Laughter and the Detection of Deception

Written By: Reid
Oct 01, 2003

Recently my wife and I attended her high school reunion. While such reunions are marketed as a great time and an opportunity to get re-acquainted, in truth they are very anxiety provoking. The reunion forces classmates to reveal occupational and marital failures, the success or disappointments of raising a family, health problems and the undeniable effects of aging. As my wife became engaged in conversation I sat back and observed the people in the room. I heard talking and a great deal of laughter. This observation reminded me of something I learned years ago in a psychology class -- people relieve stress and anxiety by talking and laughing.

During any formal interview intended to assess a person's credibility, the subject of the interview will experience anxiety and general nervous tension. Consequently, laugher or attempts at humor by the subject will be a natural outlet for anxiety. Under some circumstances, however, laughter can be a behavior symptom of deception. The following guidelines are offered to assist in the investigator's interpretation of a subject's laughter or attempts at humor.

Attempts at humor

When a truthful suspect is being interviewed concerning a crime, common sense would indicate that the person should be very concerned and serious. On the other hand, because the suspect is experiencing anxiety, it is not uncommon for the truthful suspect to engage in some levity in an effort to relieve general nervous tension. As an example, during the early minutes of an interview a verified truthful suspect was asked, "What do most people call you?" The suspect's response was, "Well most people call me George except when I'm in trouble with my girl-friend, then she calls me all sorts of nasty names (laugh)." As the interview progressed, the suspect made no further efforts at attempted humor. The fact that the suspect's humorous statement occurred at the beginning of the interview points to general anxiety release and should not be used as a behavior symptom of deception.

Consider a situation where the suspect's interjected humor comes much later during the interview. After about 20 minutes into the interview the investigator asked the suspect, "If you were given a polygraph examination on (issue) what would your results be?" The suspect's response was, "I'm such a nervous wreck because of these allegations the needles would probably go all over the place and I'd break the machine (laugh)." The timing of this humor, along with the implied prediction that he would fail the examination, both support deception.

Another category of attempted humor can be described as sarcastic humor. Sarcasm is often a veiled truth. For example, a suspect is asked, "Have you ever thought about forcing a woman to have sex with you?", and he answers, "Oh definitely. I spend all of my time thinking about ways to get women to succumb to my male desires (laugh)." The suspect's answer is an implied denial, but the literal interpretation about his underlying fantasies is probably closer to the truth.

Evaluating the smile

A forced or insincere smile is often used to disguise dislike or anxiety. Consider the situation where two opposing attorneys meet to discuss their current litigation. Following the introduction they shake hands (a custom to demonstrate that neither are carrying weapons) and offer a forced smile when replying, "It is a pleasure to meet you." With an insincere smile, often the lips barely part and the smile lasts for only a second or two.

On the other hand, a genuine smile reflects acceptance and appreciation. A sincere smile will involve a full parting of the lips and will last an appropriate length of time. An important aspect of evaluating the sincerity of a smile is the context in which the smile occurs. When I arrive at a training site and meet the course coordinator who informs me that the outline books have arrived and he has the AV equipment all set up and ready for me to use, my smile reflects genuine appreciation.

However, consider the smile in the context of an interview. I am about to walk into a room to assess the credibility of a suspect accused of selling classified documents to a foreign government. As I enter the room the suspect gets out of the chair and vigorously shakes my hand. While smiling ear-to-ear he says, "It's a real pleasure to meet you Mr. Jayne. You have such a neat job and, by the way, that's a really nice suit you're wearing." Instantly I know that I have just shaken the hand of a liar. No person (innocent or guilty) enjoys coming to our office for an interview. The phony smile this suspect offered is of the variety associated with a used car salesmen - it is too broad, too frequent and inappropriate given the nature of our interaction.

During a different context, the interrogation, the investigator may see the guilty suspect smile partially in what might be called a smirk. This slight smile involves the closed lips twisting in an upward turn. Often, when a suspect smirks the investigator assumes it is a symptom of defiance and cockiness and may stimulate a defensive remark such as, "Wipe that smile off your face when I'm talking to you." In truth, the suspect has little conscious awareness that he is forming a slight smile. In many instances, the smirk is a symptom of accepting the investigator's statements and underlying guilt feelings. It is a symptom that the suspect is getting close to making the first admission of guilt, and the investigator should recognize it as such.

Evaluating the laugh

Psychologically, the laugh relieves much more anxiety than a mere smile and sends much stronger social signals. Studies show that laughter lowers blood pressure and stress hormones, that mutual laughter builds stronger interpersonal relationships and that people who laugh easily are judged to be more approachable and trusted than individuals who rarely laugh. With respect to detecting deception during an interview, an investigator should consider three primary causes for a suspect to laugh.

The first cause for laughter during an interview is anxiety release. This should be associated equally with truthful and deceptive suspects. The nervous suspect will look for any excuse to laugh to relieve anxiety. For example, the investigator may ask to see the suspect's driver's license and, in retrieving it from a wallet or purse, the suspect drops it on the floor. Upon picking it up the suspect may respond, "I'm a little nervous talking to you, sorry (laugh)." This is ambiguous laughter and should not be associated with truth or deception.

A second cause for laughter during an interview is associated with interjected humor. Consider the suspect who is asked, "What do you think should happen to the person who took the money?", and the suspect responds, "I'd like to get my hands on him first (laugh). But I guess jail would be the best place for him." This suspect's laughter is appropriate in that he is initially suggesting an exaggerated illegal means of punishment and offers a humorous solution. Appropriate laughter of this nature, in and of itself, is not a behavior symptom of deception.

The final, and most important cause for laughter (from a detection of deception perspective) is laughter that can be considered inappropriate. Psychologists refer to this behavior as erasure because it has the psychological effect of erasing the meaning of the statement. To appreciate erasure consider the nonverbal behavior of winking. If I make a comment to a coworker, which is not intended to be taken seriously, I may wink after making the comment. The wink erases the meaning of my words. Similarly, deceptive suspects may erase the meaning of their words through an inappropriate laugh.

As with all behavior symptoms, when evaluating a laugh as possible erasure the investigator must evaluate the timing of the laugh. The following are all examples of verified deceptive suspects whose laughter followed a significant statement:

Q: "Who do you think stole this $200?"

A: "No one. I don't even know that it was stolen (laugh)."

Q: "Once we complete our entire investigation, how do you think it will come out on you? "

A: "Clean (laugh)."

Q: "Have you ever just thought about having sexual contact with a child?"

A: "That thought repulses me (laugh). "

On the other hand, when a laugh occurs prior to a statement, or in the middle of an innocuous statement, the investigator should not consider it as possible erasure. The following examples both illustrate insignificant laughter:

Q: "How do you feel about being interviewed concerning this missing money? "

A: "(Laugh) Kind of scared, I guess. I've never had to go through anything like this before."

Q: "Have you ever been questioned before concerning missing money?"

A: "Never. That's why this whole thing, you know, (laugh) is so weird."

As these guidelines suggest, when a suspect laughs inappropriately during an interview the investigator should ask himself, "What did the suspect just say?" If the laughter followed a significant statement (usually a denial or a stated position on an issue), erasure should be suspected. On the other hand, laughter that occurs during an interrogation should almost always be considered inappropriate. Because of the accusatory nature of the interrogation, the wrongfully accused suspect will not relieve anxiety by making light of the accusations and laughing them away. The truly innocent suspect's anxiety will escalate to anger and frustration which will be directed at the investigator.

In conclusion, because laughter and humor relieve anxiety, it is common for both truthful and deceptive suspects to engage in these behaviors during an interview. The mere presence of laughter or attempted humor during an interview should not be considered a behavior symptom of deception. However, by considering the timing and context of the behavior, laughter or attempted humor may become a meaningful symptom of deception. In the context of an interrogation, laughter or levity is inappropriate and should be associated with the deceptive suspect.

To learn more about subtle forms of behavior symptom analysis, consider ordering The Investigator Anthology, available through our web site.

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