10 Questions for deception detector R. Edward Geiselman
Lie to him? You might want to think twice before fudging the truth with UCLA Professor of Psychology R. Edward Geiselman. An authority on detecting deceit, Geiselman has shared his expertise in eyewitness psychology and investigative interviewing techniques with the FBI, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Marines, the Los Angeles police and sheriff’s departments, and numerous international agencies. His approach has played a part in everything from helping prevent insurgent activity in Iraq to solving cases of child molestation.
In the April issue of the American Journal of Forensic Psychiatry, Geiselman was the lead author of a research article on effective programs for training interrogators to detect deception. The following interview for UCLA Today and UCLA News|Week was conducted by Matt Boatright-Simon, broadcast studio director for UCLA Media Relations and Public Outreach.
You have a doctorate degree in experimental psychology. How did you get from there to becoming an expert in deception detection?
I’ve always studied memory retrieval — not how we create memories in the first place, but how you get memories out once they’re already up there in your head. So it was a natural for me when, back in the 1980s, the U.S. Justice Department wanted somebody to develop techniques that police officers could use to help crime victims remember more, and remember with greater accuracy. At that time, Professor Ronald Fisher (now at Florida International University) and I developed what we call the "cognitive interview," with techniques to help jog people’s memories.
Then, about three-and-a-half years ago, I was approached by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. They wanted to know, "What can we do if, in a mass-transit situation, somebody appears suspicious and we engage them in a consensual conversation … What questions can we ask and what do we look for to see if they’re truly up to no good?" That’s how I got into the world of detecting deception.
How good is the average person at recognizing if someone is lying?
Most people are terrible at it. There are a few people out there — they’re called "lie wizards" — who are very good at it naturally. We don’t fully understand how they do it. But the majority of people, 99 percent, are terrible. Studies of TV shows like "Lie to Me" show that fans of these shows believe that it’s easier than it truly is to detect deception. These studies were done on people for jury duty. Folks with this opinion about it being easy to detect lies can be dangerous on a jury.
Do deceptive people have a well-rehearsed story that they tell during an investigative interview?
Most do not. Deceptive people are usually more worried about being detected in the first place rather than about having a story to tell if someone confronts them. If they are put in a position of needing to lie, they usually tell only the bare bones of the story. They intentionally tell the minimum because they know they have to maintain the lie over time, and they also think that saying too much will appear to be deceptive.
How do people who are lying react when they’re challenged with questions?
"The dog ate my homework. Really! Why should I lie?"
Deceptive people often will avoid answering the question altogether, or they’ll provide just a weak denial. Or they may object to the challenge by saying something like, "I’m not that kind of person, why would I lie?," rather than answering the question.
You recommend that investigative interviewers ask open-ended questions, rather than questions that invite short answers. Why is that?
Regardless of whether we think somebody’s going to be deceptive or not, we try to ask questions in an open-ended fashion — questions like, "Tell me more about," or "Explain to me such-and-such in more detail." This is to get the person being interviewed to do the talking, instead of the interviewer. Sometimes an interviewer goes in wanting to control things by doing all the talking, but that’s playing into the hands of a potentially deceptive person, who doesn’t want to talk. We train investigators to ask open-ended questions and even insert pauses to get the other person talking.
One of your lie-detection techniques is to ask people to tell their story backwards. How does this work?
Deceptive people are already under a heavy cognitive load because they have to maintain the consistency of their story over time. They also have to monitor the person who is interviewing them to see if they’re buying the story or they have to adjust the story to make it more believable. The reverse-order technique adds to that heavy cognitive load, increasing the likelihood of the telltale signs of deception.
We use the reverse-order technique near the end of the interview when we think we’ve got about as much information as we’re going to get from their story and our follow-up questions. We’ll say something like, "Thank you very much for what you’ve told me. It’s been very helpful, but now I’d like you to try just one more thing to see if you can remember anything further. I’d like you to start at the very end of the story as you’ve told it and go backwards in time, being as detailed as you can." Deceptive people have a great deal of trouble doing that. Some truthful people do as well, but deceptive people really have a tough time doing it, and the basic indicators of deception start showing up.
What are some of these basic indicators?
As I’ve already mentioned, deceptive people tend to be very brief in their stories. They also tend to spontaneously justify the few things that they are telling you, even though you’ve not asked them any "why?" questions. It’s as if they’re trying to get you to believe them. There are also vocal indicators. A person who is lying will often start out answering a question slowly and then speed up. Probably they start out slow because they’re trying to think of what their answer should be, but then as they realize they’re not being forthcoming or don’t appear to be, they’ll speed up once they’ve got their story together.
Then there are body-language cues, things like hand gestures. Gesturing toward one’s body with the hands and grooming behaviors like playing with one’s hair tend to be associated with being uncomfortable and deceptive. Truthful people are less likely to engage in these behaviors. Any given one of these indicators is not a surefire sign of deception, but they’re hot spots. They’re red flags, if you will, and if you see a lot of these in combination, the odds are that they’re being deceptive.
What’s the cognitive interview you developed for interviewing witnesses and victims of crime?
The cognitive interview is a collection of communication skills and memory-jogging techniques to elicit more and better information — details such as a name, a number, a better description of a person, that sort of thing. While it was developed for victims and witnesses of crime, it can be used for virtually any kind of situation. This interview — which typically takes two or three hours to cover something that may have taken place in 10 or 15 seconds — begins with developing rapport with the person to get them to feel very comfortable talking.
Then we essentially tell them exactly what’s going to go on in the interview from beginning to end. We do this because there’s quite a bit of research showing that many people are ill at ease about what’s going to happen, and that can retard the success of the interview. Then we ask them to give us the narrative, telling us as much as they can remember about the event. We try to get them to put themselves back there in the event, mentally imagining that they’re back there while they’re telling the narrative. We follow up with questions to get them to elaborate on what they’ve told us, and then we’ll try the reverse-order technique and a couple other memory-jogging techniques before we summarize and close the interview.
I understand that this type of interview has proven very useful in working with victims of child molestation.
In the late 1980s-early ’90s, when child abuse and neglect was considered the No. 1 social issue by the U.S. Department of Justice, we developed a version of the cognitive interview specifically for use in interviewing children. One of the elements is "change perspectives," when an investigator asks the victim to think about what happened from the cognitive perspective of somebody else who was present. Asking a question like, "What would so-and-so have been thinking throughout this?" often can jog memories. In cases of child molestation, often the alleged victim doesn’t want to disclose what happened, for a variety of reasons. Recalling one particular case, the interviewer used the change-perspectives technique in a unique way, saying to the child, "I understand you have a California Raisin (a toy popular in the late 1980s) up on the shelf in your bedroom. What would the California Raisin have seen if it were watching when Uncle Jimmy came into your room?" With that, the child disclosed quite a bit of information that corresponded with other parts of the investigation.
You’re developing programs to train interrogators in law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Why is this important, and what challenges do you face?
Without training and without experience, people in the position of detecting deception aren’t very good at it. With a lot of experience, they get much better, but training will speed up this learning curve. We’re developing an extensive program that educates investigators about the most reliable indicators of deception, illustrates these with lots of video examples and follows up with role-playing exercises and practice interviews with actors.
The challenge is that it’s very difficult for academics and practitioners in the intelligence world to interact. Our communications channels often aren’t in sync. Academics like to publish their work. But intelligence people, for obvious reasons, like to keep things secret. From my perspective, it’s pretty hard to get promoted at an academic institution when you can’t talk about what you’re doing.