Liespotting

Proven Techniques to Detect Deception

Pamela Meyer

St. Martin's Press

From Chapter Five: Listening to the Words

……Humans excel at adapting language to suit their needs.  We hear a clever phrase and make it our own; we pick up slang; we order “soda” until we move to another part of the country and start ordering “pop.”  Each of us has developed a singular style of verbal communication that is heavily influenced by our geographic location, our life experience, and our social, ethnic, and economic demographic.

Yet trained deception detectors know that though everyone has a unique way of expressing himself, there are some near-universal ways in which liars reveal themselves when they speak. 

The Verbal Habits of Deceptive People

Liars usually work very hard at constructing a convincing narrative, making sure that each part of their story is plausible and logical.  But just as unconsciously leaked facial micro-expressions and body language can betray a liar’s true emotions, unconsciously leaked verbal slips can betray one’s underlying train of thought.  For the liespotter who knows how to listen well, the random words, sounds, and phrases in a person’s speech are never as random as they seem.  They offer a clear sightline into the liar's psyche. 

After all, lying is hard work.  As the Swedish researcher Aldert Vrij observed, liars "have to think of plausible answers, avoid contradicting themselves, and tell a lie that is consistent with everything the observer knows or might find out"--and they have to do all this while reminding themselves not to make any mistakes.  And remembering not to look nervous.  And not to act differently from how they'd normally act in this situation.  And--speaking of acting--to be sure to display the emotions they'd normally show. Is it any wonder that they can't always pull it off?

To spot verbal indicators of lying, deception detectors pay close attention to four characteristics of speech--statement structure, verbal leaks, vocal quality, and attitude. 

Statement Structure

A person’s statement structure--his choice of words and phrases--is a rich source for any liespotter to mine for possible deception indicators.  As always, it’s important to remember that any number of physiological and psychological factors--fatigue, stress, hunger, concern about getting home on time--can affect how someone expresses himself. 

Truth-tellers who expect others to believe them tend to speak naturally and unselfconsciously.  But if they don't expect to be believed, they may try too hard to seem honest.  Unfortunately, the result makes them sound less believable.

Obviously, then, not every oddly phrased statement is a lie. Still, there are tactical turns of phrase that should raise a liespotter’s eyebrows----not because of what the suspect says, but instead due to what these tactics help him avoid saying.

There are several types of statements liars often use to evade questions or deflect suspicion.  You’ll learn how to respond to them in the next chapter.  For now, just focus on familiarizing yourself with them.

Parrot Statements. If you ask a question and someone repeats it back to you, he may be stalling to buy time to think about how he wants to reply.  For example, if you ask “Which email account do you use for business correspondence during non-work hours?” and you hear back, “Which email account do I use for business correspondence during non-work hours? Well, I guess that would be my company account”, pay attention.  Had you simply heard,  “My business correspondence?” or “During non-work hours?” he could have been clarifying your question to make sure he told you what you wanted to know.  But  repeating the question in its entirety suggests that he doesn’t want to answer. 

Dodgeball Statements. Let’s say you ask, “What computer system do you mainly use when you’re in the office?” and someone replies, “Are you interviewing all of IT, too?”  When people ignore or deflect your question,   and lob a new one right back at you,  it’s often an attempt to find out how much you know before volunteering an answer.  In this example, the subject may be trying to determine whether you've noticed something suspicious about his email activity.  "Do I have to come up with an explanation for something?" he may be asking himself.

Guilt-trip Statements.  A guilt-trip statement is an evasive tactic that tries to put you, the interrogator, on the defense.  Say you ask an employee which exit she generally uses when she's leaving the building at the end of the day.  If she's trying to avoid  the question, she may make a show of taking offense: “I’ll bet you’re not hounding any of the execs about their comings and goings.  You guys in HR always think it’s the people on the ground who are on the take.”  She’s hoping that you’ll abandon the question while defending yourself or getting caught up in proving that you’re not biased.  Don’t take the bait. 

Protest Statements. Instead of trying to put you on the defensive, a liar using a protest statement will respond to questioning by reminding you that nothing about his track record indicates that he is someone capable of deceit.

“What exit do you generally use when you leave the building at the end of the day?”

“It depends on the day.  Look, I’m a mother, I go to church, I give blood.  I don’t understand why you're talking to me like a criminal!”

Too Little/Too Much Statements. In the split-second before someone prepares to answer a question, he will consciously or subconsciously evaluate what the best possible answer might be. For a truthful person, the best possible answer might omit some information. It might have a few extraneous details.  But it will still offer the information requested. 

“Why don’t you tell me what you know about the email one of our clients received the other day?” you ask. 

An honest employee might say, “All I know is that Bill Patterson called on Friday saying that Jane sent him an email calling him a drunk and a loser.  Now she's saying that I somehow hacked into her email account and sent it.  It’s no secret that Jane and I don’t get along, but I’m not dumb enough to risk my job just to mess with her.”

For an employee who's trying to deceive you, however—let's call him Todd--the best possible answer is often the one that doesn’t make him repeat the ugly details of the accusation.  "Not much," he might answer evasively.  “He says he got a rude email from Jane, right? And she thinks I did it? I don’t know why she’d think I’d do such a thing.”  Steering clear of the specific charges helps him to keep himself at a psychological distance from them.  

On the other hand, Todd's reply might be unnecessarily wordy: “What do I know? I know Jane is trying to get me fired.  Basically, she’s never liked me.  This isn’t the first time she’s tried to get me into trouble.  Ever since that mix-up last year, when her shipment went AWOL for a few days—she says I never put the order in, but I definitely did–I’ve told people we need to get a system upgrade to keep stuff like that from happening.  Now someone is upset and Jane’s saying it’s my fault? She has a lot of nerve.”

Two clues in this reply indicate guilt.  The first is that Todd is using a lot of words to say very little.  The second is that nowhere in the midst of all this verbiage does he actually answer the question.