How to Detect a Liar: Research on Cultural Differences and Screening Devices

Do LP investigators know how to detect a liar when the subject of the interview speaks an entirely different language?

how to detect a liar

Since 1980, the percentage of people in the United States who primarily speak a language other than English has grown by 158 percent while the nation’s overall population has risen by a comparatively modest 37 percent. Such individuals now total 60 million, and 42 percent admit to speaking English less than “very well,” according to the US Census Bureau. As this is an official count, it likely does not reflect the full extent to which non-English speakers comprise company payrolls.

This has implications for public policymakers—but perhaps, too, for loss prevention investigators tasked with assessing the honesty of individuals, as an increase in employees who have a poor command of English can complicate investigations. For these individuals, perhaps traditional verbal signs of deception—such as selective wording, quasi-denials, qualifiers, and overly formal wording—are simply reflective of a struggle to communicate in a foreign language.

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It raises an important question: When non-native speakers and writers lie in English, do they use the same verbal markers of deception, regardless of their ethnicity or familiarity with the language? Do LP investigators know how to detect a liar when the subject of the interview speaks an entirely different language?

Researchers recently addressed that question in an effort to help law enforcement improve cross-cultural interviewing and interrogation. The results of the study, “Exploiting Verbal Markers of Deception Across Ethnic Lines: An Investigative Tool for Cross-Cultural Interviewing,” was published in 2015 by the FBI.

The study notes that as the nation becomes more diverse culturally and ethnic minorities continue to grow in numbers, scenarios increase in which officials need to make accurate assessments as to the veracity or deception of individuals with a poor command of English. Currently, however, “investigators trained to identify verbal indicators of deception and veracity in English often are uncertain as to the merits of these markers when they come face to face with someone in the process of learning it as a second language.”

Experiment. Researchers conducted a mock-theft scenario in which participants from four cultural/ethnic groups—Chinese, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, and European American—were asked to either steal a check from a file room and lie about it to investigators or not steal a check and tell the truth. For Chinese, Hispanic, and Middle Eastern test subjects, English was not their first language. Participants were asked to write a statement in English about their activities while in the file room and then interviewed.

Results. The same verbal markers of deception that investigators typically look for in native English speakers also existed in statements from participants representing the different cultural/ethnic groups, said researchers. They are:

  • Extraneous information: Truth tellers provide more details relevant to the question raised; conversely, liars provide more information that does not answer the question.
  • Equivocation: Deceptive persons often use intentionally vague or ambiguous words, such as “maybe,” “believe,” “kind of,” “sort of,” “about,” or “to the best of my knowledge.”
  • Non-prompted negation: When persons offer what they did not do in response to an open-ended question, a strong possibility exists that they are attempting to deceive. For example: “Tell me what you did last Thursday.” Answer: “I didn’t talk to anyone.”
  • Moderating adverbs: Markers of potential deception include intensifying adverbs to convince, such as “really,” “truthfully,” and “honestly”; minimizing adverbs to downplay, such as “only,” “just,” and “merely”; and editing adverbs to omit critical information, such as “after,” “then,” and “so.”

Conclusion. “For the investigator, the findings suggest that they can rely upon these verbal markers as dependable indicators of deception to look and listen for when analyzing a written statement or while interviewing an individual from a different cultural/ethnic group,” said researchers.
The study clearly shows that the merits of statement analysis as an investigative tool are not limited to native English speakers. “To the contrary, it is a valuable tool investigators can employ regardless of whether the interviewee is a native or nonnative English speaker,” the study concluded. “The study’s findings should bolster the confidence of investigators who obtain statements from or conduct interviews of individuals from different ethnic groups and have been trained to listen for, interpret, and exploit universal verbal markers of deception.”

53% vs. 68% to 83% vs. 69%

These figures represent the comparative percentages of: individuals’ ability to detect deception unaided vs. accomplishing detection with the aid of a polygraph test vs. identifying concealment using a new class of security screening device that could make industry waves as it undergoes commercialization.

Researchers wanted to see whether they could make a simple automated interface that could—without lengthy set-up and after just a few questions—provide a better-than-guesswork indication that a person is concealing information about target topics of interest. Polygraphs do, but the time it takes to set-up tests and the expertise necessary to administer them make them ill-suited in a security screening application.

The researchers constructed a prototype kiosk to see how well it could identify experimental subjects carrying “bombs” through a building security checkpoint. Individuals were instructed to look at a dot in the center of the kiosk screen. Then, four boxes appeared around the center dot, one containing the word related to concealed information—“bombs”—and three non-related words (“knives,” “handguns,” and “drugs”). Half of the test subjects were carrying mock bombs and half were carrying nothing illicit as they passed through screening.

Detection was based on reading the eye movements of test subjects. Researchers hypothesized that a bomb-carrying individual would be more likely than others to reflexively look at the word representing their guilty knowledge—at the word “bomb.” Then, as a defensive mechanism, those individuals would spend more time looking back at the center “safety” dot. The study, “Autonomous scientifically controlled screening systems (ASCSS) for detecting information purposely concealed by individuals,” was published in the Journal of Management Information Systems.

How to Detect a Liar, ASCSS-Style

ASCSS technology demonstrated “positive results,” said researchers. Overall performance rates were 69 percent on the first day of tests and 70 percent on the second day. These detection rates are superior to chance and unaided human judgment, suggesting that such a device could serve as “an inexpensive first-level screening filter or as a decision support system for investigative activities in government and business settings,” said researchers, who envision widespread uses for such automated screening.

“For instance, ASCSS interviews could determine which employees are most likely to be leaking sensitive company information. ASCSS interviews could also become part of periodic security policy compliance evaluations to promote secure organizational insider behavior. Where an employee is not willing to openly admit negligence or mistakes regarding secure behavior, ASCSS could help discreetly determine which policies are most likely to be a concern for particular individuals or groups of individuals. Similar automated adaptations of ASCSS could be used in pre-employment screening or to uncover insider threats such as computer misuse and internal fraud.”

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