The Role Of Consequences in Detecting Deception

Written By: Reid
Jun 01, 2003

The motivation behind every lie is the avoid the consequences of telling the truth. When my wife came home with bags of merchandise from a K-Mart store that was closing my truthful sediments were, We don't need any of this stuff; why did you buy it? My deceitful response to her was, "That was some sale -- it looks like you saved a lot of money." Why did I lie? I wanted to avoid the consequences of having an argument over my wife's spending habits. A recent discussion with one of my sons revealed that a class-mate often lied through exaggeration. This boy lied about his father's occupation, about seeing particular movies and about where his family went on vacation. Why did the student lie? Again to avoid the consequences of telling the truth which (in his mind) would have decreased his value as a potential friend. Similarly, when a suspect lies during an interview about his involvement in a crime he is doing so to avoid the consequences of telling the truth.

Types of Consequences

There are two types of consequences criminal suspects avoid through their deception. The first can be termed tangible consequences because they affect a measurable aspect of the suspect's life. Examples of tangible consequences include loss of freedom, income or livelihood. The other type of consequence a suspect may avoid through lying is personal in nature. Examples of personal consequences include loss of esteem, ego, or perceived self-worth. The type of consequence a suspect most fears (tangible or personal) is important to identify when preparing an interrogation strategy.

Consider two robbery suspects. The first one is lying about committing the robbery to avoid going to jail which would mean losing his job. Without a job he will not be able to pay rent and buy food for his family. This suspect may relate well to interrogation statements centered around his honorable intentions for committing the robbery, in that the money was needed for his family. The second robbery suspect is most concerned about personal consequences. He is active in his local church and admired by his family. This suspect needs to be persuaded, during the interrogation, that his family and friends will understand his momentary lapse of judgement but will only be able to forgive him if he tells the truth.

While the association between consequences and deception appears to be self-evident, there are still investigators who have not made this connection. During their interrogations they remind the suspect of how much trouble he is in and emphasize the seriousness of the crime. The investigator may relate the possible length of sentence the suspect is facing and how difficult prison life will be for him. The investigator may even comment on how the suspect will never be able to get a job in the community again or that his family and friends will disown him because of what he has done. While these types of statements may intimidate and scare some suspects into confessing, generally they only serve to fortify the suspect's determination to lie.

Reducing Consequences

A successful interrogator is a master at legally reducing perceived consequences associated with acts of wrong-doing. This should start during the interview process. While an investigator must truthfully inform the suspect as to what offense he would like to question him about, there is no legal obligation to advise the suspect whether the offense is a misdemeanor, a felony or the possible penalties the suspect faces if he is guilty. It is psychologically wrong to bring up possible consequences for committing a crime, especially when the investigator is interested in learning the truth from the suspect.

During an interrogation, the investigator's choice of words can either increase or decrease perceived consequences associated with a crime. It is much easier for a suspect to acknowledge "causing the death" of his wife rather than murdering her. Similarly, when confronting a suspect accused of auto theft, the suspect should be told that the investigation indicates he did "take a car without permission" not that he stole a car. Once the crime has been mentioned at the outset of the interrogation, all future references to it should be vague such as, "What happened to your wife" or, "The incident last week with the car."

The investigator's demeanor also influences the suspect's perceptions of consequences. An investigator who comes across as gruff and authoritative sends a message to the suspect that if he tells the truth he will face severe consequences. On the other hand, if the investigator is perceived as understanding toward the suspect's crime, the impression is that what the suspect did is not that bad, or at least is understandable given the suspect's circumstances. Especially when interrogating a suspect facing personal consequences, the suspect may form a belief that if the investigator can understand why he committed the crime, so too will his family and colleagues.

Addressing Consequences

Does this mean that an investigator should never bring up consequences during an interrogation? Not necessarily. However, when possible tangible consequences are mentioned, the investigator must be careful not to enhance the significance of consequences in the suspect's mind. Not only is this psychologically undesirable, but doing so may lead to a claim of a threat of inevitable consequence, where the investigator convinces the suspect that he is going to suffer negative consequences regardless of his stated innocence. The safest way to bring up tangible consequences during an interrogation is through a negative argument.

An example of a negative argument is a situation where a boy asks his father if he will be punished for getting into a fight at school. The father may respond,

"Well, I'm not going to ground you for the rest of your life." The statement may imply leniency but certainly does not state it. If the father decides to ground his son for a week because of the fight, the punishment is not inconsistent with the father's earlier statement. Television commercials frequently use negative arguments to avoid charges of deceptive advertisement practices. There was a television ad for a power painter where the person painting with a brush asks his neighbor using the power painter if the device is expensive. The neighbor's response was, "Its not as expensive as you think." A great deal of persuasive information can be transmitted through negative arguments.

Negative arguments are often used to minimize the moral seriousness of the crime during an interrogation. A suspect who stole $2000 in money from his job may be told,

"It's not like you stuck a gun in someone's face and robbed them." A child molester may be told, "It's not like you held a knife to her throat and raped her." In hearing these statements the guilty suspect may come to believe that he deserves special treatment because what he did could have been much worse - even though the investigator never mentioned possible leniency at all.

During an interrogation a suspect may specifically ask about tangible consequences. A common way to bring this up is to ask,

"What would happen to me if I did this?" The investigator's response should be something like the following. "I don't have the authority to tell you one way or another and I'm not going to lie to you and tell you that I do. Now, I doubt if the judge is going to shake your hand and pin a medal on your chest." During an interrogation of an employee suspected of sabotage the investigator might state, "I doubt if the company is going to give you a raise and a company car." A homeowner being interrogated on falsifying an insurance claim could be told, "I doubt if your premiums will go down." These responses each avoid any possible promise of leniency and also use a negative argument to allow the suspect to recognize that there will be some consequence associated with his crime.

Another occasion when it is appropriate to mention consequences during an interrogation is when the suspect appears to be ready to make the first admission of guilt but does not. This suspect is often operating from a frame of mind, "Even though they know I committed the crime, if I keep my mouth shut I may still be able to escape consequences." This suspect needs to hear the message that he cannot guarantee avoiding possible consequences simply by continuing to deny involvement in the offense. Under this circumstance the investigator may tell the suspect, "Now I'm not saying that if you tell me you did this nothing will happen to you. I'd be a liar if I said that." This statement informs the suspect that he may still be punished for the crime yet, in no way, threatens inevitable consequences.

The legal prohibitions against making promises during an interrogation apply only to tangible consequences. When interrogating a suspect who is most concerned with personal consequences, the investigator can be more direct in his statements designed to reduce these fears. For example, a suspect could be told,

"I'm sure your wife will understand why this thing happened and will forgive you" or, "Your parents will never stop loving you. It's the nature of being a parent." Some negative arguments that can be used in this situation include, "I'm not going to put your picture up on the cafeteria bulletin board", "I'm not going to call the local paper and have them run a headline article on what you did" or, "I'm not going to get on the phone and tell your wife what happened." As a legal aside, promises such as these that are made during an interrogation are permissible provided the interrogator keeps the promise.


Because all suspects lie to avoid the consequences of telling the truth, the number of suspects who confess during an interrogation would significantly increase if the investigator could offer a promise of leniency in exchange for a confession. However, a quid pro quo promise of leniency by an investigator will almost certainly result in a confession being suppressed. Nonetheless, there are legal procedures an investigator can employ to minimize the association between telling the truth and facing the consequences of his crime. This includes the investigator assuming a nonjudgmental attitude and using soft language to describe the crime. When addressing consequences, negative arguments, which tell the suspect what will not happen, are often effective in allowing the suspect to perceive reduced consequences without offering a promise of leniency.

Permission is hereby granted to those who wish to share or copy this article. In those instances, the following Credit Statement must be included "This Investigator Tip was developed by John E. Reid and Associates Inc. 800-255-5747 /" Inquiries regarding Investigator Tips should be directed to Toni Overman