we have lied.”

– Pierre Corneille, Le Menteur

angry raccoonOne of the most memorable moments of my childhood was saving my friends and siblings from a rabies-ridden raccoon.  We were all playing a game of kickball in the local park, when a gargantuan raccoon approached us.  With a crazed look in its eyes, the raccoon prowled towards us like a lion stalking its prey.  I knew it was trouble, but before I could call for my parents, it began to charge us.  As my friends turned to run away, I ran towards it.  Like two warriors meeting on a battlefield, we raced headlong towards each other.  Mere feet away the raccoon lunged for me, its fangs bared, ready to bite. As my foe tried to close its teeth around my calf, with only milliseconds to spare, my foot shot out and I delivered a ferocious kick to the raccoon’s chest. It roared as it thumped to the ground.  Knowing it was no match for the stoic twelve-year old that I was, the raccoon raced away.  My friends all crowded around me and celebrated my stunning triumph over the savage beast.  I told that story to most of my friends at college, and few believed me.  I knew it was true, so I reached out to a couple of friends who were there to have them back me up.  What they said shocked me.



It turns out that I did not defeat the raccoon as I remembered.  There wasn’t even a real raccoon.  Apparently, what actually happened is that I struck out, got upset, and stormed off, but not before kicking my sister’s stuffed animal, which just so happened to be shaped like a raccoon.


I am not sure how this extravagant lie became labeled as fact in my mind, but lying has become an intricate part of our society.  Everyone has told lies like “Mom, this meatloaf is delicious,”  “Oh shoot! I didn’t see your text until just now,” or  “No sweetie, you look great in those jeans.”  We lie to save face, to protect people’s feelings, and to elude trouble.  Recently, studies have shown that college-aged students lie in one-third of their interactions and other adults lie in one-fifth of theirs (Doskoch, 1996).  Additionally, these lies are rarely one-time events, but instead are repeat occurrences (Kassin et al., 2007).  With so many lies being told over and over again, it becomes hard to keep track of what is true and what is false.  Few things are more detrimental to both personal and professional relationships than being caught in a lie; in order to prevent you from forgetting the truth, the brain has source monitoring.

Source monitoring is a person’s ability to determine whether a memory is internally generated or an event from the real world, based on details associated with each memory.  It is responsible for helping you differentiate between the truth and a lie; however, as was the case with my raccoon and me, this can sometimes go horribly awry.  What makes a lie easier or harder to distinguish from the truth?

A recent study conducted by Vieira and Lane looked into just this.  Vieira and Lane hypothesized that participants were more likely to remember falsely describing something they had not seen before (saying you saw an apple when there was actually no apple present) than to remember falsely denying seeing an object (saying you did not see an apple when there was an apple present).  This is because fabricating an event involves greater effort and more cognitive processes than simply denying an event occurred.  Additionally, the researchers believed that repeatedly falsely describing an event would lead to even better recollection of the lie and repeatedly falsely denying seeing an object would cause a participant to incorrectly believe that they did not see the object in question.

Vieira and Lane collected data from 24 undergraduate students to explore these hypotheses.  The experiment was broken up into three phases: a study phase, a rehearsal phase, and a test phase.  In the study phase, each participant was shown 24 pictures, each with a label that identified the object.  After the initial viewing, participants went through a rehearsal phase, containing 4 trials.  In each trial, participants were asked to follow on-screen instructions to lie or tell the truth about some objects they had seen during the study phase and some they had not by describing the objects or denying that they had seen them.  After 48 hours, participants returned and were shown a series of items.  They were then asked to determine if they had studied the items before and what they had done last time they saw the item (falsely describe, deny seeing it, or tell the truth).  Responses were then measured for accuracy and for how long it took the participant to respond to each question.

Vieira and Lane found that the type of lie told affects how accurately a person remembers whether or not they told the truth or a lie originally.  Their data suggested that people better remember lies that involved falsely describing something than falsely denying something.  This occurs because the creation of descriptions was an intensive process that provided more evidence that the event was a lie.  Additionally, the researchers found that truthfully denying seeing a picture had the strange effect of increasing later claims to have seen the picture.  It is thought that this is both because the repeated denials create a memory for the object and the initial denial is not strongly stored in memory.

These findings have important practical implications.  Vieira and Lane point out that during criminal investigations perpetrators may forget small previous denials, which will present investigators with the chance to catch their lie; however, this research also stresses the danger of intense interrogations.  Forcing an innocent person to repeatedly deny committing a crime could cause them to create a false memory for the crime and lead to false confessions.

For those of us who are not subjects of criminal investigations, the study posits that certain types of lies are better than others.  When lying, creating a detailed event will help you remember the lie for what it is it, so you avoid deceiving yourself and do not mistake it for the truth.  When it comes to lying, go big or go home.

This blog post was written about a report by Vieira and Lane and can be found here:

Vieira, K. M., & Lane, S. M. (2013). How You Lie Affects What You Remember. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition.


Doskoch, P. (1996, September 1). The Real Truth About Lying. Psychology Today. Retrieved November 24, 2013, from http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/199609/the-real-truth-about-lying

Kassin, S. M., Leo, R. A., Meissner, C. A., Richman, K. D., Colwell, L. H., Leach, A. M., & La Fon, D. (2007). Police interviewing and interrogation: A self-report survey of police practices and beliefs. Law and Human Behavior, 31(4), 381-400.

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  1. mjhunsic
    December 3rd, 2013 at 23:20 | #1

    The ability to lie effectively is really interesting, especially when looking at different populations of people. Although this research could be helpful in terms of eyewitness testimony but what about the ways that different criminals really BELIEVE the story they are telling about their crimes. Sociopaths are known for their ability to lie effectively and it may seem far fetched, but, conducting research on their ability to remember fabricated or lied experiences could present an interesting opportunity to see how strongly these people are able to encode false memories or fabricated stories, without seeming to recognize their far fetchery. I wonder if by further prodding these criminals about their behavior, prompting them to lie and further encode these false memories, would make them even more likely to agree or assert false behavior, some of which might effect the validity of their trail.

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