Telling Who Is Telling The Truth

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					Telling Who Is Telling the Truth
Considerations in Credibility Assessment
By Fran Sepler, Sepler & Associates

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

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 colleagues 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

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, which is told to help yourself without hurting someone
      else (―I got a 99 on the test, Ma.‖)
   3) The selfish lie, which 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, which is 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 people1, Mark Mazzarella and Jo Ellan Dimitrius describe four
types of liars:

      1) The occasional liar, who 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 recognizes that he or she is 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 lies 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

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.

    Demetrius and Mazzarella , Reading People,‖ Ballantine, NY 1998
 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.

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