The Third Degree is the Wrong Temperature

Suspicious“Look me in the eye and tell me that!”

While it’s been said that the eyes are the window to the soul, you can’t always trust them to let you know if the other person is lying. In fact this whole tone puts people on the defensive.

In most of the classic police TV shows, after the suspect has been thoroughly berated, one of the detectives will outright slam them with an accusation. While this may make for good television it does not make for good lie detection. Negative questions tend to put people in a defensive mode (Houston et al 141) and they do have their time and place, but not right out of the gate. Plus, once a person commits to response they may become psychologically entrenched, digging in their heels and standing by their lie, say the authors of Spy the Lie: Former CIA Officers Show You How to Detect Deception (Houston et al 141).

While a liar is constantly trying to manage your perception, you can play the same game by pre-framing your questions. The research has clearly shown that when someone promises not to lie, as in taking an oath, or is told that the question is very important they have less of a tendency to lie (Houston at al 142). It doesn’t mean they still won’t do it, it just reduces the chances. Rationalization can also be a valuable prologue to your question. Saying something like “nobody’s perfect,” or “everyone makes mistakes,” can have an impact on the person’s willingness to open up (Houston et al 143).

But what if the person is already psychologically entrenched, or has already decided that their approach to questioning is to suddenly have a massive case of amnesia? How do you break the bind? One method is to engage in an “possibility strategy,” (Houston at al 144). If you ask the person where they were last Saturday and they tell you they don’t remember, try following up with, “I know it was a while ago but is it possible that you could’ve met so and so at such in such a location?” Lawyers are extremely effective at this, particularly during depositions or cross-examination. In fact, I think it’s a defense attorney’s most favorite question and is used to get the jury to at least be open to the possibility that their client may not have committed the crime.

If the possibility question does not open them up a bit expand your focus (Houston et al 145). Rather than accusing the person of using or buying drugs last Saturday, ask them if they’ve ever taken drugs. If they admit it, resist the urge to follow that logic or else you risk putting them right back on the defensive. Switch to other questions for a bit and keep that admission in your back pocket. This can often throw them off their game as they feel they have at least given you something you wanted to know, and since you are moving on you won’t be coming back to that question.

But do they eyes and other classic body language “signals,” (sometimes referred to as ‘tells’) actually tell us anything? Let’s look at this and other erroneous signals:

  • Eye contact. Eye contact as a behavior tool or lie detector cannot be applied universally (Houston et al 151). Eye contact changes culturally, and is different for each individual. Some people never look at you while talking to you, while others stare into your brain like some sort of alien being.
  • Closed posture. Many times people say that the closed posture, such as turtling the shoulders or crossing the arms is the equivalent to a person shutting down or trying to deceive. However, it could just as easily mean they are cold or rather comfortable sitting that way (Houston et al 152). Same thing with clenched hands (Houston 154), or blushing or twitching (Houston 155).
  • General nervous tension, (Houston et al 152). One of the first questions the public asked about TSA’s behavior detection officers is, how do they know the difference between somebody who is anxious because they are a terrorist and are trying to hide amongst the crowd versus a anxious passenger who just does not like flying? It is a great question because unless you start talking to the person it is very difficult to distinguish why they are anxious or nervous. And even after you start talking to them it can be difficult to tell the real reason. TSA also uses microexpression detection but they also have the time to study and keep those skills honed.
  • Preemptive responses. Responding to a question before the questioner has finished asking it can sometimes be considered deceptive behavior. However, the authors experience demonstrated that this is a routine behavior for both truthful and deceptive people. The truthful person is anxious to get the fact that he did not do it out on the table, while the deceptive person is uncomfortable dealing with a situation in which the facts are not his ally. He’s just trying to get the conversation over with as soon as possible (Houston et al 153). Therefore, preemptive responses are not good lie detection tools.

The authors do attack one of my standard tools for detecting deception, baselining. The theory behind baselining is that we can ask control questions to know how an individual will behave or respond (their tells or body language, verbal clues, etc) in a truthful situation and when we get to the questions we really want the answers too we watch for a shift from their baselined behavior (Houston et al 155).

The authors claim that people can game the baseline system, and that is true. The arsonist who is brought in for questioning knows that he’s going to be asked questions and if he believes the detectives are going to watch for him to get nervous as they approach the subject of the arson, can practice ahead of time his answers and even his body language to both normal questions and investigatory questions. 

From years of research, baselining has been an effective tool in spotting suspicious individuals – why do you think Customs doesn’t stop everyone leaving the international arrivals area of an airport? They are looking for certain behaviors and clues that will trigger their curiosity. While criminals and terrorists of course try to blend in, the body is still trying to tell the truth. Baselining is also effective when teaching individuals who do not have a lot of practice or experience in lie detection, nor will they have much opportunity to hone their lie detection skills after they are trained. They can learn this rather simple technique that can be used to arouse their suspicion enough to notify law-enforcement.

When the now notorious shoe bomber, Richard Reid traveled from Paris intent on blowing up an American Airlines flight in December 2001, he traveled without a passport from his own country, had very little carry-on luggage and no checked bags; he could not tell anyone where he was staying when he got to the United States, and had no cash or credit cards. If you want to know what the baseline is for an international traveler just reverse all of that.

I did find this book tremendously helpful in simplifying many lie detection techniques and I believe the techniques are very accurate. We have now reviewed two books in this series on detecting deception. Find what works for you; find what is easy to remember, and never forget that any one behavior means any one thing. Always watch for the timing of the behavior, and clusters of other deceptive behavior.

Houston, Philip., Floyd, Michael, Carnicero, Susan, Tennant, Don. Spy the Lie: Former CIA Officers Show You How to Detect Deception. New York: St. Martin’s, 2012. Print.


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