Lies About Liars and How to Find the Truth

Debunking the myths about detecting deception. It’s a combination of art and science.

Posted by Dawn Lomer in on November 10th, 2011

Think you can tell if someone’s lying? You might be surprised at how wrong you are. In a session at the ECOA conference in Seattle I came to the realization that I have no idea how to tell if someone is telling the truth. I’ve done some reading on lie detection, and thought I was a pretty good judge of character and knew a bit about investigation techniques.

Apparently, most people aren’t nearly as good at detecting deception as they think they are. The speaker at the conference showed a video of a young man, who was accused of murdering his girlfriend, being interviewed by police. The accused showed signs of extreme distress and nervousness, was fidgety, didn’t look the interviewer in the eye, repeated questions back to the interviewer before answering them – all supposed signs of deception.

Conviction by Signs

After the video, most of the participants in the session (the majority of whom were ethics and compliance officers) raised their hands when asked who thought the subject was guilty. I know I raised mine. I had read many times that repeating the question is a liar’s stall tactic while they invent their answer, that liars avoid eye contact, that they show signs of distress, don’t use contractions, show too much emotion, become defensive, make indirect statements, repeat your words, stammer, etc, all signs that this suspect was exhibiting.

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As it turns out, he was innocent and we were all wrong, as is much of what I’ve read about detecting lies, it seems.

No Human Lie Detector

In a recent article in Corporate Compliance Insights, John Hanson (aka The Fraud Guy) further debunks some of the myths of the “human lie detector”, challenging many of the traditional “signs” of deception. He dismisses the notion of specific verbal and nonverbal reactions as absolute indicators of deception and, instead, refers to foundational interviewing principles as part of the “art and science of detecting anxiety” which, he also points out, is not always caused by deception.

“There is no such thing as a human lie detector,” he writes. “Even a polygraph machine is only as good as the polygraphers, who are normally exceptionally experienced and skilled interviewers who really don’t need the machine. They are generally applying the same principles and methods that good interviewers without a machine use.”

He refers to the reading of people as and art and a science. “The science can be learned, through a mixture of reading literature from credible sources and attending workshops that utilize adult-based learning (i.e. using hypotheticals and role-playing) to demonstrate and allow you to experience the interview process and application of the various proven methodologies in this field. The art comes from actually seeing it done (having a mentor whom you can observe in practice) and then doing it yourself – many, many times,” he writes.

So the main concern is that there are lots of investigators out there reading these so-called lie detection indicators as absolute proof of a person’s guilt or innocence. I would have sent the young man in the video straight to jail for murdering his girlfriend, based on the principles of deception that I had read about. How many people in positions of authority are drawing similar conclusions based on flawed techniques?

Dawn Lomer
Dawn Lomer

Managing Editor

Dawn Lomer is the managing editor at i-Sight Software and a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE). She writes about topics related to workplace investigations, ethics and compliance, data security and e-discovery, and hosts i-Sight webinars.