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How to Catch a Liar

Posted  December 20, 2023

We are in the business of catching liars.  Or at least, helping the government catch them.  It is a tricky business for sure.  Liars have a way of improving with age and practice.  It is even more difficult with corporate fraud, as many perpetrators do not believe they are doing anything wrong.  Living by an ends-justifies-the-means mentality.  Or merely following the lead or direction of their highly-respected peers or superiors.  Thinking, I’m just doing what I’m supposed to do.

When directly confronted with the lie, it gets even harder to elicit the truth.  That is why so many whistleblowers come to us in the first place.  Only after being rebuffed, and all too often retaliated against, when trying to deal with fraud or misconduct head-on.  Facing off with a boss gone bad.  Reporting to the compliance department.  Trying to make change from within.  It rarely goes well.  The lies continue to flow.  The wagons are circled.  The whistleblower is punished and alienated for trying to break through.

Given the nature of how this all typically plays out, we are always looking for guidance in how best to unlock the truth.  Sometimes we get lucky, with a stray text or email that slipped through the cracks making the fraud and deceit crystal clear.  Or we find a former employee, outside the company’s sway, willing to speak out and separate fact from fiction.  But often it simply comes down to going right to the source and drawing out the lies from the mouth of the wrongdoer.

That is why we read with such interest the study reported by CNBC last week (December 14) of habitual liars and the strategies they use to get away with their dishonesty.  Here are the seven techniques the study found most commonly employed:

Eye Contact.  Maintaining or increasing the amount of eye contact.  As one study participant framed it, “I look them dead in the eyes.”

Controlling Facial Expressions.  Manipulating facial expressions to avoid fear or surprise and instead present a believable countenance.  One study participant said, “I just try to keep a straight face.”

Acting Calm and Confident.  Maintaining a regular demeanor as if nothing were wrong or different.

No Fidgeting.  Maintaining regular body movements, such as crossing arms, to minimize fidgeting.

Acting Emotional.  Feigning crying or being upset to use emotion to convey truthfulness.

Controlling Pitch and Tone.  Managing vocal pitch and tone to sound confident and serious.

Controlling the Details.  Managing the amount and nature of the information shared by withholding unhelpful information or providing extra detail to help sound more convincing.

So what is the best way to get behind these strategies of deception?  The authors of the study provide two.  First, get the liars to talk as much as possible.  The more the liar talks, the more information they provide, the higher the likelihood of uncovering a hole or inconsistency in the story that can be mined to potentially uncover the truth.  Second, make them repeat themselves, either with different prompts or at different times.  Forcing the liar to retell the story through different questioning or on multiple occasions can be equally fruitful in getting to the truth.

Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to catching a liar in their tracks.  But understanding where they may be coming from, how they may be playing it, and how to break through it all can certainly help.  And for all those would-be whistleblowers out there thinking about speaking the truth to power, keep up the good fight.  Sometimes, the truth — or at least trying to seek the truth — really does set you free.

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