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February 27, 2017       

Be Careful Accusing Someone of Lying

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
One of the most striking differences between a cat and a lie is that a cat has only nine lives. Mark Twain
Even though forensic psychologists have developed elaborate procedures to improve the ability to determine truth to aid in criminal prosecution, there is still much room for error. If one of the most motivated areas of research to determine lying can't reliably assess the truth, shouldn't you be careful before accusing someone of lying?

Even with training, social-workers only increased their detection abilities to 77% while police officers were in the 50-60% range (Akehurst et al., 2004). While 77% may seem high, it still means these professionals are wrong 30-40% of the time. Yet, even when wrong, they were confident in their assessment. Such confidence is the crux of the matter—when a person is confident, they are more likely to make accusations.

How is truth-telling determined?

The training to assess if someone is telling the truth teaches people to evaluate the following criteria. The more of these criteria that are present, the more likely someone is truthful . However, these criteria are not effective as a lie-detector because they do not need to be present for all instances when someone is telling the truth especially in simpler situations.

1) Consistency. Is the story logical? Does it make sense?

2) Lacks structure. When someone is making up a story, there is often more structure and coherency to it. The truth will often be less focused in the telling.

3) Details. The truth is often richer in the descriptive details.

4) Contents. When telling the truth, a person is more likely to describe specific interactions or conversations, the context of the situation, and unexpected events that occurred.

5) Unnecessary details. When someone's telling the truth they may include their own feelings or their thoughts about the other person's motivation or emotional state. Also, they might accurately describe something they don't understand or connect it to other unrelated events.

6) Method of telling. When telling the truth a person may correct themselves or question their memory. The story may not be as coherent and without self-doubt as when someone is telling a lie.

What should you do if you think someone is lying?

Obviously, it is important to determine when someone might be lying and to discern when you can trust someone. But with trust, as with forensic evidence, it is a matter of the accumulation of information and not just relying on intuition.

1) Don't react. Often people make accusations based on their feelings before fulling assessing the situation. As the research evidence indicates, this means that 50% of the time a person could be wrong. The result of wrong accusations can be detrimental to relationships.

2) Gather more information. Instead of reacting, obtain more information. Observe and assess the full context of the situation. Question your preconceived notions and why they could be wrong.

3) Determine the consequences. There are always consequences to action. Even if you determine that someone is lying, accusations may not always be the best way of handling a situation. So, before you confront someone, think about the situation, what you want to accomplish and the best way to do achieve your goal.

Akehurst, L., Bull, R., Vrij, A., and Köhnken, G. (2004). The effects of training professional groups and lay persons to use criteria-based content analysis to detect deception. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 18, 877– 891. DOI:10.1002/acp.1057

Oberlader, V.A., Naefgen, C., Koppehele-Gossel, J., Quinten, L., Banse, R. and Schmidt. A.F. (2016). Validity of Content-Based Techniques to Distinguish True and Fabricated Statements: A Meta-Analysis. Law and Human Behavior, 40, 440–457. DOI:10.1037/lhb0000193


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