Detecting the Deception
Counsellor to client mandated to come to counselling after an alleged domestic violence incident: “So, did you hit your wife?”
Client: (Squirming in chair). “I love my wife. Do you think I would give a black eye to the woman I love? What happened was that there was this jar of honey that couldn’t be opened. So, I guess what must have happened is that, in grabbing the jar, the right hand went onto the lid, and the left hand was holding the jar. Then, just as I give it a massive twist, she comes right up to me in the kitchen. The force of the lid breaking free forces the right hand up and it goes straight onto her eye socket, giving her a black eye. I swear to you, I wouldn’t lay a hand on her!”
Do you notice anything strange about the way this client uses language? As we will see, some aspects of the man’s narrative strike us at a deep level as being just “off” in some hard-to-discern way. Yet it is vital to be able to clearly identify when deception is occurring, both for our own safety and that of others. In the preceding articles (links: Lying: Life Skill Or Lousy Habit?, Dealing with Deception in Counselling) in this series on lying, we’ve looked at both the cognitive, emotional and social benefits of lying, and also the huge relational cost of the more serious types of falsehoods. In this final piece, we examine the language liars use in order that we may detect their deception all the better.
The words reveal: The language of liars
As mental health professionals, we are accustomed to noticing the nonverbal language of clients. Is their body language congruent with what they are saying, we often ask? Beyond that, we have honed our intuitive instincts, so we may have a “red flag moment” in which we are certain that something doesn’t stack up, and we can then probe for what is inconsistent. Linguistic text analysis works via a different method. Paul Clikeman notes that, in this way of analysing language (both written and oral), an investigator trying to get at the truth first establishes what is typical of a truthful statement, and then looks for deviations from the norm (Clikeman, 2012). So let’s review the items on Clikeman’s list with respect to the kind of language we might see in a counselling session.
Lack of self-reference
Truth-speakers make frequent use of the first person pronoun “I” to describe what they did. Not so deceivers, who will often minimise reference to themselves. They do this mainly in three ways.
- One is that they use the passive voice: e.g., the jar of honey above that “couldn’t be opened”, not the jar that “I couldn’t open”. Or consider: “The plate was thrown” rather than “I threw the plate”.
- Secondly, liars use lack of self-reference is by substituting the pronoun “you” for “I” (that is, “you” is used in a general sense). Thus: “You normally expect the child to obey you, but when he doesn’t, you find yourself shouting at him”.
- Deceivers also simply omit the personal reference. In the example above, the alleged abuser says that, “in grabbing the jar” rather than “I grabbed the jar and . . .” He then says what “the” right hand and “the” left hand — not “my” right or left hand — did; there are three references like that. Then it is “the force of the lid” that “forces the right hand up” rather than a statement that “My right hand flew up and hit her” or something similar.
When you are recalling something from the past, you use the past tense, right? “I did this and saw that”. People telling lies sometimes refer to past events as if they were occurring in the present. This suggests to experts that those relating the narrative are rehearsing the events in their mind (to better remember them and thus not get tripped up by offering conflicting versions?) Those analysing the text should pay attention to the particular points in the narrative where the speaker seems to shift inappropriately to the present tense. In our introductory example, the man has two sentences in the past tense: “What happened was that . . .” and “So, I guess what must have happened . . .” Then the next two critical sentences, where the man is describing how his wife allegedly got hit, are inexplicably in the present tense: “ . . . as I give it a massive twist, she comes right up to me in the kitchen. The force of the lid breaking free forces the right hand up and it goes straight . . .” These sentences have four verbs in the present tense!
Answering questions with questions
Clikeman points out that even liars would rather not have to lie. A total lie, after all, carries the risk of detection. So one tactic deceivers use is to try to avoid answering the question at all; the individual may do this by responding to the question with another question: e.g., above: “Do you think I would give a black eye to the woman I love?” Other examples include: “What would cheating on her gain me?” “Do you think I am stupid enough to steal from my own employer?”
Avoiding a counsellor’s or interviewer’s questions through the use of weak modifiers, vague expressions, and other “weasel” words of uncertainty allows liars to later modify their assertions without directly contradicting their original statements. How many of these have you heard from clients whose narrative seemed somehow dodgy? Noncommittal verbs include “Think, believe, guess, suppose, assume, figure, probably, and must have . . .” Equivocating modifiers (adjectives and adverbs) include the likes of: “perhaps, maybe, almost, sort of, about, kind of”. In the introductory paragraph, the client says, “So I guess what must have happened . . .” When their attempts at fabrication are later dismantled, liars who equivocate can then claim that their suppositions/theories/assumptions may have been incorrect, but they were not lying.
Have you heard the statement adapted from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “Methinks thou dost protest too much”? Naturally, those who are in the business of deceit try to give as little useful information as possible, but they want what they do give to be believed, so they tend to add in various mild oaths, such as “On my honour”, “Cross my heart”, “With God as my witness,” or as above, “I swear to you . . .” Truth-tellers, conversely, do not assume that their statements need to be backed up in this way, as they have more confidence that their statements can be shown to be true.
Does your client seem to be describing questionable actions in very mild or vague words rather than their harsher (but perhaps more realistic) synonyms? For example, a dishonest employee might have “borrowed” store merchandise rather than “stealing” it. A policeman on trial for excessive use of force on duty may well refer to “warning” a person rather than “threatening” him, as his body camera footage might indicate. In our introductory example, the man says that “the” hand (his hand) “goes” straight into her eye socket, not that he “hits” her in the eye with his hand. Alertness to euphemisms can help ferret out other aspects of truth that has been “stretched”.
Actions: Did they do it or just allude to it?
Let’s say a new counsellor is in a supervision session, talking about a client who was suicidal. The supervisor asks, “Did you ask him if he intended to kill himself?” If the counsellor feels shame because she was unable to bring herself to ask that directly of the client, she may try to “fudge” the supervisor’s question, alluding to that intervention and other actions she should have taken, without directly saying that she did take them (which would be a blatant lie). Thus her response could go something like, “After the client said how depressed he had been feeling, I thought it was important to bring the talk around to suicidal ideation. I wanted to know how close he was to not coping and wondered if he had planned to finish his life. He needed to be heard around his angst, and thankfully he was feeling better today.”
Without further probing, the supervisor may never find out that the client was better today because his wife took him to the emergency room after he took the overdose of pills and the medical personnel there treated him effectively. The allusions referred to by the counsellor suggest, rather, that it was a therapeutic conversation — including talking about suicidal ideation and whether the client planned to kill himself, and the counsellor listening effectively — that helped the client to feel better today. In fact, such conversation may have been merely alluded to, not actualised.
Lack of detail
Somewhat counterintuitively, it is the truthful among us who may offer narratives with extraneous specific detail. When we retrieve an incident from long-term memory, that event is stored along with myriad other facts about the experience, many of which may be irrelevant to the matter at hand. We report them anyway, as a way of retrieving the whole event from storage. For example, let’s say a client is traumatised by a sense of guilt that she could not save her little brother from drowning in recent community flooding. As the flood waters came rushing through, carrying off the little brother, the client may have recalled seeing a bright sunset in the sky, or smelled raw sewage. Neither of those details may be relevant to the drowning, but if they were present at the drowning, the client may report them as part of the experience. This “tangential verbal data” (Rudacille, 1994) is considered to be a prime indicator that someone is telling the truth.
Conversely, a person who purposely drowned someone would only want to volunteer a minimal amount of (false) details, thereby hoping to minimise the risk that any part of his statement might be found to be untruthful. The fewer facts that might be proved false, the more likely a person is to succeed in the lie. Liars keep it simple and brief.
Narrative in equilibrium
If, as a mental health professional, you are uncertain of the veracity of a client’s story, you can check against the following guide whether the narrative is balanced in terms of three parts: the prologue, the critical event, and the aftermath. The prologue (containing background information and descriptions of events happening before the critical event) should be about 20 to 25%. The critical event — the most important occurrence in a truthful narrative — should get about 40 to 60% of the verbiage, and the aftermath, describing what happened after the critical event, should take up about 25 to 35% of the space. If the balance is seriously off this, with one part being significantly longer or shorter than this, you can wonder what is being left out of the narrative, or possibly padded into it. The missing bits may be protecting a client’s guilt, anger, sense of shame, or other intense emotions. The off-balance story may be disguising part of the client’s process that, as the helping professional, you need to know about.
Mean length of utterance
How lengthy are your client’s utterances generally? Most people speak in sentences of between 10 and 15 words (ACFE Self-Study CPE Course, 2009, in Clikeman, 2012). When anxious about an issue, people significantly shorten or lengthen their mean length of utterance, or MLU (the average number of words in each of their sentences). So, for example, let’s say you have a client who has been coming for a while and her typical MLU is a moderate 12 or 13 words per sentence most of the time. Then one day, as she begins to talk about an early relationship with a stepfather who sexually abused her, her speech gets very fast, her breath gets shallow, and she seems to be speaking in one endless sentence. You may be getting very close to the point of disclosure about the abuse, which part of her may still want to keep from sharing: hence, her “waterfalling” around the issue with a changed MLU.
Alternatively, suppose you have a young man dealing with abandonment issues whose father left the family when he was a toddler and whose mother died when he was a young adolescent, upon which he was somehow left alone by all the state services that should have supported him. If, as he begins to describe that time, his sentences become short, choppy, and halting, he may be finding it difficult to talk about the issue due to deep-seated shame or a sense that he was/is so unlovable and devoid of value that no one was even concerned about him. The point with both of these examples is that, when the MLU is changed from what it typically is, you may want to look more deeply into the client’s process, as there is likely to be something there that they find uncomfortable to reveal.
In this article, we have examined the ways which — whether for morally reprehensible reasons such as covering wrongdoing or relatively benign reasons such as shame over former treatment — clients may use language in order to avoid disclosure or to create a different impression from what is strictly truthful. Whether it is omitting personal references, speaking in the wrong tense, avoiding questions, or merely changing the length of sentences, human beings have multiple linguistic means at their disposal when they wish to engage in deception.
We have seen over this series on lying how very closely the act of deception is tied to our existence as beings living in communication with other beings. By engaging the skills necessary to mislead others, we may be gaining cognitive or other skills, but we clearly risk damaging the very relationships that were important enough for us to have lied in the first place. One principal way of engaging deception is through the way we use language. We encourage readers to look into other aspects of this broad and deeply fascinating topic.
- Clikeman, P.M. (2012). The 10 telltale signs of deception. Fraud magazine. Retrieved on 23 September, 2019, from: Website.
- Rudacille, W. C. (1994). Identifying lies in disguise. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall Hunt Publishing Co. ISBN-10: 0840391757 ISBN-13: 978-0840391759.