The Words Reveal
By Paul M. Clikeman, PH.D., CFE
Suspects and witnesses often reveal more than they intend through their choices of words. Here are ways to detect possible deception in written and oral statements.
The manager of a fast food restaurant calls the police late at night to report that an armed robber had entered the restaurant while the manager was alone in the office finishing some paperwork. The manager said the gunman had stolen the entire day’s cash receipts — a little more than $4,000. The manager had reported a similar robbery at the restaurant about six months earlier. No other witnesses were present at either alleged robbery. The restaurant owner learns from police investigators that armed robbery is extremely unusual in the surrounding neighborhood. Also, the owner knows that the manager’s wages have been garnished for the last year for nonpayment of child support. The owner hires you, a CFE, to investigate whether the manager is filing false police reports to cover his thefts. You begin your investigation by asking the manager to write a description of the evening’s events.
Linguistic text analysis involves studying the language, grammar and syntax a subject uses to describe an event to detect any anomalies. Experienced investigators are accustomed to studying interview subjects’ nonverbal behavior, such as eye contact and hand movement. Text analysis, on the other hand, considers only the subject’s verbal behavior. Because text analysis evaluates only the subject’s words, investigators can apply it to written as well as oral statements. In fact, many investigators prefer to analyze suspects’ written statements for signs of deception before conducting face-to-face interviews.
Text analysis is based on research originating in the 1970s. Psychologists and linguists studied the language and word choices of subjects in controlled experiments and found predictable differences between truthful and deceptive statements. Susan Adams, an instructor who taught text analysis (which she called statement analysis) at the FBI Academy for many years, described it as a two-part process (“Statement Analysis: What Do Suspects’ Words Really Reveal?” FBI Law Enforcement Journal, October 1996). First, investigators determine what is typical of a truthful statement. Secondly, they look for deviations from the norm.
The following section describes deviations that suggest a subject may be withholding, altering or fabricating information.
TEN SIGNS OF DECEPTION
1. Lack of self-reference
Truthful people make frequent use of the pronoun “I” to describe their actions: “I arrived home at 6:30. The phone was ringing as I unlocked the front door, so I walked straight to the kitchen to answer it. I talked to my mother for 10 minutes before noticing that my TV and computer were missing from the living room.” This brief statement contains the pronoun “I” four times in three sentences.
Deceptive people often use language that minimizes references to themselves. One way to reduce self-references is to describe events in the passive voice.
- “The safe was left unlocked” rather than “I left the safe unlocked.”
- “The shipment was authorized” rather than “I authorized the shipment.”
Another way to reduce self-references is to substitute the pronoun “you” for “I.”
Question: “Can you tell me about reconciling the bank statement?”
Answer: “You know, you try to identify all the outstanding checks and deposits in transit, but sometimes when you’re really busy you just post the differences to the suspense account.”
In oral statements and informal written statements, deceptive witnesses sometimes simply omit self-referencing pronouns. Consider this statement by a husband who claims his wife was killed accidently: “I picked up the gun to clean it. Moved it to the left hand to get the cleaning rod. Something bumped the trigger. The gun went off, hitting my wife.” The husband acknowledges in the first sentence that he picked up the gun. But the second sentence is grammatically incomplete; “I” has been omitted from the beginning of the sentence. In the third sentence, “something” rather than “I” bumped the trigger. The statement also contains few personal possessive pronouns. The witness refers to “the” gun and “the” left hand where we might expect “my” to be used.
2. Verb tense.
Truthful people usually describe historical events in the past tense. Deceptive people sometimes refer to past events as if the events were occurring in the present. Describing past events using the present tense suggests that people are rehearsing the events in their mind. Investigators should pay particular attention to points in a narrative at which the speaker shifts to inappropriate present tense usage. Consider the following statement made by an employee claiming that a pouch containing $6,000 in cash was stolen before she could deposit it at the bank (I have emphasized certain words.):
“After closing the store, I put the cash pouch in my car and drove to the Olympia Bank building on Elm Street. It was raining hard so I had to drive slowly. I entered the parking lot and drove around back to the night depository slot. When I stopped the car and rolled down my window, a guy jumps out of the bushes and yells at me. I can see he has a gun. He grabs the cash pouch and runs away. The last I saw him he was headed south on Elm Street. After he was gone, I called the police on my cell phone and reported the theft.”
The first three sentences describe the employee’s drive to the bank in the past tense. But the next three sentences describe the alleged theft in the present tense. An alert investigator might suspect that the employee stole the day’s cash receipts, then drove to the bank and called the police from the bank parking lot to report a phony theft. (See another example in “Antics with Semantics” at bottom.)
3. Answering questions with questions
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