Tag Archives: psychology

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 ryan@centralfloridainvestigations.com

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 https://ryanemann.wordpress.com/2014/01/14/want-to-catch-a-liar-look-for-the-truth/

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.

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!