Category Archives: psychology

Questioning Applicants in a Manner that Facilitates Truthful Responses

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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 ryan@centralfloridainvestigations.com

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Simple strategies to ferret out deception

In this article I am going to address some possible scenarios that can occur at work in which you would like to know if a coworker, employee or boss is a friend or enemy.  Since we can’t go around accusing others at work of being liars or thieves without substantial evidence, it is important that we take a look at alternatives to give us a higher statistical probability of avoiding the pitfall of believing a liar. I will take a look at three possible scenarios that can occur and outline a simple strategy to help get to the truth.

Let’s say, for example, you suspect your coworker of being a snake in the grass.  You would like to know if he is in it for the team, or if he is out to submarine you.  A tactic you can use is to ask him for his advice on an important assignment you have been given.  Tell him you are considering a strategy that you secretly know is a horrible idea, and he should know it is a horrible idea as well.  If he agrees with your doomed strategy, knowing full well it is a bad idea, then he is not in it for the team.  He is allowing you to proceed and fail without regard for how it affects the team, instead opting to further his own agenda. Now you know you cannot trust him going forward.  The psychological principle in play here is motivation.  People will rarely pass up an opportunity to further their plan.

In another scenario, let’s say you are the owner of a small business.  As with most small businesses, you are on a tight budget and have limited resources.  You suspect one of your few employees of stealing from the register.  In order to find out if your suspicions have merit, you can use the following approach.  Address the topic with the employee directly without accusing her and see what happens immediately after you bring the topic of theft up.  Start with something like “You know, I can’t believe some people think they can steal from their boss and not get caught.”  Now look for signs of agreement or discomfort. This is a powerful tool that reveals a suspect’s motivation.  If she is guilty, she will naturally assume you are accusing her.  If she is innocent, she will agree and further the discussion. The important point is to look for defensiveness and decline in comfort and confidence.  This will give you a strong indication of your employee’s level of guilt. The psychological principle in play here is guilt. Guilty people have a tendency to fall prey to a psychological phenomenon known as the “illusion of transparency”.  Once accused, the guilty will fear that the accuser can see through the lies and know her current state of mind.

In a third scenario, you suspect your mailroom manager of being involved in a lapping scheme, which is a common form of skimming. (It is undertaken by mail room employees who are responsible for receiving payments.  They skim the checks received, depositing the checks into their personal accounts and falsify company account records in order to cover the theft.) Since, he is the manager he has a good knowledge of the workings of the mail room.  He understands the process.  The strategy you can employ is to ask him for his advice.  State “You are the mailroom manager.  You know this operation better than anyone.  If you were to steal from the company, how would you go about it?”  Now he can take the bait.  If he is innocent, he will most likely tell you the easiest plan, the plan most likely to succeed.  In this case, the lapping scheme.  If he is guilty, he will want to draw attention away from his lapping scheme and might come up with a more complex, convoluted response or one that will not involve lapping schemes at all.  He does not want you to look at that possibility.  The clue that he might be guilty will come in the form that he does not give you the obvious answer but instead opts to redirect your thought process away from the crime that he is committing.  Of course, if you do not know where the weakness lies within the mailroom, you should educate yourself before questioning the manager, otherwise you will not know if he is giving you the appropriate response or not. The psychological principle in play here is fear.  The manager fears being discovered as a thief. When we are threatened by something, we fear it.  Whether we like it or not, we have a strong tendency to distance ourselves from anything that is threatening.  Being exposed as a thief is very threatening, as is the prospect of being fired or even arrested.  The manager must protect himself and not allow you to know what he has done.

Keep in mind, that none of these strategies are fool proof.  There are no guarantees, but they can help you by increasing your odds of success.  Beware aware of which psychological principles are relevant, as this will help you choose a strategy that allows you to find the truth.  To be sure, many psychological principles or emotions will be present, but there will be one primary emotion that forces the individual to act in a particular manner.  Knowing which emotion is in play is important information in helping you strategize.  I recommend you read Dr. David Leiberman’s book, “You Can Read Anyone”.  Dr. Leiberman outlines several psychological principles and strategies in this highly effective book.

Also, for a great resource on Body Language and Deception, check out http://www.bodylanguagelearning.org.uk/.  It is full of articles by respected and accomplished experts in the field.

Want to catch a liar? Look for the truth.

It is very easy to get caught up in trying to spot a liar by looking for clues to deception.  That just makes sense.  While there are hundreds of possible cues to deception, many of which I have addressed on this blog, the best strategy to consistently catch a liar is to look for the opposite- the truth.

Indicators of truthfulness are easier to spot than indicators of deception.  The key is to understand when there is an obvious lack of truthful indicators.  This is when you will see all those signs of deception.  In this article, I will point out some strategies to observe honesty.  Only in the absence of truth, will lies be revealed!

1. Smooth gestures.  This one is a favorite of mine.  When someone is talking or explaining something, the accompanying gestures, known in body language circles as “illustrators” are smooth and well timed.  Their intensity matches the spoken word. A well timed gesture usually begins right before the spoken word.  If there is a delay after the spoken word and then the gesture comes, the timing is off.  The emotion might not be genuine.  If gestures are mechanical and stiff, they are more than likely manufactured and not genuine.

2. The expression.  I have seen this one in high stakes situations.  While accusing a liar, the liar will often be expressionless.  His mind is on how he will respond.  The accusations do not offend him, because they are true (and he likely has already rationalized and justified his deception).  An innocent person, however, will show emotion at the onset of the accusation.  Real emotion.  I had to terminate an employee for his involvement with selling illegal drugs.  As I explained the undeniable evidence against him, he stood there emotionless.  He offered weak denials.  Most people would be outraged at losing a job for something they didn’t do, much less being falsely accused of being a drug dealer!  I was sure of the evidence prior to the discussion, but I still wanted to be thorough. Later in the discussion, I accused him of something I knew he didn’t do- theft.  He became irate and extremely agitated.  The difference was significant.  He didn’t steal and that prompted a true, emotional and strong denial.  The accusation of selling drugs did not.  Game. Set. Match.

3. FPPTSD.  First person, past tense, singular denial.   This one is a good indicator of honesty.  Deny the conclusion, deny the charge.

“They haven’t arrested me because they don’t have any evidence and they never will because I did not do it.”

-Richard Jewell, falsely accused Olympic bomber

I once investigated a theft case where an employee was accused of stealing expensive electronics.  He reportedly had taken a flat screen TV home.  When I asked him about the television, he stated “we got rid of it, it didn’t work”. Everything up to that point in his story had been “I”.  There was no “we”.  When it came to his denial, it wasn’t singular. This was his way of sharing blame.  Listen to any politician.  When his administration does something good, you will hear a lot of “I” and “Me”.  When things go bad, listen for “We”, and “Us”.

A truthful denial will look or sound something like:  “I didn’t do it” or “I didn’t steal the purse.”  The denials are direct.  The further away from this the denial gets, the more it needs to be scrutinized.

I will discuss more indicators of truth, but these are a good place to start. For an outstanding resource on body language and deception detection, visit http://www.bodylanguagelearning.org.uk/  this site has articles from some highly respected experts in the non-verbal field. Check it out!

Understanding context in body language

Body language cues are, in concept, the same as single words.  Alone, they can mean a number of things.  For example, crossed arms, can mean a person is cold, feeling unreceptive, low confidence or threatened.  What will clarify the meaning of the crossed arms is the cluster of accompanying gestures.  Much like the single word needs other words to help relay meaning.  Think of the word “cool”.  It can mean hip, describe a breeze, or a way of indicating things are ok (it’s cool, man).  Putting the words together form a sentence, a complete thought.  Look for the body language cues to form clusters, or sentences of their own for the most likely meaning of any single indicator.

Take a look at the following photos of people with their hands behind their heads.  They all have obviously different meanings, based on the context.

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Blake_Griffin_hands_behind_his_head_in_disbelief

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Catrinel-Menghia-Hands-Behind-Head-2560x1600-27900

Businessman sitting in chair, hands behind head, smiling, portrait, cut out

In each of these photos, the arm gestures are the same but convey different meanings. The main thing to understand is that the meaning of each is supported by other indicators.  This allows us to make sense of the gesture.

Mom’s body language gives this one away

Yesterday, January 3rd, 2014, High School Football player Gerald Willis III, a top recruit, announced on live television the college football program of his choice.  He is from New Orleans and his mother is a huge Louisiana State University fan (LSU).  I knew she is a LSU fan because a few years ago her other son, Landon Collins was a top recruit and chose to go to the University of Alabama against her wishes.  She stated she was a LSU fan. Willis had narrowed his choice down to two final colleges: The University of Florida and LSU.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Ojy98TYvO8

As I watched this, I knew which school Willis was going to choose.  Mom wasn’t happy, which means he was going to Florida. Her body language clearly indicated she wasn’t happy.  Since she is a LSU fan, it gave away the ending- Willis is going to be a Gator.

Willis is a good player and will do well at Florida, which has an elite defense.  LSU, however, is a great team and will not be short of amazing players either.

A look at emotional dissonance-Chris Weidman, UFC Champion

In the included clip, UFC Middleweight Champion Chris Weidman is discussing his victory over the legendary Anderson Silva.  In the fight, Silva had suffered a complete break of his lower leg when he threw an inside leg kick at Weidman.  Weidman checked, or blocked, the kick with his upper shin and the result was a horrific injury to Silva.

As a former amateur Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) competitor, coach and current enthusiast, I can attest to the pain of simply checking a kick with the bare shin.  I can only imagine the pain SIlva felt, however.

In the above video, Weidman is trying to give the impression of concern for Silva, but his dominant emotion is that of joy.  It is very hard for him to show concern for Silva’s well being at that moment.  This is an example of dissonance, which is a disagreement between what we are thinking, believing or knowing and what we are doing or saying. This does not, in any way, make Weidman a bad person.  It is very likely his abundance of joy is stemming from the events of the evening in which he won a championship bout against one of the greatest fighters of all time.  It is also possible, that Weidman has a little less concern for Silva, as Silva had previously been disrespectful toward Weidman (and many of Silva’s prior opponents as well).

Chris Weidman, UFC Middleweight Champion

Chris Weidman, UFC Middleweight Champion

Having spent countless hours training with and coaching competitive MMA fighters, including many that have competed in the UFC, I have learned that they all accept the risk of injury, Silva included.  In a fighter’s world, injuries are understood to be part of the game.

That makes this clip a good example of why we should believe what we see in the emotion of a speaker over what we hear them say.  Try watching the clip without sound, and just observe Weidman’s facial expressions.  You will come away with the impression of a person who is happy, not concerned.  If you have trained or are familiar with micro expression or subtle expression recognition, what did you see?

Congrats to Chris Weidman, and a speedy recovery to Anderson Silva.

Follow me on Twitter: @RyanMannWVMMA

A declaration of honesty increases truthfulness in statements

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Research shows that if you have a subject sign an declaration of honesty prior to an event such as a test, job application or witness statement, the odds increase significantly that the subject will be considerably more honest than if he does not sign a declaration of honesty or he signs one at the end of the event (Lisa Shu et al. 2012).

The research showed that if the subject signs a declaration of honesty after the event, the subject still lied 63% of the time.  If the subject did not sign anything at all, he lied 79% of the time.  If he signed a declaration of honesty prior to the the event, however, the dishonesty occurred at a much lower 37%.

Increasing the odds for truthfulness is important in so many areas- human resources, law enforcement interviews, buying a car, etc. Anything that improves our odds of getting honesty out of others, is worthy of consideration.

The psychology behind this phenomenon is known as Cognitive Consistency Theory.  This theory states the need to be consistent is a powerful drive in human beings.  In order to keep our belief system in alignment (psychologists refer to this state as “equilibrium”), we must act consistently.  The theory purports that the actions we take strongly influence our belief system, and not always the other way around.  Therefore, signing a declaration of honesty sets in motion the need to be honest.  This need to be consistent can be used to your advantage.  It is also a powerful driving force behind some negative situations such as confirmation bias, which is the tendency to seek out and emphasize information that supports an established belief while under valuing or outright ignoring facts and information that are counter to that previously established belief.

A similar and more well known psychological phenomenon, Cognitive Dissonance Theory, holds that when our actions do not match our belief system, we experience internal conflict.  This conflict must be resolved to reestablish equilibrium.  Edward Snowden’s NSA situation is likely a result of a strong sense of internal conflict (dissonance) brought on by the fact that he was acting (in his role for the NSA) in a way that did not align with his beliefs.  In order to bring himself back to balance, he had to act just as strongly in the opposite direction.  I am not advocating Snowden’s actions.  His actions appear to be strong example of dissonance.  (Of course, there could be another reason for Snowden’s decisions. I’m simply theorizing without all of the facts of his case here for illustrative purposes.)

If your subject is showing signs of discomfort beyond those expected for the situation (and what is known for that person, if any), then he might be experiencing dissonance.  His discomfort is possibly being brought on by the need to act (tell you a lie) in a way that is in conflict with what he believes (knows).  Your applicant may be telling you he is a punctual, hard working and detail-oriented person while knowing he has had problems with his work ethic in the past.

An important point to keep in mind, however, is the risk vs. reward decision process occurring with your subject.  If you are interviewing a murder suspect, who is looking at life in prison or the death penalty, it is considerably less likely to get the confession out of him simply because he signed a declaration of honesty prior to making his statement.  However, it won’t hurt.  The strategy can be a first step in moving toward a successful interview.  A subject’s motivation is an important factor and must considered, if known.  As is well established, our moral standing erodes when faced with strong temptation.  For example, if you find a wallet with $1 in it, returning it to the owner is not a big decision.  Turning in a lost bag with several $100 bills in it to the police is a much more difficult choice to make.

If you do not have the opportunity to have a subject sign a declaration of honesty, or anti-fraud statement, you can swear him in or simply reiterate to him the importance of honesty in the upcoming procedure and get him to verbally agree on the importance of being truthful.  This will help put him on the right path.  During the interview, thank him repeatedly for his honesty.

Scout's honor

Scout’s honor

Signing the declaration of honesty is a great tactic to encourage the truth. Add it to your hiring process, interviewing strategy or wherever you can best use it to increase the odds in your favor. Good luck!

Follow me on Twitter! @RyanMannWVMMA