Dateline: September, 2021, Issue 2

How are witnesses who answer questions quickly perceived?

When witnesses are asked questions, sometimes they respond quickly and sometimes they pause before answering. Does a fast answer or a pause before responding make a difference to how believable the witness's statements come across? Are faster or slower responses thought to be more sincere and truthful?

Ziano and Wang (2021) conducted 14 experiments involving 7,565 participants to explore how pausing prior to responding to questions affects witness believability.

In the first experiment, participants listened to four short audio snippets of a question-and-answer exchange, each corresponding to a different scenario. In one scenario, for example, a person was asked "whether they had stolen money from the company in which they used to work" followed by the response "No, I didn't." There were different puase duration times used prior to the response, ranging from no delay (0) in responding to 1, 2, 3, 5, and 10 second delays. For each audio snippet, participants had to rate from 1 to 7 how sincere they thought the person was in answering. In all four scenarios, slower responses were perceived as less sincere than faster responses. The longer the delay before responding, the less sincere the response seemed up until 5 seconds; no difference existed in statement sincerity between a 5-second and 10-second delay before answering.

In another experiment, participants watched a video of the police interrogating a suspect accused of workplace theft in the amount of several thousand dollars. When the suspect was asked "Did you steal the money?", the actor playing the suspect either responded immediately "No, I didn't" or made the same reply after a delay of 5 seconds. Participants judged the suspect as more truthful and more sincere when making the fast response. Further, the suspect was thought to be guilty 40% of the time when making a fast response versus 73% of the time when making a slower response.

Another experiment explored whether instructions to participants to ignore response speed could overcome native perceptions of (in-)sincerity. In this experiment, half of the participants received the instructions: "Important: In answering the questions, please do not take into account the speed with which the person replied." The other half of the participants received no such instructions. The instructions made a difference. Without instructions, 75% of slow responders were thought to be guilty versus only 31% of fast responders. With instructions, the gap shrank but was not eliminated: 60% of slow resonders were judged guilty versus 41% of fast responders.

Another experiment explored how the effort it takes naturally to remember an answer can affect perceptions of sincerity in delayed responses. In this experiment, participants were presented one of four vignettes in which a man named John was asked whether he had murdered a man or stolen some candy either earlier the same day or 10 years ago. John responded "No, I didn't" either immediately or after a 10 second delay. When the crime was of low severity (stealing candy) and committed in the recent past (the same day), slower responders were judged less sincere than faster responders; however, when the low severity crime was committed in the distant past, slower responders and faster responders were judged as equally sincere. By contrast, because murder (high severity) is a memorable event, fast responders were judged as more sincere than slow responders whether the murder occurred the same day or 10 years ago. The researchers concluded that the effort it takes to remember an event can, under certain circumstances (e.g., where memory is not naturally expected) justify a slower response.

Many of the experiments tested whether participants believed that slow responders delayed because they were suppressing other thoughts and fabricating answers. These experiments found that slow responses are judged as less sincere because observers inferred that the slow responders were more likely to be suppressing an alternative thought and/or fabricating an answer. When it naturally took effort to remember an answer, slow responders were not judged to be fabricating answers.

In sum, witnesses and suspects generally are not seen as needing time to think about answers to questions: those who answer questions quickly are more believable. Faster responses are perceived to be more sincere and slower responses are most often associated with deception. Responses are considered less sincere if delivered after a delay as brief as a second, and when delivered after a 5 second delay are judged as even more insincere. Not just sincerity, but also perceptions of truthfulness and guilt are significantly impacted by how fast or slow responses are made to questions. The tendency to associate slow responding to insincerity can be attenuated somewhat by instructions and by the effort it takes to recall information, but not completely.

Source Ziano, I. & Wang, D. (2021). Slow lies: Response delays promote perceptions of insincerity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 120(6), pp.1457-1479.