The 10 Tell-Tale Signs of Deception 2

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.


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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The Psychopathic Corporation — A Clinical Diagnosis (PCLR), by Dr. Robert Hare 3

Dr. Robert Hare is the foremost scholar and practicioner in the field of psychopathy and sociopathy, in the world today. In this video, Dr. Hare goes through the clinical dimensions for the assessment of psychopathy in individuals (Psychopathy Checklist Revised), and uses these dimensions to assess the behavior patterns of post-modern multinational corporations. His assessment hardly flatters today’s corporate world. Yes, the average corporation is psychopathic; and does that really surprise you?

This kind of exercise applies to any kind of organization, be it public or private, or public/private.

You can read more about Dr. Hare’s excellent work in his own webpage:

How to Powerfully Begin Every Presentation Reply

Communication expert Gary Hankins explains the 4 ways to grab attention and focus the audience on your subject. This powerful strategy and many more are in his highly acclaimed book The Power of the Pitch: Transform Yourself into a Persuasive Presenter and Win More Business available at

Suspicious? Use This 30-Second Ploy to Discover the Truth Reply

By Chris Simmons

When you suspect someone of wrongdoing, you can use a simple psychological ploy to force them to reveal what they’re hiding. Known as the similar scenario or the allusion power play, this technique uses a query to expose an individual’s unconscious attitudes and thoughts. According to Dr. David Lieberman, a noted expert in the field of human behavior, this protocol is the verbal equivalent of the inkblot test (also known as the Rorschach test).

In using this tactic, do not refer to the suspected misconduct, but tell a story about a third party engaged in identical behavior. Since the individual is not being accused, he/she will not be defensive. However, their response will clearly demonstrate whether they are being truthful.

To demonstrate, let’s use a frequent area of concern – a cheating spouse/significant other. Rather than accusing your loved one of having an affair, tell him/her that you think a colleague is having an affair. Do it rather casually when you are face-to-face so you can watch for body language “tells.” Deliver your story quickly to maximize the element of surprise. Do not “buildup” the event as this could give your partner time to prepare or make them apprehensive.

For example, while clearing the table after dinner, you could turn to your significant other and say:  “Hey Gorgeous, guess what happened at work? I think my boss is having an affair with that new 20-something he just hired.” Now watch the reaction. An innocent person will immediately ask questions and willingly discuss the topic with you. Conversely, a guilty party will be uncomfortable and seek to change the subject as a means of putting distance between themselves and the errant behavior.

I recall a time we used the allusion power play in Afghanistan. We had an intelligence source we began to suspect was working for the Taliban, or possibly al-Qaeda. Had we accused him, he would have denied it (and if he was a double agent, he would have employed countermeasures to mask his exploits). Instead, we told him we appeared to have a problem with Taliban penetration of our spy network and needed his help in creating more safeguards to protect our operations and personnel. Rather than reacting negatively and asking if he was a suspect, our source was proud we respected him so much that we had sought his assistance.

He created a list of detailed recommendations. Although he had displayed the “innocence response,” we were concerned that his espionage service might have played a role in his reaction. As a result, still not absolutely convinced of his loyalty, we thanked him for his efforts and told him we needed more options in our array of tactics, techniques, and procedures. He happily developed a diverse range of additional alternatives. Still not satisfied, we pressed him to develop even more sophisticated options. He complied – quite successfully. Now absolutely convinced of his loyalty, we “promoted” him and shortly thereafter (based on hard evidence) jailed several of his colleagues for having attempted to frame him.

I have never known the allusion ploy to fail, even when it appeared highly likely that an individual was guilty, as in the above scenario. It is, in essence, an instant psychological test. By not accusing an individual, you side-step their natural defensive behavior. Then, by telling a story or asking for their help in stopping the suspected behavior, you create an artificial trap – one that’s smart enough only to catch the guilty ones.

Dr. Jack Brown on Nonverbal Communication Reply

Presentation of of Dr. Jack Brown at CSI World’s 33rd Annual Crime Stoppers International Training Conference, October 3, 2012 Las Vegas, Nevada. Video recorded and posted by Scott Mills, Crime Stoppers International Social Media Adviser.

Note: The audio quality is poor during the introduction, but improves significantly once Dr. Brown takes the stage at 2:23.

Your Use of Pronouns Reveals Your Personality 1

by James W. Pennebaker, Harvard Business Review

The finding: A person’s use of function words—the pronouns, articles, prepositions, conjunctions, and auxiliary verbs that are the connective tissue of language—offers deep insights into his or her honesty, stability, and sense of self.

The research: In the 1990s, James Pennebaker helped develop a computer program that counted and categorized words in texts, differentiating content words, which convey meaning, from function words. After analyzing 400,000 texts—including essays by college students, instant messages between lovers, chat room discussions, and press conference transcripts—he concluded that function words are important keys to someone’s psychological state and reveal much more than content words do.

The challenge: Can insignificant words really provide a “window to the soul”?

Professor Pennebaker, defend your research.

Pennebaker: When we began analyzing people’s writing and speech, we didn’t expect results like this. For instance, when we analyzed poems by writers who committed suicide versus poems by those who didn’t, we thought we’d find more dark and negative content words in the suicides’ poetry. We didn’t—but we did discover significant differences in the frequency of words like “I.” In study after study, we kept finding the same thing. When we analyzed military transcripts, we could tell people’s relative ranks based on their speech patterns—and again, it was the pronouns, articles, conjunctions, and other function words that made a difference, not the content words.

HBR: Why are function words so important?

In English there are about 500 function words, and about 150 are really common. Content words—nouns, verbs, adjectives, and most adverbs—convey the guts of communication. They’re how we express ideas. Function words help shape and shortcut language. People require social skills to use and understand function words, and they’re processed in the brain differently. They are the key to understanding relationships between speakers, objects, and other people. When we analyze people’s use of function words, we can get a sense of their emotional state and personality, and their age and social class.

Here’s a simple, pronoun-heavy sentence: I don’t think I buy it.

Ooh. You just revealed something about yourself in that statement. Why did you say “I don’t think I buy it” instead of “I don’t buy it” or even “That’s ridiculous”? Pronouns tell us where people focus their attention. If someone uses the pronoun “I,” it’s a sign of self-focus. Say someone asks “What’s the weather outside?” You could answer “It’s hot” or “I think it’s hot.” The “I think” may seem insignificant, but it’s quite meaningful. It shows you’re more focused on yourself. Depressed people use the word “I” much more often than emotionally stable people. People who are lower in status use “I” much more frequently.

Can you tell if someone’s lying by their use of function words?

Yes. A person who’s lying tends to use “we” more or use sentences without a first-person pronoun at all. Instead of saying “I didn’t take your book,” a liar might say “That’s not the kind of thing that anyone with integrity would do.” People who are honest use exclusive words like “but” and “without” and negations such as “no,” “none,” and “never” much more frequently. We’ve analyzed transcripts of court testimony, and the differences in speech patterns are really clear.

Function words sound like two-by-fours: They’re important but not meaningful in creating the overall architecture.

You might even think of function words as the nails. It seems natural to pay them little regard. If you type a sentence into Google, its algorithms disregard function words, because it’s interested in content. But these words convey important subtleties—“a ring” versus “that ring.” In foreign languages, function words often convey people’s status relative to one another.

Key Numbers:  Out of 100,000 words in the average English speaker’s vocabulary, function words account for only about 500, or 0.5%. Fifty-five percent of what we speak, hear, and read in typical speech, however, is made up of these function words.

If you listened to a job interview, what would the use of function words tell you?

It’s almost impossible to hear the differences naturally, which is why we use transcripts and computer analysis. Take a person who’s depressed. “I” might make up 6.5% of his words, versus 4% for a nondepressed person. That’s a huge difference statistically, but our ears can’t pick it up. But hypothetically, if I were to listen to an interview, I might consider how the candidate talks about their coworkers at their last job. Do they refer to them as “we” or “they”? That gives you a sense of their relationship to the group. And if you want someone who’s really decisive in a position, a person who says “It’s hot” rather than “I think it’s hot” may be a better fit.

The 20 Most Commonly Used Words

How do people react to your analyses of their speech?

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James W. Pennebaker is the chair of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us (Bloomsbury Press, 2011).