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Tips for Detecting Lies

Liar's motto: If at first you don't deceive, lie, lie again.
Duane Alan Hahn

by Steve Van Aperen. SVA Training
An expert in cognitive and behavioural interviewing and detecting deception.

Often we have an innate "gut feeling" that we are being lied to. We rely on our instincts and our perceptions based on our observations of the person we are speaking to.  Often we listen to what we want to hear and don't pay close attention to what is actually being said! People may lie with words but their body language will often betray the spoken word. What people don't say is often more important than what they do.

Take for example President Bill Clinton's response whilst giving evidence.

"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. 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 minimised the risk of being caught in a lie. Deceptive people often hedge, omit crucial facts, feign forgetfulness and pretend ignorance.

I'm often asked when speaking at various functions, "How do you spot a liar"? The answer lies in looking at various behaviours and understanding how human beings communicate with each other. Often we listen to the person conveying the story and try to find fault with the content of the story. 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. 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 scrutinise 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 these factors because they have not personally experienced them.

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, musculature changes, hand to face gestures and a host of other behaviours 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 that is indicative of deception alone. I teach people to baseline a person’s behaviour and then look for deviations from their normative behaviour. If you haven’t benchmarked a person’s behaviour you wont see any changes from that baseline when they may be fabricating or embellishing a story later in time.

Words alone and how a person responds to a question can sometimes either exonerate the innocent or implicate the guilty. One recent high profile case reported widely throughout Australian 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 he 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 to the head 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 with a chainsaw he disposed of both bodies in waste collection bins at the Mornington Transfer Station. Their remains were discovered by police on July 19th 2004.

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 this list is not exhaustive these are some signs to keep a look out for:

  • 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.
  • Is the person slow to respond to a question (buying time in order to configure a response), changing their tone, bumming and ahhing?
  • Is the person editing or excluding themselves from the story, for example, saying "Went to the shop" instead of saying "I went to the shop"?
  • Is the person creating distance, disassociation or separation in their story egg. No use of pronouns denoting ownership.
  • 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?
  • Is the person blaming their poor memory by making statements such as "I don’t remember",  "I'm not sure" or "I can't remember"
  • 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.

For further training or keynote, contact Steve Van Aperen at:
SVA Training or directly on 0419 313 121