Questioning Applicants in a Manner that Facilitates Truthful Responses


We all know that people lie. From the small white lie to the whopper of a Ponzi scheme, deception is a guaranteed part of human interaction. So as employers, human resources professionals and decision-makers for our companies, how can we successfully navigate the complex waters of human communication and its deceptive components? This is a difficult task and one that is not easy, or realistic, to get right 100% of the time. There are however, a few strategies that we can employ in order to up our odds.

As reported by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) 2010 report to the nations, résumé fraud is on the rise. The job market is highly competitive. This competitive atmosphere is ripe for dishonesty. As a species, we tend to adjust our morality to the situation we are in. If we are desperate to find work, embellishing a résumé hardly seems that bad when compared to the prospect of starvation. Also, much like a game of poker in which the players have no moral opposition to lying to their opponents by bluffing, since bluffing is understood to fall within the parameters of the game. The lie is expected. In the workforce, this mindset can also be found. Many feel that dishonesty is simply part of the work environment in order to get ahead, and this mindset reduces any apprehension an individual may have about being dishonest. Hiring managers are now faced with considerable deception in acquiring new talent. Once your HR department has sifted through the résumés and scheduled interviews, they have already committed considerable resources to a pool of (hopefully) qualified applicants. Enter the interview.

During the course of an applicant interview, the HR professional can phrase questions in a way that facilitates truth. One strategy is alter the reference point for the applicant. What this means is, change the expected normal response of a question in order to allow the applicant to comfortably answer honestly. For instance, let’s say you wanted to ask the applicant about their history of tardiness at work. This is an important question, as conscientiousness is a good quality in an employee and can be indicated by punctuality. If you ask your question like “So, John, how many times were you late for work at your last job?” you have essentially placed the applicant’s reference point very low (likely zero). Any response other than “none” will possibly be difficult for him to say, even if not true. Applicants want to be seen in the most positive light possible, and when forcing them to answer questions in which the truth may obstruct this goal causes what is known as dissonance. Dissonance occurs when there is internal conflict.

So instead of placing the applicant in a position where they must make a difficult choice between the truth and a lie, it would be better (for us) to place them in a position where the truth is simply easier to tell. This will help remove or diminish the psychological dissonance or conflict the applicant is experiencing. In this example, we could ask the tardiness question differently; “John, when we contact all of your former employers and ask them how many times you were late for work, what do you think they will tell us? 15 times? 25 times?” Now, we have raised John’s reference point from zero to 15 or 25. With the question being phrased this way, we have (hopefully) made it easier for John to be truthful. The question establishes that we are going to verify his response by checking with prior employers, but also set the bar for unacceptable tardiness at 15 or 25 (obviously not the true level, but that is not the point). John should be able to easily get under this bar with an honest answer. In this scenario, the applicant can comfortably answer the question honestly, with reduced dissonance. If he had been late 5 times to work in the past that is not nearly as bad when compared to 15 or 25. This is the benefit to raising the reference point.

When tackling the task of recruiting new talent to your organization, you have a difficult job, and one that if you get wrong can cost your company considerably, in both time and money. Doing everything possible to properly vet a potential candidate is vital. Utilizing techniques that can assist in uncovering the truth in the applicant interview will only serve to streamline that process and reduce the risk of a potentially costly bad hire

Ryan Mann is the lead forensic credibility assessment analyst with the investigative firm Diamond and Mann Investigations (A1200042) in Central Florida. He has been a guest lecturer for the University of Florida and the University of Central Florida covering topics of deception detection, body language and interviewing strategies. He is the United States representative of Body Language Learning ®, a UK based communications coaching company. He has consulted for organizations of all sizes and has conducted seminars across the state of Florida for several professions including attorneys, CEOs, Human Resources, Financial Managers and marketing/advertising professionals. He can be reached at 386-624-3055 or


Actions speak louder than words, but words whisper unintended secrets

A popular and correct saying in deception detection is that if the body language does not match the spoken language, believe the body language.  When adhering to this advice, do not mistake it for “ignoring” the spoken language.  Many times people will say exactly what they mean.  But while they are saying exactly what they mean, they may be inferring something else completely. 

For example:

“I think the true Packer backers, which there are tons out there, feel the same way.”

– Brett Favre on the controversy surrounding his returning to Green Bay for the ceremonial retirement of his Packers Jersey.

Favre specifically states that he thinks the true fans feel the same way. Favre doesn’t say that he knows the fans admire him, only that he “thinks” it.  He is accidentally admitting there are fans that do not like him because he played for the rival Minnesota Vikings after defecting from Green Bay.  Favre,however, would like us to believe that the fans still admire him, but this is not what he says.  Additionally, he qualified his statement with the use of “true” and “which there are tons out there”.  The bottom line is that Favre likely knows that he gave many Packers fans a real reason to dislike him.

Many times, a person will give us the response to a question that sounds like it answers the question, but all in reality it avoids it.  Depending on the context of the conversation and the nature of the relationship of those involved, the follow up to the avoidance response is vital in order to get the true information that was sought with the initial question.

For example:

You submit your report to your boss:

You: “What do you think of my report?”

Boss: “You did a great job.”

The boss did not answer the question.  The question was “What do you think of my report?”. The answer, therefore, should have contained the personal pronoun “I” , as in “I think it is great“.  This probably means the boss is not being entirely forthcoming and deserves a follow up clarification.

You: “Thank you, but is there anything about the report that I can improve on or add?”

Now, you have put the ball back in the boss’ corner. Additionally, you have phrased your challenge in a cooperative manner rather than a confrontational manner.  This allows the boss to provide her true feelings and offer constructive criticism that will benefit you and the company going forward.

It is important to understand that in many situations when people lie to us they are being polite and thinking about our feelings.  They may be avoiding confrontation, or they may just not be that interested in having a discussion, in which case telling you what you want to hear is the easiest way out.  And, of course, there are the malicious liars who are out to harm you for their own benefit.  Regardless of the lie, or the intent behind it, listening to exactly what a person is saying and evaluating what they say in empirical terms, without inferring anything, will give you insight into what it is they really mean and lead to you conduct proper follow up questions.

Combining evaluative listening skills and observing body language can vastly improve your odds of finding the truth.  Don’t jump to conclusions and use appropriate follow up strategies.  If you do this, you will find yourself getting the big picture of what it is that people are truly saying.



How you ask your question can manipulate the response- weaknesses in memory.

Any investigator who is tasked with solving a case must first understand their job is to seek the truth.  This may sound obvious, but it deserves mentioning.  When interviewing a witness, victim or suspect it is important to understand that how you ask a question may have a significant impact on the answer you receive.  Phrasing a question a certain way can strongly influence the response.  By mere suggestion it is possible to alter the memory of a subject.

Memory does not work like a video camera.  It does not record the information in its entirety.  There are different kinds of memory.  Episodic memory is that in which we remember an event.  This is the type of memory in play during most investigations.  When a subject observes an event, the event is encoded into memory.  Not every detail gets encoded.  Those details can be filled in by the creation of the subject’s own narrative.  In other words, he may make up the details or guess.  This is where the suggestion of an interviewer may alter the subject’s recollection of events.

Psychologists Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer conducted an experiment in 1974 to test the level of influence the way a question is asked can have on the response.  They asked people to estimate the speed of two vehicles involved in a crash.  People are generally not very good at estimating speeds unless they have had specialized training, which is usually reserved for police officers.

The study concluded that the use of harsher descriptions of the accident lead to the witness stating the speeds were higher.  When asked how fast the red car was going when it “contacted” the blue car, the  witnessed stated the speed to be significantly slower than when the term “smashed” was used in the place of “contacted”.  Other terms used were “hit”, “bumped” and “collided”.  Each of these terms brought an increased estimation of the speed.

The chart below outlines the affect the descriptive term had on the respondent’s estimation of the speed at the time of the accident.


As you can see, the more intense the description of the accident was, the higher the speed was estimated to be.  When “contacted” was used, the average estimated speed was 31 mph.  When “smashed” was used, the average response was 41 mph.

Furthermore, those witnesses that were asked the question with the “smashed” term used were far more likely to recall the damage to the vehicles as more severe. In the video the subjects had watched there was no broken glass. In response to the follow up question “Did you see any broken glass?” 16 out of 34 subjects in the “smashed” group stated that they did see broken glass.  The control group (they had not been asked about the speed of the cars at the time of the accident) had 44 state no to the broken glass and 6 said yes there was broken glass (see how reliable eyewitness memory is?).  Those subjects in the “hit” group had 7 yes responses and 43 no responses. (Loftus and Palmer, 1974)


As this study indicates, it is important to keep your line of questioning as neutral as possible (if the truth is what you are after).  Avoid the leading questions. The truth is what the professional investigator is after, and in order to get the truth it is imperative that witness testimony is not tainted with poor or unfair questioning strategies.

Rationalization, the ultimate self deception?

But it contains antioxidants!

But it contains antioxidants!

The necessity to rationalize our choices makes them easier to live with.  If we want a piece of chocolate, we simply remind ourselves that chocolate has a ton of good qualities.  To wit:

• Chocolate contains lecithin that a beneficial effect on cholesterol levels in
the blood.
• Chocolate is rich in polyphenols. A polifenol is an antioxidant
that reduces inflammation and protects against free radicals and slows down the combustion inside cells.
• Chocolate is rich in magnesium. Magnesium promotes energy metabolism, nerve transmission and muscle function.
• There is evidence that dark chocolate lowers blood pressure.
• Chocolate contains flavonoids. Flavonoids have a protective effect against heart disease.
• The taste of chocolate experience ensures the production of endorphins. Endorphin
creates a euphoric feeling and suppresses pain.
• Chocolate contains phenyl ethylamine. Phenyl ethylamine can act as a mood lifter.

Chocolate is also high in fat and sugar.  If you are overweight and should be lowering your caloric intake, you should probably be avoiding chocolate bars.  But since chocolate has so many good qualities, you can eat the chocolate and then tell yourself it is ok- after all, chocolate is good for you.  This works even though you know the chocolate is counter-productive to your real goal, which is weight loss.  In order to avoid guilt, you rationalize the decision and at least on a superficial level, go on merrily with your day.

But what really just occurred here?  According to Dr. David Leiberman, there are three distinct psychological forces at work.  The body drive, the ego drive and the soul drive.  These three forces are constantly battling each other.  The body drive wants to do what makes you feel good, such as over eating and over sleeping.  The ego drive wants to do what makes you look good, such as buying clothes or a car that is beyond your financial means.  The soul drive wants to do what is good for you in the long run, such as getting your assignment done (furthering your work or school goals) on time or physically taking care of yourself (David Leiberman, 2008).

Rationalization comes into play when either the body drive or the ego drive win the battle and we then tell ourselves that it was actually the soul drive that won.  In our chocolate example, the body drive won.  Then, when we cite all the positive qualities of chocolate as the real reason we at the chocolate bar, we are trying to assign the victory to our soul drive.

The reason we ultimately feel guilty about rationalized choices is that we know we have lied to ourselves, and we have a negative opinion of our deception.  This is also known as dissonance.  There is ample research that shows humans have a strong tendency to make decisions emotionally, and then rationalize the decision with logic.

The person who resists the chocolate and sticks to their diet will likely feel much better about himself than the one who gives in.  This person is exhibiting will power, and experiencing the victory for his soul drive.  The person whose soul drive wins the majority of battles is the person with high self esteem.  It stands then, that if you want to have high self esteem, avoid rationalizing.  Make the right choice, which only you know what it is, and you will feel better both in the short term and the long term.

Looking for indicators of truth may be easier than spotting deception

This post is a continuation in theme of an earlier post in which I touch on a topic that is important in deception detection- recognizing indicators of truth.

In this article, however, I am going to take a glance at the strategic side of truth-seeking and where it holds an advantage over focusing solely on the many indicators of deception.

Research has shown that under heavy cognitive load (hard thinking or concentration),glucose levels in the brain dramatically decrease, reducing the ability to think in depth. Heavy cognitive load is not realistically sustainable.  It is painful and distracting.

To relieve the pain, we resort to intuitive thinking.  Intuitive thinking draws upon associative memory.  This is significant in this sense.

In an interview situation, if you are concentrating heavily on trying to look for every single indicator of deception, every deceptive word and every inconsistency, you may overtax your capabilities. When our concentration gets too intense, we inevitably fall back on our default judgment, as this is much easier on the brain. It is important to understand that the experienced interviewer and deception detection professional will likely spot the indicators with considerably less effort. It is just as important to understand that any professional investigator worth his salt also understands the goal of the interview is the truth.

In a study of eight judges considering more than 1,100 applications for parole in Israel, it was learned that parole board judges were more likely to grant parole at the start of the day, and after breaks for a morning snack and lunch. These are the times when glucose levels are optimal. The judges awarded parole 65% of the time during these time frames. Each subsequent hearing session tended to bring less chance of getting parole, dropping to 0% on occasions and rising again to the 65% level after the next food break. (1.S. Danziger, J. Levav, L. Avnaim-Pesso. Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2011; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1018033108)

While interviews and deception detection need not be as tasking as sitting on a parole board, the results of the study should be of use to interviewers. As truth seekers, we need to be conscious of factors that may affect our ability to be fair and partial. Intense concentration on trying to observe any and all of the seemingly thousands of indicators of deception will likely be taxing, and this will tempt us to resort to associative, or default thinking. This may impair our ability to be fair, and that is unacceptable.

The signs and indicators of truthful people are important to recognize. When these cease, is when you should, and inevitably will, observe indicators of sensitivity or deception. In short, looking for signs of truthfulness may be considerably less taxing mentally. For indicators of truth, I list a few here

Why do some people lie for another?

Would you lie for someone else? You probably would under the right circumstances. Like all decisions, the choice to lie whether it is about something you did or something someone else did, is a risk versus reward decision. There are many circumstances in which the choice to lie is completely valid.

But what about those incidents when someone lies for another person without any readily apparent reason? What about the risk and no visible reward? According to Fincham and Jaspars’ 1979 study, there is a strong tendency to punish people for the intentions behind wrongdoing (such as lying) instead of the actual offense in cases in which they aren’t the same. This is consistent with what is known as the attribution theory. This would also indicate why someone may lie for another.

If your best friend were in big trouble because he stole a soda and got caught, would you back up his bogus story that he “thought” he paid for it, or “found” it or whatever excuse he could come up with? Depending on your level of friendship, you just might. After all, it is expected that even if your ruse does not work, you will not get in any trouble because what you intended might be perceived as some as inherently noble- you were just doing the “loyal” thing. With this in mind, you never really faced any true risk in this risk versus reward situation. The reward was helping your friend, and maybe even feeling good about doing a “noble” task. The risk was virtually zero. Consistent with Fincham and Jaspars’ research, you will most likely be judged on your intentions- helping a friend- instead of the lie you told. This is a powerful factor.

But what about more serious offenses, like robbery or even murder? The same forces are still at play, but the expectation of reprieve for the person who is lying for his robbing or murdering friend should diminish. His aura of nobility will erode in the eyes of the accuser, but his actions still may be plausible- “I wanted to be a good friend”. To be clear, it is very doubtful that if the two conspirators were simply acquaintances, the second person will very unlikely lie for the first. The stronger the bond between the two, the more likely they are to lie for each other.

There is another factor to be considered as well. Immediacy. The human mind has a tendency to create its own reality and has only a casual relationship with logic. Research has shown that most people (80%) will accept a $5 gift today over a $10 gift 30 days after the offer. The closer the situation is to the now, the more power it exerts over you. A friend that needs your help now, legitimate or not, will have more weight on your decision than the possible punishment that may occur some time in the future. The punishment is not even certain, the friend in need, however, is. These are strong social and psychological influences that not everybody can overcome.

A third factor is transferred responsibility. Lying for another is often a decision made without believing that we have truly done anything wrong. When our friend desperately begs us to lie for them, we can lie for them without truly bearing the responsibility for the act. This eliminates much of the guilt problem. Once the gig is up and we have been busted, the truth again becomes our friend and we can confess and be expected to be forgiven to some degree. You see this with kids quite often. Little Suzy lied for Little Johnny and when caught, Suzy proclaims “He made me do it!”. Suzy never felt she was truly doing anything wrong, and had an out if she got caught.

It is important to keep in mind factors that alter the decision making process. As previously mentioned, if the friendship is weak, the likelihood of getting someone to lie for you diminishes. Also, if the offense is morally apprehensible, such as rape or child molestation, it is highly unlikely that a morally normal associate will help, no matter the friendship. The risk clearly outweighs the reward and the decision is equally clear.