Everyone lies. We all lie. From children with their hand caught in the cookie jar “I was going to give it to Fido” to Presidents, Nixon about Watergate and Clinton about Lewinski. We often think that we are good at spotting a lie during an interview, meeting, negotiation or pre-employment interview but research suggests the polar opposite. In fact we want to believe that people are basically honest even when the tell tale signs of deception are in front of our very eyes. Not only that but we are often easily influenced by others. We wantto believe that what we are being told is in fact true!
Where does this inbuilt bias eventuate from? Take for example the financial fraud of the century perpetrated by “respected and trusted” Bernie Maddoff. Why would so many intelligent business people hand over billions, yes billions of their hard earned cash in return for unbelievable and unsubstantiated returns that turned out to be no more than a failed ponzi scheme? Well, other than the obvious answer, greed, he sounded believable, plausible and was well liked and respected.
People often wont lie to you they will simply edit the information that they supply you with. Lying by omission rather than commission if you like. Often we have an innate “gut feeling” that we are being lied to. We rely on our instincts and perceptions based on our observations gained during a meeting or interview. Often we listen to what we want to hear and don’t pay close enough attention to what is actually being said! What people don’t say is often more important than what they do say.
Take for example President Bill Clinton’s response whilst giving evidence in relation to his affair with young White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
“As you know, in a deposition in January, I was asked questions about my relationship with Monica Lewinsky. While my answers were legally accurate, I did not volunteer information”
Here we can see the selective editing process come into play. Remember people often tell you what they want you to know. Even by Clinton’s own admission he did not volunteer information. By omitting crucial information he minimized the risk of being caught in a lie. Deceptive people often hedge, omit crucial facts, feign forgetfulness and pretend ignorance.
As a public speaker and having spent 14 years a police officer and been consulted by Homicide Squads, police departments and intelligence agencies I’m often asked when speaking at various functions “How do you spot a liar?” The answer lies in looking at various behaviors and understanding how human beings communicate and interact with each other. Often we listen to the person conveying the story and try to find fault with the content of the story. But what if their story is so well rehearsed over time that detection is nigh on impossible. My answer is no matter how well rehearsed a person may be they can never pre-anticipate every single question that may be asked no matter how watertight or rehearsed their response may be. Sooner or later there is going to be a slip up, a contradiction, a change in story or a stumble. Only good investigative work, questioning and planning and preparation will help you win the day.
Holistically we need to analyse much, much more than simply listening to the words spoken by our would be deceiver. We need to analyse the process of communication. People may lie with words but their body language will often betray the spoken word so we need to look at non-verbal behaviors during answers also. Then we need to analyse content, structure and delivery. In addition we need to look for conflict or contradiction between what a person is saying and what their body language is telling us. We also need to heavily scrutinize verbal, non-verbal and paralinguistic styles of delivery.
In reality it is very difficult for the average person to lie. Not only that but research shows that most human beings are not very good at picking a liar. For every one lie that a person tells us they are required to invent another two or three further lies to protect themselves from the first lie. Secondly the deceptive person has to think “What have I said previously that could contradict me now?” Neurologically a truthful person relies on memory to recall smells, conversations, events, times, dates, places, names, feelings and emotions whereas a deceptive person often has to fabricate and create these factors because they have not personally experienced them or are trying to create a false memory.
A deceptive person needs to convince us that what they are saying is in fact true. It is here that we will often see changes in tenses, changes in the use of pronouns, changes in body language, micro expressions, distress signals, facial musculature changes (micro expressions), hand to face gestures and a host of other behaviors associated with fear in being caught out in a lie. Often we don’t look for these changes let alone pay any attention to them! There is no one tell tale sign alone that is indicative of deception. I teach companies to baseline an interviewee’s behavior and then look for deviations from their normative behavior. If you haven’t benchmarked a person’s behavior you wont see any changes from that baseline when they may be fabricating or embellishing a story later in time.
Secondly I teach people to not think of themselves as questions askers but analysts of human behavior. Good probing questions may often be the stimulus that induces changes in behavior such as masking, concealment or blocking behaviors such as covering their face, looking away, shifting in the chair etc. If the question induces these changes and the interviewee side steps the answer or doesn’t answer the question then this should be considered a red flag.
Words alone and how a person responds to a question can sometimes either exonerate the innocent or implicate the guilty. One high profile case reported widely throughout Australian media related to the disappearance of Anna Kemp, 37 who was five months pregnant with her second child and her 19 month old daughter Gracie Sharp. Anna’s husband, John Myles Sharpe, reported their disappearance to police and took part in a number of media interviews. In one interview the visibly distressed Sharpe when asked if had killed his wife and daughter replied:
“No, I haven’t harmed my wife or my daughter. I haven’t harmed either of them”
On closer analysis we can see that John Sharpe did not answer the question. In fact he avoided the question altogether. The question was clear and unambiguous. He was asked if he had killed his wife and daughter not whether he had “harmed” them.
During a subsequent police interview John Sharpe admitted to police that he killed his wife Anna Kemp with two speargun shots as she slept on March 23rd, 2004. He further revealed that he buried his wife’s body in a shallow grave in their backyard in Mornington, south of Melbourne, Victoria. Four days later, he told police, he shot his 19-month-old daughter Gracie Sharpe with four spears as she slept. After exhuming his wife’s body and dismembering it he disposed of both bodies in waste collection bins at the Mornington Transfer Station. Their remains were discovered by police on July 19th2004.
Although I consult my services to police departments and corporations around the globe human beings universally engage in certain deflective, masking, blocking and concealment gestures when engaging in deception and avoidance. Although the behaviors are similar, often the difference is the high stakes nature of the lie itself and the possibility of being caught in the lie together with the penalties or ramifications of being caught out.
Having conducted thousands of behavioral analysis interviews certain behaviors are evident in those people that were caught out in a lie. Whether it is a corporate lie, a lie during a meeting or negotiation, an embellishment in a CV about length of service, educational qualifications or the reason for leaving a previous employer certain behaviors and characteristics are telling. The most obvious behaviors to look for is ownership of the story. Truthful people take ownership of their story and this is reflected in their language. They include themselves in the narrative using pronouns such as “Idid this” or “Idid that” whereas deceptive people often create distance and separation, “Then went to the shop”. Although this list is not exhaustive here are the top 14 signs to keep a look out for during your next meeting, negotiation or pre-employment interview:
- Is the person answering your question or sidestepping the issue altogether?
- Is the person answering the question with another question or deflecting?
- Is the person emissive, defensive, dismissive or evasive (behaviors that are often associated with avoidance).
- Is there conflict or contradiction between what a person is saying and what their body language is doing (egg. nodding their head in the affirmative while denying something)?
- Is the person using concealment, blocking or masking gestures such as a hand covering the mouth or face whilst talking?
- Are verbal statements accompanied by contradictory non-verbal cues of doubt e.g. shrugging of shoulders when stating something is true.
- Is the person slow to respond to a question (buying time in order to configure a response), changing their tone, uhming and ahhing?
- Is the person editing or excluding themselves from the story, for example, saying “Then went to the shop” instead of saying “I went to the shop”?
- Is the person creating distance, disassociation or separation in their story eg. No use of pronouns denoting ownership and possession.
- Is the person exhibiting micro expressions or distress signals such as anger, happiness, sadness, disgust, contempt or surprise that are out of context or incongruent with what they are saying?
- Do your questions induce a change in the behavior of the person you are interviewing? If so why? This could be a hot topic that needs further examination and questioning.
- Is the person blaming their poor memory by making statements such as “I don’t remember”, “I’m not sure” or “I cant remember”
- Is the person’s denials weak and lack commitment to their story: “I don’t think so”, I’m not sure”, I believe I did”
- Is the person making succinct and clear denials or making objections e.g. Did you steal that money? “No I didn’t” as opposed to “Why would I do that” or “I don’t need to steal money” or “I’m not that kind of person” or “It’s wrong to steal”. The last statement is a view but not a denial.
Steve van Aperen is an international public speaker, author, media commentator and trainer. He has trained with the US Secret Service, LAPD, FBI and consulted his services to the Victoria Police Homicide Squad, Rape Squad, Armed Offenders Squad and the South Australia Major Crime Squad having worked on 64 homicide and serial killer investigations.