Telling Who is Telling the Truth

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Fran S.

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Part of being a good investigator is simply being a good listener. Being open, receptive, encouraging and nonjudgmental goes a long way towards getting people to tell you things. If you do enough interviewing, you soon realize that people have a desire to talk about themselves, to be understood, and to have the listener see the world through their eyes. The good news is that people will often tell us things that they will not tell others. The bad news is that we are getting our information from someone with a definite point of view, and as such, every event or fact they share may well be distorted by their own history, experience or emotions.

As an investigator, it is our job to figure out the objective facts; to siphon off emotion and bias, but to be aware that even within information shared with a particular agenda, there is normally a grain or two of pertinent fact. We recognize that truth simply looks different, depending upon the speaker.

On occasion, though, we are dealing not with variance in perspective, but falsehoods.  People lie.  They lie for a variety of reasons and in a variety of ways. One study tells us that 48 percent of American workers admitted that they had engaged in one or more unethical and /or illegal action during the last year.   Among the most common transgressions were lying to a supervisor or underling, deceiving customers, covering up incidents, taking credit for a colleague’s ideas and abusing or lying about sick days. This article is intended to help you sort through the cues you get during interviews that may help you form an opinion as to whether someone is in fact lying.  Proceed with caution, however, as the research on lie-spotting is not terribly encouraging. The “lie detector” is not foolproof. There is no expert or machine that can definitively spot a lie.  People who claim to have expertise in this are do no better than those who claim they don’t, who in turn do no better than random selection. 

The only people who show a higher level of consistency in detecting lies are people with a specific type of aphasia that blocks comprehension of speech. This is thought to be because there are subtle changes in people’s faces between when they are sincerely expressing something and attempting to replicate something. These changes – called “micro-changes” by some – involve slight alterations in facial expression that last less than a quarter second.  Even when watching on video and having been trained to spot these changes, it is a rare person who becomes truly adept at spotting them in the face of someone they are not familiar with.

We often think ourselves better at lie spotting than we are – because we subscribe to stereotypes or misperceptions.  In a study that asked more than 2,000 people from nearly 60 countries “How can you tell when people are lying?” the number one answer was the same in every country – they avert their gaze. The problem with this, however, is that it is simply not correlated with lying.  Liars don’t shift around or touch their faces or clear their throats any more than truth-tellers.

What we can be sensitive to is that there is some behavior that liars are more likely to exhibit than are people telling the truth.  Liars tend to move their arms, hands, and fingers less and blink less than people telling the truth do, and their voices can become higher pitched.  People who are embellishing or shading the truth tend to make fewer speech errors and they rarely backtrack to fill in incorrect details.  While all of this is helpful, we must keep in mind that just because someone is displaying some or all of these behaviors does not necessarily mean a person is lying.  While they are statistically reliable indicators, point out researchers, they are not terribly useful in one-on-one communications. 

An investigator’s best chance at spotting a liar comes from an analysis of motive combined with observation and circumstance.  This means we need to be able to understand that there are a variety of types of lies and a variety of types of liars.

Lies can be broken down in lots of ways, but generally, we can lump lies into four broad categories”: 

1. The pro-social lie. Told to help someone else or to protect someone (includes the “white lie.”)

2. The self-serving lie. This lie is told to help yourself without hurting someone else (“I got a 99 on the test, Ma.”)

3. The selfish lie. This benefits the teller at the expense of another (“Mary never returned my call, so I just did the work myself.”)

4. The anti-social lie. Told to deliberately damage another (“I saw Fred right by the office where the computer disappeared.”)

Each of these lies is likely to be used in investigations.  Anticipating the purposes of lies, we can often ask questions to ferret out thinking patterns or motives to lie, such as inquiring about perceptions and relationships.  Often, if we are faced with a possible pro-social liar, a follow-up question might be “It would be really hard on you if Mary got into trouble, wouldn’t it?  If that was not the case, might your answer be different?”  In other cases, merely seeming skeptical might cause a liar to backtrack and try and change the story.

If we matrix types of lies with types of liars, our analysis and our options for addressing possible lies becomes much richer.  In a great book on understanding and observing people*, Mark Mazzarella and Jo Ellan Dimitrius describe four types of liars:

1. The Occasional Liar. This person lies once in a while to avoid an unpleasant situation or because he or she does not want to admit to doing something wrong. The occasional liar is not a fan of lying and feels uncomfortable doing so. While being stressed by the act of lying, an occasional liar may be prepared. The lie may be well thought out, and it may be impossible to verify or contradict the liar’s version of events. In the case of the occasional liar, pushing their discomfort and inexperience with lie-telling and making observations about them is a strong tactic.

2. The Frequent Liar. They recognize they are lying, but it doesn’t bother him or her as much, so it becomes more regular. This individual is well-practiced, and so may not show the stress of an occasional liar. Because the infrequent liar is more casual, he or she might not prepare as well for the lie and might get sloppy with logic, details and internal consistency. Asking someone to repeat their version of events several times will often show the inconsistencies of a “relaxed” liar.

3. The Habitual Liar. They lie so frequently that he or she no longer considers him or herself as lying. This is not a sociopath – if he or she were forced to admit lies, they would certainly know the difference between the truth and a lie. This is simply someone who mindlessly alters information for his or her purpose. These liars are so thick and fast with their lies that they lose track of them, and will often contradict themselves.  Generally, other people will report that this person is untruthful. The habitual liar is a worry to a truth-teller – they will tell you that a person always lies and that they are afraid that the person will lie to you.

4. The Professional Liar is the hardest to catch. This person does not lie indiscriminately, but strategically. They have their lies thought through and they know exactly what they will say, how it will fly and whether it can be verified. It will be integrated, consistent internally and logical. These are the folks who fix cars that are not broken and sell faulty goods. The only way to catch them is to independently verify EVERYTHING they tell you. 

What to do with all of this? General credibility assessment practice will always serve you well.  Visit with a person before diving into the interview.  Ask “softball” questions that can be answered without hesitation.  Make note of the baseline level of tension, the degree of body movement, the eye contact of a person.  This will help you notice subtle changes and shifts that accompany particular lines of questioning.  Once you’ve spotted a cue of possible stress, explore consistency and internal logic by asking the same question several ways or asking someone to re-explain something.

 Watch too, for some helpful “red flags.”  Evasion is one of those.  Lying to an investigator is a new problem for even a chronic liar.  They probably know that you are looking for lies and may be more skilled than those they don’t normally deal with.  Telling you that they don’t remember when reason would suggest they should, letting you know only half of the story, when you are well aware that there is more or redirecting your questions with other questions are all signs that you need to dig further.  Another red flag is verbal insulation; does the person say “At this point in time,”  “I was led to understand…” or “If I recall correctly…”?  These may simply be habitual speech patterns, but careful liars establish “outs” that will let them deny a statement or recollection.

If we are concentrating on ferreting out liars, we also have to acknowledge that there will be times when our instincts tell us that we are dealing with an untruth, but we cannot get an admission or any “hard” indication that this is the case.  It is not improper to parse out the reasons for our impression of untruthfulness – does the person have a clear motive for lying?  Did we catch them lying about other things?  Do they have a reputation for untruthfulness? Have they demonstrated contempt for the process which suggests antipathy towards the complainant or witnesses?  If the answer is yes, it is fair to include these as part of an impression that the witness was being less than truthful, but beware drawing conclusions not supported by those observations.

As with all areas of investigation, there is no “hard-line” on how to distinguish the legitimacy of one version of facts of the others, but ask yourself about motives, habits, behaviors and the response to your probes, and you may find yourself discovering a nose for the truth that will add to the integrity of your investigations.

* Demetrius and Mazzarella , Reading People,” Ballantine, NY 1998


Fran S.

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