Anytime someone answers a question or makes a statement, they will choose their words with a purpose. Whether the statement is spoken, transcribed, typed or handwritten, the words chosen will leave us clues to how honest the speaker or writer is being. In this article, I will outline some basic strategies to help you glean truth and meaning from a statement.
First, we need to understand a few rules of engagement in order to make the analysis work consistently. The first rule is that we never infer meaning of the words chosen. This is because people all have their own meaning to words. If you ask 10 different people to draw you a picture of a dog, you will get pictures of everything from a chihuahua to a pit bull. Remember that game we played as kids, where we would sit in a circle and one kid would whisper something in the next kid’s ear and that kid would then pass it on to the next kid until it went full circle? The result was always the same- by the time the message got to the last kid, it was completely different from the initial message. This is because each listener would attach their own meaning to the words they received and then paraphrased to make a new message. This is why we will not infer any meaning whatsoever to the words the speaker/writer chooses.
The second rule that we must adhere to is the grouping requirement, known as the cluster rule. There must be more than one indicator of deception before we start getting suspicious. The more indicators there are, the more likely we have a less than honest speaker/writer. No single conclusion should be drawn from any single indicator.
The third rule we have is to distrust overly wordy statements. Research has shown us that liars tend to use significantly more words to respond than truthful people. For example:
“I never broke the laws of my country” (Bill Clinton in response to being asked if he had ever smoked marijuana).
If he had never smoked marijuana, the answer should have been a simple and confident “no”. Instead he offered extra words, which gives us extra material to evaluate. (when pressed, Clinton admitted to having smoked pot while at Oxford University in the England).
While there are more rules of engagement that I use when analyzing word choice, these three are the most important. Now let’s take a look at some indicators of dishonesty in a statement.
1. Repeating the question. If they legitimately did not hear you, dismiss this. Otherwise this indicates the need to buy time and formulate an acceptable response.
Bob Costas: “Are you sexually attracted to young boys, to underage boys?”
Jerry Sandusky: “Am I sexually attracted to underage boys? Sexually attracted? No. You know, I enjoy young people. I love to be around them. But no, I’m not sexually attracted to young boys.”
(2) Statements with out of order sequences. When recalling from memory, the story should easily be chronological. When the order is messed up and the person is bouncing back and forth, this is a strong indicator the story is not coming from memory.
“I was on my way to work when I saw Elvis standing next to a fire hydrant. Before I left home I had read in the paper about Elvis sightings in the area.”
(3) Words that indicate a passage of time. Omitting information is the easiest way to lie since it doesn’t require the invention of a lie. This is the most common lie people tell and the easiest to spot. Words like “then”, “later on”, “after a while” etc. are like potholes in the road to the truth- they need to be filled in. There are only two reason a person will leave out information: They either don’t think it’s important or they don’t want you to know. When you hear these pothole words, seek clarification.
“I was at Jimmy’s house for a while before I decided to go home. Then when I got home I went straight to bed.”
We might want to know what the speaker was doing at Jimmy’s house- specifically.
(4) Aggression. When a person starts to attack his questioner, or blaming others for his predicament with statements like “how long has you been a (lawyer, cop, etc)?”, “why are you asking me”, etc. it is an attempt to get his questioner to back off. He is feeling threatened by the line of questioning, likely because the truth is not his friend.
This is an example from one of my cases in which the subject is being questioned about her boyfriend’s involvement in the theft of a vehicle:
Q: Do you know if Mr. Sellers* had anything to do with that vehicle being stolen?
A: I- – I have no idea.
Q: You have no idea?
A: I – – it’s asinine to think he did.
She exhibits aggression (a strong indicator that a topic is sensitive) by calling the line of questioning “asinine”. The witness also stutters in order to formulate an acceptable response, which occurred frequently during this interview.(* name changed)
(5) Hedging. Words like “probably”, “mostly”, “basically”, “believe”, etc. are ways a liar lets himself off the hook psychologically. They allow the user to leave out information and only tell the part of the story that is friendly. These words reveal the liar does not have total confidence in what he is saying. Most people are confident in the truth.
“Congressman, … But along the lines that you are speaking, I do believe baseball’s going in the right direction. I believe that the testing is — is good, it’s intrusive. I wish could I remember the — I believe it was one of the Congressmen or … that brought something up that I do that was surprising to me that there was a study about the players getting the Ritalin.”
- Roger Clemens testifying before the House of Representatives regarding his use of banned substance.
Now let’s take a look at a truthful statement. Notice no hedging here:
“They don’t have anything to arrest me on, and they never will, because I did not do it”
–Richard Jewell, security guard originally accused of planting bombs at the Atlanta Olympics, later found to be innocent.
There is much more to analyzing word choice, but these are few tools to help you out. If you have any questions, or would like to have a free analysis done (500 word limit), email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.