It is Not What We Say but How We Say It

By Isabel Picornell, CFE

Analysis of statements has played an important part in criminal investigations. However, new insights have shown that deceivers can now be identified by how they say things and not just by what they say.

The art of deception is an integral part of survival and has formed part of the natural selection process for a few million years. It has proved so successful that deception, either to advance our own interest or to avoid punishment, now forms part of everyday communication.

Nature, however, contains its own checks and balances. Just as natural selection produces deceivers, it also produces deception detectors.

There exists a popular notion that deception can be identified through the ways an author (or speaker) adds or subtracts from the perceived truth. But this notion is dangerous, because deceivers do not always say, or avoid saying, specific things.1 However, cultural and educational background, social class, sex, age, occupation, personality, and geographical location all affect how we speak and behave. There is no such thing as typical deceptive behavior.

What may be deceptive in a certain context may not be so in a different context. The presence or absence of strong emotion, or the failure to deny one’s guilt, are only indicators of deception in the context of specific persons and specific situations.2 Additionally, there is no evidence that a lack of memory about an incident is generally indicative of deception.

Many deception/detection strategies operate on the assumption that psychological guilt and anxiety, which are characteristic of deception, manifest themselves in verbal and non-verbal behavior. However, many have misconceptions about what actually constitutes deceptive behavior. As a result, most people are bad at identifying it.
While individuals are able to control certain aspects of their behavior quite well, they are generally unable to control all their behavior.3 As a result, clues to anxiety and deception “leak” out through various communication channels that deceivers find themselves either unable to control or ignore.

Generally, people are very good at controlling the content of a story. Deceivers know they need to construct a convincing tale if they are to appear truthful, so they concentrate on content and ignore the way they deliver it.
However, addressees also tend to ignore the way a story is delivered. Both groups are so focused on story content they fail to notice “leakages.” For that reason, how someone says (or writes) something, rather than what someone says, is one of the most informative and reliable indicators of deception.

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