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Nonverbal Deception: Context in an Investigation Can Help Interpret Nonverbal Behaviors

In our last several articles, we began our discussion relating to gestures and thought in general terms, not necessarily related to truth or deception. In this article, we will address nonverbal behavior in more specific terms relating to an interview or interrogation.

We will use Aldert Vrij’s definition of deception from his book Detecting Lies and Deceit: The Psychology of Lying and the Implications for Professional Practice (published in 2000 by John Wiley & Sons): “a successful or unsuccessful deliberate attempt, without forewarning, to create in another a belief which the communicator considers to be untrue.” While this definition does not differentiate a white lie from a more sinister criminal deception, the body’s response to a serious lie is physically and psychologically driven by the emotional fear of discovery and its severe consequences that follow.

Academics have been very clear that a human’s ability to detect deception is slightly above chance level, in the area of 54 percent in most studies. The academics have repeatedly studied nonverbal behaviors looking for that one cue that might be the Holy Grail of lie detection. They have studied professional investigators and lay persons’ perceptions of what a person does when lying. Each of these general beliefs of how a person looks when lying has been individually discredited as an accurate predictor of deceptive responses.

It’s really no wonder this is what they have found. Some people look at you when they lie, and some people don’t. Some people sit frozen in their chairs when they lie, and others move like a third-base coach giving signals. People aren’t even internally consistent within themselves, sometimes looking a certain way when they attempt to deceive and at other times not. We have found over the years that when people are deceptive, they may use a variety of different nonverbal cues in their attempt to avoid detection. Only rarely have we seen subjects who repeatedly returned to the same behaviors over and over again as they attempt to avoid detection.

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Part of the problem academics had with training investigators on nonverbal behavior was the use of the term “truthful” or “deceptive” being assigned to a unique behavioral cue. These terms gave the impression of an absolute belief that good eye contact only came from the innocent and bad eye contact from the deceptive. This left little or no wiggle room for what really goes on in assessing a behavior and trying to determine an individual’s true status. This misconception has led to an evolution of training materials and articles, such as this one, to further clarify the appropriate application of interpreting and understanding behavior.

Cause for Concern
While we can observe nonverbal behavior, we can only guess at its true meaning and cause. We can observe a nervous individual in an interview environment, and we can definitively say they seem nervous and uncomfortable in this situation. What we cannot say is the actual cause of that nervousness. Is the individual truthful and simply uncomfortable in a situation they have never been in before, or are they nervous because they’re attempting to deceive and avoid the consequences of their actions? What is probably a better way of approaching the interpretation of nonverbal behavior is to look at the behavior as a cause for concern, or a clue that should prompt the investigator to ask additional questions to identify that behavior’s true cause.

The detection of deception is a complex process, one that is never likely to be fully mastered by man without the help of technology. Rather than looking for the Holy Grail of detection, we should consider how an investigator approaches a case and focuses or eliminates subjects from the investigation.

While researchers have generally focused on single nonverbal cues to identify deception, an investigator has a much richer environment offering a greater depth of clues to lead the investigation. We accept that the investigative theory can become a self-fulfilling prophecy when the individual’s behaviors are assessed as deceptive because of the theory; however, an investigator should look at all aspects of the case in an attempt to prove the person innocent of the crime while looking for plausible explanations for the evidence available.

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When the investigator has evidence of the individual’s complicity in the case, this should be withheld to offer the individual an opportunity to prove his innocence. Clearly, it is simply to compare what is known against what is said by a subject. To do this, we use the participatory method, which conceals the evidence, allowing the subject to seemingly lead the conversation to the evidence and offer either a lie about it or a plausible explanation. We have been teaching this method since the 1980s, but only recently have the academics postulated its value and what they have dubbed the SUE technique. The SUE technique is an acronym for the strategic use of evidence. Like the participatory method, the SUE technique advocates withholding evidence and using it strategically to identify when a person is lying. (For further reading on this topic, check out Maria Hartwig et al’s article “Strategic Use of Evidence During Police Interviews: When Training to Detect Deception Works” in the November 2006 edition of Law and Human Behavior, volume 30, no. 5, pages 603–619.)

Based on the use of the participatory method, the subject has now either directly or indirectly lied about the available evidence, and the investigator can in absolute terms be confident of the individual’s status in the investigation. At the same time, this offers a truthful individual an opportunity to explain away seemingly damaging evidence without knowing the investigators knowledge of its existence. Offering a plausible explanation allows the investigators to reinvestigate or perhaps even eliminate the individual from the investigation.

The use of evidence can strengthen the case and the certainty of the individual’s deception dramatically, but it is not the only information available to the investigator to help in this determination. Ancillary information provided to the investigator helps evaluate the plausibility of the individual’s alibi and identify the way things likely occurred or even something as simple as the demeanor of the individual during their day-to-day duties. Determining deception does not occur in a vacuum but rather in an environment rich with information to help assess the credibility of the subject. It is no different for nonverbal clues that can assist in the overall assessment of the individual’s status. Where nonverbal behaviors are identified, that creates concern the investigator should continue to ask questions and explore more deeply the subject’s narrative responses.

In our everyday lives we observe people, situations, nonverbal behaviors, and sometimes their verbal patterns. While we can observe and see with absolute certainty a behavior occurring, we cannot know with certainty what actually caused that behavior to occur. We can only infer its meaning, which may or may not be correct. But rather than ignoring these nonverbal behaviors as part of the context, we should embrace them, recognizing our limitations when we do so.

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For example, a wife was present when her husband was killed with a shotgun blast to the head. Understandably, she appeared visibly upset when being treated by paramedics and during her initial interview with responding officers. While appearing upset, there was a lack of tears, and the wife’s demeanor seemed stiff and lacking emotional attachment to what she was trying to portray. In short, it seemed to be overacting. The hyperventilation occurred only when she was being questioned and immediately returned to normal when she was not being asked any questions; then it returned at the next question. Now, these responses could be her own particular way of dealing with the death of her husband, but the observers looking at this conversation could also recognize that her behavior was inconsistent with other instances of grief they had observed, so her behavior must be treated as a cause for concern.

Now let’s add context to the observed behavior of the wife. The husband was called to the deserted road by his wife to help with car problems. As the area was unlit, it would require an armed assailant to have hidden himself on the dark road at exactly the spot where the victim’s wife had car problems and to inexplicably decide to shoot the husband without robbing or stealing anything from the vehicle. Additionally, later investigation indicated that the wife was having multiple affairs and had approached each of her lovers about the idea of killing her husband. And in text messages, she described her husband as abusive, which was completely contrary to the way friends and family knew him to be, likely trying to convince the lovers to do the murder.

Context surrounding an investigation can help interpret nonverbal behaviors that indicate concern to the investigator. The context can provide information, much like circumstantial evidence, that would point to a more likely occurrence of deception. For example, a location has no cash problems over the last twelve months until a new employee is hired; then the register comes up short. In addition, the shortages occur each time that new employee is working the register. While circumstantial, these contextual elements offer a suggestion of a possible suspect, plus we can also add the fact that 70 percent of internal thefts are committed by employees with less than one year of service. Nonverbal behaviors of concern during the interview could indicate deception or other uncertainty by the subject, including a fear of being disbelieved or discomfort in the interview setting. The investigator should identify the change in behavior and the stimulus of such indicator resulting a cause for concern to be explored further in the investigation.

In our next column we will move on to the liar and how the lie is constructed.

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