If you suspect someone is lying, new research suggests how to uncover the truth.

We've been hearing a lot about lying, facts, and “alternative facts." This fresh focus on truth-telling leads to the question of how to figure out whether people you know are providing you with alternatives to the truth. Psychologists suggest all sorts of ways to figure out how to sniff out a fibber, but so far none provide ironclad guidelines. Among professionals in law enforcement, this is more than an academic question: It can literally be a matter of life and death. A new technique by John Jay College’s Timothy Luke and colleagues describes a procedure for law enforcement officers which also has the potential help those of us who just want to get to the bottom what people are telling us.

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D.,Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is currently a professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The author of over 160 refereed articles and book chapters and 16 books (many in multiple editions and translations), her most recent popular work is The Search for Fulfillment (January 2010, Ballantine Books). She also writes for the Huffington Post's "Post 50" blog and is a frequent commentator on local, national, and international media outlets and has appeared on the Today Show, NBC Nightly News, Dateline, CNN, Olbermann, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Money Magazine, USA Today, and Time.com.

Editor: Nadeem Noor

Luke and his collaborators describe their Strategic Use of Evidence (SUE) procedure as a way to plan, structure, and conduct an interview with a criminal suspect. Its premise is that “liars and truth-tellers use different strategies to convince” (p. 271). Liars will offer as little information as possible because they don’t want to be caught in an inconsistency with the actual facts, and truth-tellers will offer very complete answers to questions because they have nothing to hide.

The SUE procedure uses a “funnel” approach in which you first ask for a free narrative of events followed by increasingly specific questions. Using this procedure, you don’t present the evidence first because this gives the liar information that he or she can use to construct a scenario that just so happens to match that evidence.

Let’s start with an example of how this might work: Suppose a co-worker told you that he sent an email that you later discover he did not send. As a result of his ineptitude and cover-up, you and your office look inefficient. Or perhaps your roommate or partner claims to have paid a bill, although they never did. In both cases, something was supposed to happen that didn’t, but it was easily discovered by you. It’s clear that you’ve been lied to, but you’re not sure how to get the other person to admit to the truth.

The SUE procedure is intended for use in determining who’s lying when someone is a “suspect” in the legal sense, but it's also useful in these situations when someone you know has been dishonest. In these cases, your goal isn't to discover the truth about that act, but to reveal the other person's deception.

You can get your own "suspect" to admit the truth, the Luke et al. team suggests, by asking the individual to tell you what happened in an open-ended fashion: “So, when you sent that email, what response did you get?” You could then present some of the evidence you have, such as, “I didn’t see that response, though” (or “I didn’t see that bill pay record on the online bank app”). Now you might get a truthful admission of guilt, or another lie such as, “I must have accidentally deleted the email,” or “I’ve been having trouble with that email account. The response in the case of the bill might be more difficult to lie about, but it could take the form of “I know I submitted the payment; something must have gone wrong at the bank."

As your “questioning” proceeds, you can start to narrow the funnel even more, making it clear that you’ve done some investigating and found evidence of the missing email or payment. Eventually, depending on your relationship with this person, the truth will come out, according to the SUE model.

In the study, the “suspects” were 59 adults ranging from 19 to 74 years of age who were interviewed by 59 students and instructors at a U.S. federal law enforcement training facility in Georgia. The participants were experimentally assigned either to a truth-telling or lying condition regarding the theft of sensitive documents from a simulated bus station. Both innocent and guilty suspects handled the same materials (a briefcase containing those sensitive documents) in the process of locating supposed bus maps (that were not in fact present at the scene). The participants were enticed with the chance to win $100 if they could convince their interviewers that they were innocent.

The interrogators were divided into two groups—those who had received SUE training (treatment group) and those who had not (controls). After familiarizing themselves with the case files, they interrogated their assigned suspect for 30 minutes. The interviews were recorded and transcribed, and coded on the variables of withholding of evidence; disclosure of case facts; use of funnel-type questions; and the framing of evidence. Suspects were rated according to whether they volunteered information and whether their statements were inconsistent. The main variable of interest, though, was whether the interviewers correctly sniffed out the liars.

Interviewers trained in the SUE technique conducted their questioning in line with its principles. For the most part, they also were more accurate in detecting lies: 65 percent of those trained were correct vs. 43 percent of the untrained. The trained interviewers were also less likely than the untrained to withhold evidence, force inconsistencies out of their suspects, and engage in systematic questioning. Considering that the interviewers all had experience in law enforcement, the improvement of accuracy by SUE training suggests that the method has considerable value. 

If you work with or are in a relationship with someone who consistently lies, it might be worth considering taking a page from the SUE playbook in your future interactions with this person. When the lie is about a distinct event that did or did not happen, the funneling approach may help you improve your relationship with the person. If the individual is prone to “white lies,” or “inaccurate facts,” the task may be more difficult, but not impossible. With people you don’t know that well and whose lies don’t really matter to you, it may be sufficient to let those lies lie.

Fulfillment in relationships depends on honesty. When it’s not there, you can either leave those relationships or allow your partner to know that it’s OK to tell the truth—even if that truth means they didn't live up to their promises.