A quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

The Autism Research Review International is quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

Summer, 2018 | Number 3, Volume 32

For individuals with ASD, spotting lies is more challenging

Individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and neurotypical individuals with many autistic traits may have more difficulty spotting deception than their peers do, according to a new study involving two separate experiments. 

In the first experiment, David Williams and colleagues asked 216 neurotypical adults to complete the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ), which measures autistic traits, and to undergo tests evaluating “mindreading” ability (the ability to understand that other people have thoughts, feelings, and perspectives). 

The researchers then asked the participants to watch videos of people either telling the truth or lying about whether they had cheated on a test. The people shown in the videos were categorized as “transparent”—that is, it was easy to tell if they lied or told the truth—or “nontransparent” and thus more difficult to evaluate. The researchers found that neurotypical individuals with higher rates of autism traits had significantly more difficulty determining whether the transparent people in the videos were lying or telling the truth. However, AQ scores did not correlate with the accuracy of judgments about the nontransparent people (an area in which both groups performed poorly) or with “truth bias”—in other words, the tendency to believe that people were telling the truth. They also did not correlate with mindreading ability. 

In the second experiment, the researchers asked 27 adults with ASD and 27 neurotypical controls to perform the same task. In this experiment, the participants with ASD were far less able than controls to detect lies told by transparent individuals. 

The researchers say, “This shows that even when people provide clear behavioral cues about their honesty or deceit, individuals with ASD nonetheless have significant difficulty making accurate judgments.” Again, ASD diagnosis did not correlate with the accuracy of judgments about the nontransparent people or with “truth bias.” The researchers say it is interesting that the ability to detect lies did not correlate directly with mindreading ability. They speculate, “Rather, lie detection ability might develop as a function of the degree to which one engages with others socially, and attends to and learns from behavioral cues.” 

Regardless of the reason for impaired lie detection in ASD, the researchers say it might be beneficial to train individuals with ASD to detect behavioral indicators of lying. They note that such training has shown some success when used with neurotypical adults.


“Can you spot a liar? Deception, mindreading, and the case of autism spectrum disorder,” David M. Williams, Toby Nicholson, Catherine Grainger, Sophie E. Lind, and Peter Carruthers, Autism Research, May 2018 (open access). Address: David M. Williams, School of Psychology, Keynes  College, University of Kent, Canterbury CT2 7NP, United Kingdom, [email protected].