Can one test for veracity? There are many popular misconceptions of the accurateness of lie detecting methods, such as polygraph testing. What can you do to ascertain if someone is lying or being truthful? There may be no scientifically proven, universally accepted methods for detecting lies. However, in today’s blog, LESA’s Distinguished Adviser, the Honourable J.E. Côté, explores one theory for explaining how certain important cues may help you distinguish between truths and falsities.
One always has the air of someone who is lying when one speaks to a policeman.”
–Charles Louis Philippe (1874 – 1909), Les chroniques du canard sauvage
Can lawyers or judges really tell whether someone is lying? How? This is a difficult question. We wish we had a universal method.
Psychologists have carefully researched how to detect lies for a century, but without much certainty. Aside from US “Secret Service” Treasury agents (who chase counterfeiters), no profession or occupation has been found to be much better at detecting a liar that chance would produce.
One study even suggested that studying a transcript is more useful than seeing and hearing witness live!
However, we all know that nonverbal communication can be helpful: tone of voice, posture, facial expression, certain gestures, and so forth. Some of us have trouble making use of that, but others are sure they can “read” people that way. Some people seem to have an instinctive feel for who is lying. Many more think they do.
The basic principles of non-verbal communication are simple:
- One isolated sign is not worth much, especially if you are not familiar with the person and her manner
- A constellation of signs pointing the same way is much better
- Often a sudden change of expression, posture, etc. is more revealing than a constant manner
- Discrepancies can be significant, e.g. a discrepancy between the person’s words and his nonverbal behaviour
Could any similar principles be applied to speech? Could reading a verbatim transcript tell more than does the logical content of the language? Is there such a thing as verbal non-verbal communication?
Some people think so, but the theory is controversial. The RCMP used this approach to focus on the man who used explosives to murder 8 fellow miners during a strike in Yellowknife. They used the specific techniques refined in Israel by Avinoam Sapir. He had expanded on some theories of German psychologists. For many years, Sapir taught and wrote on this topic.
I cannot vouch for the validity of such techniques. Indeed, some bodies and writers are very critical of Sapir. But his ideas are interesting to think about: particularly if they are used cautiously and not as a simple litmus test. Recall the famous untrue deposition (examination for discovery) of Bill Clinton, the one which got him convicted and fined for contempt. It displayed many of the features set out below.
Here are some of the different presumptions and techniques that Sapir would apply. He would want to see a verbatim transcript of an uninterrupted statement by a witness in his own words.
Sapir’s starting point is to suggest that most people dislike lying, so liars often prefer to tell part of the truth and omit the rest. Many books on cross-examination make the same point.
Be wary if someone plainly implies that he is innocent, but never really comes out and expressly says so. There are many ways people try to do that. Such a person may talk about:
- What other people or things did, not what himself did;
- What the group did;
- A different time, place, or condition;
- What habitually or conditionally would happen or should have happened (watch for the subjunctive or the conditional);
- Plans or intentions, not actual events; or
- A topic similar to the question, but not quite the same
Watch carefully for omitted events, including:
- Vague descriptions of long periods (“we horsed around”)
- Words indicating time jumps, such as after that, and then, started, began, continued, proceeded, or completed
- Evident big jumps in time
Indeed, watch for any type of failure to answer the question. Lawyers tend to notice that, but non-lawyers often do not notice. Some lay people habitually do not focus on the question, and so often do not answer questions. But others tend to answer. Thus a switch in their manner may be significant.
Watch for failure to mention some obvious or important person.
The wrong tense sometimes is odd. Is a missing person or piece of evidence referred to in the past tense (“loved horses”)? Does the speaker know that he, she, or it is dead or destroyed? Conversely, a narrative of past events should use the past tense; using the present tense for it is odd, especially if it is not the speaker’s habitual way of talking. Could it mean that the speaker is making it up, or are they not recalling it?
Wrong pronouns – such as inappropriate “our” or “we” – or the absence of any pronoun or possessive could mean something. Does the speaker want to distance himself from something or someone or to simply imply consent?
Odd prepositions may also be a clue. Prepositions should indicate the proper place and position of objects and people.
A sudden change in the word used to refer to the same person (or object) may be a sign of something.
It may be significant that the story leaves unclear what happened. Or that the ratio of questions to answers is high.
Sudden change to the passive voice may indicate that the speaker wants to obscure who did something or to distance himself from the act or the results. That is a common feature of many people’s speech or writing.
It is suspicious if a narrative, which so far has given appropriate details, suddenly becomes bald, omitting any detail. It is even odder if it omits memorable conditions like bad weather or a big event going on nearby. Or if it now omits all dialogue.
Conversely, a true narrative often contains curious little observations or details, even little facts which seem unusual or contradictory. It may well contain details that are sincere but misunderstood. It may recite delays, false starts, minor mishaps and errors, and things embarrassing to the narrator.
A story’s main event (such as a fire, accident, or crime) is ordinarily told in at least as many words as the preceding prologue or the following epilogue. If not, the main event should consume at least as many words as its proportion of actual clock time which it occupied. It is odd if one of these is not the case or if sentences suddenly get shorter at the key point.
A long prologue may suggest stalling and reluctance to discuss the hard part. Brevity of the central part may come from a lack of actual details or unwillingness to reveal them.
Time and Space
A true story should be more or less chronological (or be in the order that the narrator learned the facts). Be leery of the story arranged by topic, not order of events.
A true story by someone 12 or older should be well anchored in time and space. Honest people usually mention what was going on or what they were doing. A story by an adult of normal intelligence with no time or space might be sincere, but it may well not be accurate.
Argument and Disagreement
Watch for talk designed as much to convenience as to narrate. Note explanations or justifications. They can be subtle as a word, such as therefore or so. Watch for undue amounts of explanation or talk about what the narrator does not know or does not remember. Also be aware of too many asides.
Different honest people will remember different details, so omission of something may be insignificant. But actual conflicts between witnesses about something, which is more than details, may mean something.
People not legally trained do not often emphasize lack of certainty in their own narrative. But a person who is not frank, or is afraid of being accused of deliberate lying, may emphasize such uncertainty or hazy memory. If events recounted are recent, that is unusual.
Sapir used to group all these possible signs into a number of distinct categories. He recommended that one photocopy a verbatim transcript, and then carefully reread it a number of times. Each time, one should watch for a single category of signs and use a distinct colour of highlighter pen. When that process is finished, what does the marked up transcript show? It might show that one type of sign was more a constant personal quirk than an indicator. But if much of the transcript is left largely unmarked, yet one passage is mottled with many colours, that is suspicious.
What do you think?
Honourable J.E. Côté
LESA Distinguished Adviser