No one wants people to lie to them. Yet, I have encountered numerous parents, teachers and investigators who regularly invite deceptive answers from people they question. I am certain they do not do this intentionally. Rather, these individuals have little understanding of the psychology of deception. This web tip is written for individuals who are not dealing with rapists and murderers everyday. Rather, it is written for those of us who face everyday issues about a person's credibility.
The Importance of Privacy
Many years ago when my oldest son was in middle school he witnessed an incident of sexual harassment in the hallway near his locker (reaching under the blouse of a student to touch her breast). The victim had filed a complaint and asked my son to come forward as a witness, which he agreed to do. The vice principal conducted the investigation. He asked all parties involved (two suspects, the victim and my son) to sit together in a room and relate their accounts in the presence of each other. This arrangement produced the predicted results. The two suspects stuck with their story of non-involvement, the victim related her account of the incident which my son corroborated. The vice principal ruled that since neither of the two accused offenders acknowledged putting their hand under the victim's blouse, there was insufficient evidence to act on the complaint!
It is expecting a great deal to ask anyone to make admissions against self-interest. Asking them to make these admissions in the presence of others is clearly inviting deception.
The city I live in has a recycling center which I occasionally visit. The person who oversees the center is a crabby old man who believes it is a Federal offense if you mix colored and clear glass and that failure to remove a ballast from a florescent fixture is a capital crime. He has all of the regulations memorized and I learned long ago not to ask him what was proper procedure because he would spend three minutes citing regulations and make me feel stupid for not knowing them. While I am a very law-abiding citizen, this man is such a jerk I would lie in a heartbeat to him and not feel any guilt whatsoever.
While it is true that some timid individuals will change their answers when they feel threatened or intimidated, there is no guarantee that information learned through coercion is truthful. The "tough-guy" approach during an interview certainly does not encourage truthfulness. Rather, the more authoritative or judgmental the questioner becomes, the more motivated a person is to lie to that person. Part of the reason for this is that a judgmental attitude serves to remind the person of the consequences he faces if he tells the truth. The other reality is that it goes against human nature to cooperate with somewhat whom we do not respect. To reveal the truth to another person often requires a significant level of trust and understanding toward the confidant with whom we decided to share our "secret".
If an individual is interested in learning the truth from another person, it is unreasonable to expect the other person to volunteer the truth. The truth must be elicited by asking the right questions. If my son comes home from a party and I ask him how the party was is he likely to answer, "Well dad it was a pretty good party. I smoked some marijuana and got really high." Absolutely not. He's much more likely to say, "The party was fine dad." It would be totally unreasonable for me to be upset with my son for not volunteering this incriminating information. If I want to learn if he used illegal drugs at the party I need to ask him that question.
Many people, including criminal investigators, are uncomfortable asking questions that may elicit an incriminating response, so they soften the impact of the question. This, of course, makes the question easier to lie to. One way to soften the impact of a question is to include qualifying language. Consider the following examples:
"Ryan, did you happen to see any illegal drugs at the party?"
"Do you recall using any illegal drugs at the party?"
Ryan knows whether or not he used illegal drugs at the party. The use of qualifying language makes the question easier to lie to. The question should be simply phrased, "Ryan did you see any illegal drugs at the party?" and, "Did you use any illegal drugs at the party?"
The easiest question to lie to, however, is one that expects agreement to an assumption within the question. This is called a negative question. Examples of negative questions include:
"You were good for the baby sitter, weren't you?"
"There weren't any drugs at the party, were there?"
"You don't know anything about the fire in your neighbor's garage, do you?"
As these examples illustrate, it is highly improbable for a person to correct the implication within a negative question, and tell the truth, e.g., "No mommy you're wrong. I was a holy terror with the baby sitter."
An interesting paradox exists within most human beings when it comes to deception. The average person who is properly socialized does not enjoy lying. This is especially true when the person they are lying to is someone they respect. Counteracting this influence is that fact that no one wants to suffer the consequences of telling the truth. Thus, almost every person who has done something wrong or who is ashamed of something they did is caught in a conflict between these two drives. Most people resolve this conflict by telling the truth a little bit at a time. It is a very naïve parent, teacher or investigator who expects a person to all of a sudden decide to tell the full and complete truth.
In most instances, the truth is learned in small steps and only after a reasonable period of time. In the previous example of illegal drug use at a party, the questions asked to develop this information should be designed to gradually commit the person to more incriminating information. For example:
Elicit an admission that drugs were present at the party
Elicit an admission that people were using drugs at the party
Elicit an admission of being offered drugs at the party
Elicit an admission of experimenting with drugs at the party.
Frequently investigators fail to appreciate how difficult it is for a suspect who is facing significant consequences to tell the truth. After failing to elicit a full confession when initially asking the suspect if he committing the crime, the investigator breeze over the rest of the interview questions and quickly jumps to the interrogation. Similarly, the parent or teacher offers the child one chance to tell the truth and if the child does not completely come clean, the parent goes into the punishment mode and forgets about learning the truth.
This article is not intended to imply that if an investigator uses proper techniques that most criminal suspects will offer a full confession through the interviewing process. Because of the significant consequences facing most criminal offenders, under that circumstance, interrogation is often the only means to learn the truth. However, there are many issues that can be resolved through the interviewing process.