Common responses that should not be ignored
Detecting deception using verbal cues remains a difficult task. The best method to predict deception compares what a person says against external evidence or known truth. At best, certain statements can indicate a higher probability of deception, but there's no one verbal cue that accurately predicts deception. However, certain words or groups of words can signal an area in an utterance wherein deception is likely to occur. If the conversation is important, knowing where potential deception resides can provide a distinct advantage, in business or social interactions.
John R. “Jack” Schafer, Ph.D. is a professor at Western Illinois University in the Law Enforcement and Justice Administration (LEJA) Department. He is a retired FBI Special Agent. He served as behavioral analyst assigned to FBI's National Security Behavioral Analysis Program. He authored a book titled “Psychological Narrative Analysis: A Professional Method to Detect Deception in Written and Oral Communications.” He also co-authored a book titled “Advanced Interviewing Techniques: Proven strategies for Law Enforcement, Military, and Security Personnel.” He has published numerous articles on a wide range of topics including the psychopathology of hate, ethics in law enforcement, and detecting deception. Dr. Schafer earned his Ph.D. in psychology at Fielding Graduate University, Santa Barbara, California.
Editor: Nadeem Noor
The following five statements should raise your red flag of deception:
1. “That’s about it.”
The word “about” is a word qualifier, which indicates the speaker has more to say but does not want to elaborate. If the speaker told the entire story, his or her response would be, “That’s it.” The word “about” signals that the response falls short of the entire story. Truthful people relate all the facts without fear of legal or social consequences. A deceptive person does not tell the complete story because there's something they don't want to disclose.
2. “You can’t prove that.”
The word “prove” suggests that evidence exists to verify the supposition or accusation posited, but the speaker failed to discover the hidden proof. Honest people do not think in terms of proof: They know that no evidence exists because they did not do what the speaker accused. Deceptive people know proof of their deception exists but the speaker has not yet discovered sufficient evidence to support the accusation.
3. “Why would I do that?”
Answering a question with a question is a huge red flag indicating the possibility of deception. Honest people make direct denials. They typically respond, “I didn’t do that.” Deceptive people are evasive, and when they are caught off guard, they need extra time to think of a believable response. A response like, “Why would I do that?” buys the deceptive person precious time to formulate such a response.
4. “Are you accusing me?”
In addition to answering a question with a question, the accused may subtly try to turn the tables on his or her accuser, putting the questioner on the defensive. The unspoken words of the accused are, “How dare you accuse me? Prepare to defend yourself.” This subtle counterattack prompts the accuser to justify his or her accusations. In doing so, the accused buys time to press a counterattack or prepare a believable story. The simple answer to this question: “Yes, I am accusing you, or I would not have brought the topic up in the first place.” This response parries the counterattack and puts the accused back on the defensive.
5. “I don’t remember doing that.”
Deceptive people often claim lack of memory as a way to cover the truth. This defense sets two traps for dissemblers:
First, in order to not remember what you did, you must first have an extant memory of the event. By definition, to not remember something you must have initially stored the information in your memory. The lack of memory indicates that the memory is stored in the brain but that the person cannot retrieve it. Truthful people typically respond, “I don’t know.” Lack of memory suggests the person cannot retrieve a memory and, therefore, does not know what happened. Honest people strive to do anything they can to retrieve the memory of an event. Deceptive people do not want to reveal remembered information for fear of revealing the truth.
The second trap is similar. A person cannot say, “I don’t remember doing that,” unless the person remembers what he or she actually did. The word “that” suggests the person did not remember doing a specific set of actions. In order to say, “I didn’t do that,” the person has to know what he or she did do. Logically, how can a person say he or she does not remember doing something when they have no memory of the event? The word “that” suggests memory of an event.
The questioner’s response to this gambit should be, “What do you remember doing?” Honest people will tell you what they remember doing, to support their alibi. Dishonest people usually cling to the lack of memory by saying, “I don’t know what I did.” Here the questioner's response should be, “If you don’t know what you did, it is possible that you did exactly what I described.” Deceptive people make no attempt to retrieve a memory of an action for fear of revealing the truth.
The key to detecting deception is to listen carefully to what someone tells you. Words do not simply fall from people’s mouths. They have meaning and are a direct representation of what a person is thinking: Words can, and do, reveal deception.