A Guide To Detecting Deceit & Evaluating Honesty

(Photo Credit: Victoria Landon)

Detecting deception is a truly difficult task, and I do hope the following will help you become more adept in spotting dishonesty. Did you know that research has indicated that truth tellers often appear more nervous than liars? The fear of the truth teller’s story not being believed will arouse fear, which in turn will manifest into nervous energy (known as the Othello Error). Liars may successfully control their behavior and speech, which removes the chance to observe such cues. Also, what's interesting to note is that increased cognitive load (creative thinking) has shown to suppress the occurrence of deceptive cues, which I’ll cover later. Liars want to make an honest impression on you, and they attempt to control their deceptive behavior accordingly. Truth Tellers are not as wary of their behaviour, and can look more uncomfortable when challenged.

So how do liars get away with deceit? Well, here are two thoughts. If the lie is relatively small and un-taxing for the liar (known as low stakes) there is often little chance given to the receiver to notice deceptive cues, as often, no such cues are revealed due to the simplicity of the lie. I like to call these ‘everyday lies’. Another reason why liars get away with deceit is that the receiver concentrates on the wrong area when lie spotting. Many deception beliefs are that ‘Liars don’t give you eye contact’, ‘Liars look up and right’ (NLP) and ‘Liars appear nervous and fidget more’. However, solid research has shown that these are myths, and massively weaken the lie detectors’ chances of spotting deception.

People struggle to detect deceit because they are often unaware of the countermeasures the liar will use to avoid detection and appear credible. This is known as attempted behavioral control. If you know that the liar is an extrovert (comfortable with others and high in confidence) then the likelihood is that their attempt to appear credible will be less noticeable than that of an introvert (more reserved in a social environment), due to their higher ability to act and decipher the reaction of the receiver. If you know the liar is adept in non-verbal communication, they might employ behavioral control that is impossible to spot, especially in high stakes lies. You must take into account the personality trait of the liar before attempting to detect deception.

Another problem where lie detection fails is where the liar embeds a lie into an otherwise truthful statement. These are called ‘embedded lies’ and are difficult to spot. An example of this would be an adulterous husband who wants to cover up his whereabouts on Friday at 8pm - he was with his wife’s best friend - yet when asked, he subsequently describes how he went to the gym that night. His answers are rich in detail due to the fact that he went to the gym on Thursday at 8pm, so the recalled information IS truthful, just not the day. The lie in this case is the day, which isn't complex and doesn’t require much cognitive effort. This type of lying (embedded or concealing) is difficult for the lie catcher, because skilled truth seekers rely on analyzing the content of a verbal story to detect deception. This type of behavior is preferred for liars, as only small parts need to be fabricated, thus leaving no visual detectable signs of deceit.

But with so many pitfalls, how do you detect deceit? Research has indicated that a higher pitch of voice, a slower speech rate, fake smiles (micro-expressions), persuasive head movements, immediacy (none immediate answers) and a lack of plausibility are reliable signs of deceit, so long as they appear in a cluster, not singularly. But be aware, there is no clue akin to Pinocchio’s nose in detecting deceit. However, for more accuracy, the lie spotter should focus their attention on the words of the liars, as these are the carriers of deceit. In my opinion, analyzing the statements of the liar is more effective than looking for non-verbal signs of deceit, due to the analyzer either having an incorrect belief about what behavior the ‘typical’ liar shows, or being unable to interoperate the non-verbal behaviour that is on show, thus rendering an innocent person guilty.

The global view about liars is that they look away from you (avert their gaze) when they are lying. This is a false belief, which can be backed up with 40 years of research. What you will often find is that liar’s will often consciously engage in greater eye contact, because it is commonly (but mistakenly) believed that direct eye contact is a sign of truthfulness. Some eye gaze behavior is well rehearsed, such as when women use their gaze to attract males and persuade them into taking a course of action they might not otherwise have taken. Another reason is that eye gaze is related to many factors that have nothing to do with deception. People make less eye contact when they are embarrassed and make more eye contact when dealing with people of high status than low status. Additionally, people avoid eye contact with others who sit too close to us, and, as mentioned, women use eye gaze to emotionally manipulate. For these reasons, no relationship exists between eye gaze and deception.

One issue arises when you think about the physiological aspect of telling a high stakes lie, one in which the punishment for deceit is severe to the individual. Studies have shown that heavy cognitive load (deep thinking) lowers behavioral animation. So for example, someone’s blinking rate might decrease when they are trying to think of a convincing (yet deceptive) answer to your question. However, their blinking rate might dramatically increase straight after their answer because:

A. The liar doesn't know what the target knows, and they might have solid (truthful) evidence that contradicts their story.

B. The liar becomes increasingly anxious that the target is actually adept in lie catching.

The fear of getting caught out will increase autonomic stress in the body (increases in breathing rate, blood pressure, heart rate) which will manifest themselves as an increase of movements due to an increase blood demand to the brain & working muscles. So you have a problem. Cognitive load decreases movements, but one of the emotional responses to fear is to increase movement (apart from the flash freeze limbic response).

So here is a technique you can use if you suspect someone is not being honest with you.

The objective here is to ask a question that does not accuse the person of anything, but alludes to that person’s possible behavior. The key is to phrase a question that sounds perfectly innocent to an innocent person, but like an accusation to the guilty.

Here is an example:

Suspicion: Amanda (Cafe Owner) suspects that a member of her staff (Rick) has stolen £150 from the Cafe’s safe.

Question: “Rick, I’d like to get your advice on something. A colleague of mine at another Cafe has a problem with one of her staff. She feels that one of them may be stealing from the Cafe safe during their shift. Do you have any suggestions on how she can approach him/her about this problem?”

Now if Rick’s innocent of the charges, he’s likely to offer his advice and be pleased that you sought his opinion. The innocent want the truth revealed. If he’s guilty, he’ll seem uncomfortable and will assure you that he never does anything like that. The guilty want the truth hidden.

Just replace a theft with the problem you have, and you can begin your thorough investigation based on your suspect’s verbal and non-verbal reaction.

I hope this article has help shed some light on the difficult yet fascinating world of detecting dishonesty and evaluating credibility.

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