Been there before? Examining “familiarity” as a moderator for discriminating between true and false intentions

Melanie Knieps, Pãr A. Granhag, Aldert Vrij

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Prospection is thinking about possible future states of the world. Commitment to perform a future action—commonly referred to as intention—is a specific type of prospection. This knowledge is relevant when trying to assess whether a stated intention is a lie or the truth. An important observation is that thinking of, and committing to, future actions often evoke vivid and detailed mental images. One factor that affects how specific a person experiences these simulations is location-familiarity. The purpose of this study was to examine to what extent location-familiarity moderates how liars and truth tellers describe a mental image in an investigative interview. Liars were instructed to plan a criminal act and truth tellers were instructed to plan a non-criminal act. Before they could carry out these acts, the participants were intercepted and interviewed about the mental images they may have had experienced in this planning phase. Truth tellers told the truth whereas liars used a cover story to mask their criminal intentions. As predicted, the results showed that the truth tellers reported a mental image significantly more often than the liars. If a mental image was reported, the content of the descriptions did not differ between liars and truth tellers. In a post interview questionnaire, the participants rated the vividness (i.e., content and clarity) of their mental images. The ratings revealed that the truth tellers had experienced their mental images more vividly during the planning phase than the liars. In conclusion, this study indicates that both prototypical and specific representations play a role in prospection. Although location-familiarity did not moderate how liars and truth tellers describe their mental images of the future, this study allows some interesting insights into human future thinking. How these findings can be helpful for distinguishing between true and false intentions will be discussed.
Original languageEnglish
Article number677
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 7 Jul 2014


  • deception detection
  • episodic future thinking
  • familiarity
  • mental images
  • true and false intentions
  • prototypical prospection


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