Lately, I found myself noticing how skilled some folks are at not telling the truth. Politicians and car salesmen are renowned for being dishonest. But what’s often overlooked are skilled liars who might be a coworker, a supervisor, a leading executive, a family member, or maybe a neighbor. It isn’t until a major scandal, such as the scandals involving top CEOs (such as Allen Stanford and Bernie Madoff) which people take note that lying is much more pervasive and far more challenging to detect than we think. The scandal at 2009 included CEO Allen Stanford and other top executives of Stanford Financial Group. They were detained and convicted of fraud for scheming investors (for more than two decades). Allen Stanford was sentenced to 110 years in prison for a $7 billion Ponzi scheme.
The NY Times article stated: “Prosecutors argued that Mr. Stanford had always listened to investors, encouraging secure investments for cash that he steered right into a luxurious lifestyle, a Swiss bank accounts and assorted business deals that nearly never triumphed” It also stated that Stanford was convicted “of conducting an global scheme over more than two decades where he provided fraudulent high school certificates of deposit in the Stanford International Bank, which was founded on the Caribbean island of Antigua.”
And, even as he left his closing statement in court, Stanford continued to lie by saying: “I am up here to tell you in my heart that I did not conduct a Ponzi scheme.” The federal prosecutor called his statement “obscene” and said that: “This is a man utterly without guilt … from beginning to end, he handled all of his victims as roadkill.” I am unhappy to say that Allen Stanford graduated from my alma mater, Baylor University.
The other scandal (late 2008) is possibly even more outrageous and notorious. It involved Bernie Madoff, wherein he lied, stole and laundered money, and tricked thousands of investors out of billions of dollars. Even more incredible was that the scheme lasted for 2 or even three decades! Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison for his Ponzi scheme.
An article in Scientific American led me into a book by professor Aldert Vrij known as “Detecting Lies and Deceit” (Vrij, 2008). Although I’ve not read the whole publication, there were a few chapters and bits of advice regarding lying and detecting liars that I found absolutely fascinating. Specifically, Ch. 14 “Pitfalls: Why People Fail to Catch Liars” and Ch. 11 “Physiological Lie Detection: The Concern Approach” (roughly polygraphs) were especially beneficial.
Dr. Vrij identified three unique categories that make detection of lying challenging: (I) a lack of motivation to detect lies; (ii) issues connected with lie detection; and (iii) common mistakes made by lie detectors. I wish to focus on “good liars” (identified on pp. 378-381), one of the seven reasons listed under “difficulties linked with lie detection.”
“Good liars are those people: (i) whose natural behaviour disarms suspicion; (ii) who do not find it cognitively difficult to lie; and (iii) who do not experience emotions such as fear, guilt, or duping delight when they are lying” (Vrij, 2008, p. 378).
CHARACTERISTICS OF GOOD LIARS
There are 8 Characteristics of Good Liars / Good at Lying (Vrij, 2008, p. 378-379):
(1) Being natural performers: “Directed gaze to a conversation partner, smiling, head nodding, leaning forward, direct body orientation, posture mirroring, uncrossed arms, articulate gesturing, moderate speaking rates, a lack of ums and ers, and vocal variety” are often associated with being honest and likable.
(2) Being well prepared: “Good liars therefore say as little as possible or say things that are impossible for others to verify. The less verifiable information is given, the less opportunity it provides for the lie detector to check.” The better the preparation (and the more believable the lie), the easier it is for good liars to lie effectively.
(3) Being original: People who are especially good at lying are mentally creative and original. They’re able to offer a convincing and credible answer in almost any situation.
(4) Rapid thinking: Good liars are quick to respond to a question because waiting too long to answer would arouse suspicion. Thus, being able to think quickly is an important characteristic.
(5) Being eloquent: Being eloquent, in the context of being a good liar, means that you provide a long-winded, intentionally vague response to avoid answering the question. Good liars might even say something that, on the surface, sounds plausible, but actually does not answer the question. Just imagine a skilled politician dodging a question and you get the idea.
(6) Good memory: Good liars must have a good memory or else they risk getting caught in their web of lies. They have to be able to recall what they’ve previously said so they can repeat theta same information without contradicting themselves.
(7) Not experiencing guilt, fear, or delight: “Deceiving others is made easier if the liar does not experience feelings of guilt, fear or delight, because in that case there will not be any emotional behaviour that needs to be suppressed.”
(8) Good at acting: If a person is not a “natural performer” (the first characteristic listed) or they are not especially skilled at masking their guilt, fear, or delight when lying (the seventh characteristic listed), then being a good actor is a must. Good liars are masters with excellent decoding skills. They can adapt to quickly to disarm suspicion.
MISTAKES BY LIE DETECTORS THAT MAKE DETECTING GOOD LIARS DIFFICULT
Under “Common Errors Made by Lie Detectors”, Dr Vrij explained that, in addition to lie detection being difficult, those who play the role of lie detectors also make SEVEN mistakes. I’ll just mention five mistakes below.
(1) Examining the Wrong Cues: Lie detectors (referring to people whose job is to spot liars, such as police detectives) might look at the wrong cues. For instance, one police manual says that liars tend to look away and make grooming gestures. But a lie detection study, Dr. Vrij found that the more police officers endorsed the lie cues promoted in that police manual, the worse they were at detecting suspects who lied and suspects who told the truth.
(2) Neglect of Interpersonal Differences: There are large differences when it comes to people’s behavior, speech, and physiological responses. “The result is that people whose natural behaviour looks suspicious (e.g., people who naturally avert their gaze or fidget a lot) are in a disadvantageous position, because they run the risk of being falsely accused of lying . . . Introverted and socially anxious people in particular run such a risk” (Vrij, 2008, p. 383).
(3) Neglect of Intrapersonal Differences: “Not only do different people respond differently in the same situation (interpersonal differences), the same person also responds differently in different situations (intrapersonal differences). Neglecting or underestimating those intrapersonal differences is another error that lie catchers make. The failure to control adequately for intrapersonal differences is one of the main criticisms of concern-based polygraph tests” (Vrij, 2008, p. 383).
(4) Use of Heuristics: Following general decision rules (heuristics) can easily lead to mistakes and biases. For example, facial appearance heuristic is the “tendency to judge people with attractive faces or baby-faced appearances as honest” (Vrij, 2008, p. 385). And the fundamental attribution error which occurs when we form impressions of others and then overestimate their character factors while underestimating situational factors. Thus, if we believe someone to be trustworthy, we will judge that person a telling the truth in any given situation. On the other hand, if we think someone is untrustworthy, we’ll tend to judge that individual as dishonest in any given situation. “Obviously, trustworthy people are not honest all of the time and untrustworthy people are not always dishonest” (Vrij, 2008, p. 385).
(5) Overestimating the Accuracy of Lie Detection Tools: We tend to overestimate the accuracy of lie detection tools. However, despite the belief that polygraphs or fMRI brain scans are effective, Dr. Vrij argued that “every single lie detection tool used to date is far from accurate and prone to errors” (p. 386).