The Psychology of Deception: Asking Questions to Spot Liars

7 techniques for telling when someone is being dishonest

1/15/2021 5:03:00 AM

7 techniques for telling when someone is being dishonest

Psychological science reveals several techniques for detecting liars.

Ask the right sorts of questions.Words are carriers of deception, and so every question should elicit as many words as possible. This means, wherever possible, ask open questions. For example, ‘Tell me all about your time living in New York’, rather than, ‘You say you lived in New York’. The former elicits a fuller more detailed response. The latter is a closed question, and so will only usually be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

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Make every question count.Don’t ask pointless questions just for the sake of saying something. Rather, ensure that every question moves you towards your goal, which is to understand the truth of what people are telling you.Be tactical.If you are aware of objective facts, consider asking a question about each fact before revealing that you know the answer. This will allow you to understand whether that person is being generally truthful or not. Then, when you ask questions that you do not know the answer to, you will have some knowledge about how the person behaves when being truthful, or otherwise.

Listen rather than talk.Questioners should say as little as possible, to give themselves time to listen, think, and fully understand responses to their questions. Make every question count and ask as few as possible.Be conversational and enquiring rather than aggressive, formal and accusatory.

Questioning a person constitutes a complex social interaction, whichif questioners are able to engage with people in an information-gathering manner.Include some temporal element to your questions.Switching between past, present, and future intentions can often be so mentally demanding for liars that they inadvertently reveal their deception by making errors, contradicting themselves, and/or contradicting objective facts known by the questioner.

Ask clarification questions.These types of questions probe for more detail about a previous answer or initial account. Liars can struggle with detail, and can also be inconsistent when recapping or repeating detail.Even with the use of these psychological techniques, spotting liars remains challenging. But real-world research has revealed that performance can improve significantly when these approaches are put together and systematically applied when asking questions.

ReferencesBogaard, G., Meijer, E. H., Vrij, A., & Merckelbach, H. (2016). Strong, but wrong: Lay people’s and police officers’ beliefs about verbal and nonverbal cues to deception. PloS one, 11(6), e0156615.Dando, C. J., & Bull, R. (2011). Maximising opportunities to detect verbal deception: Training police officers to interview tactically. Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling, 8(2), 189-202.

Dando, C. J., & Ormerod, T. C. (2020). Noncoercive human intelligence gathering. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 149(8), 1435–144Ormerod, T. C., & Dando, C. J. (2015). Finding a needle in a haystack: Toward a psychologically informed method for aviation security screening. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144(1), 76.

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