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Spy The Lie

The Hidden Sources of Love Character and Achievement

Philip Houston, Mike Floyd and Susan Carnicero

Lie detection is big business these days. Former FBI agents such as Joe Navarro command six-figure sums to tell CEOs and chairmen how to spot when someone is lying to them. Television series such as Lie to Me, starring Tim Roth, have compounded the idea that detecting deception is a science, a skill that can be learnt and applied.

Now we have this book, by three former CIA agents (and a ghost writer), which is the distillation of their collective experiences in developing a “detection of deception methodology”. “We decided the next logical step was to introduce the model everywhere so people could use it in everyday life, at home, at work and at school.” They also include some handy lists of questions that you might use when interviewing a potential nanny, asking your children about their recreational drug use, or interrogating a spouse about a suspected infidelity.

The key to weeding out deception is, apparently, to adopt what the authors describe as “L-squared mode”, which sounds like something from Fifty Shades of Grey, but is actually “using one’s auditory and visual senses, to [wait for it] look and listen simultaneously in order to observe both verbal and nonverbal deceptive behaviours”. In other words, when you ask someone a question, you might want to look at them carefully as they answer.

The reason for L-squared mode is to spot clusters of deceptive behaviours. So if you ask your 12-year-old if she has done her homework and she responds by saying “what homework?” (avoiding a direct answer), closes her eyes (nonverbal deceptive behaviour) and says “why do you always do this” (attack behaviour), then smooths her hair (grooming for reassurance) and says, “I always do my homework” (a convincing statement, rather than a specific answer) — you can be pretty sure that she hasn’t even looked at her French irregular verbs. It is conceivable, of course, that some parents might have ­figured out that particular cluster of deceptive behaviours without the aid of this book.

More useful, especially to anyone who has been watching the Leveson inquiry, are some of the verbal tics people use when they are trying to conceal something. Prolific use of what the authors call “perception qualifiers” such as “frankly”, “truthfully”, “to be perfectly honest” and “basically” should ring alarm bells, as the more often someone asserts they are speaking the truth, the less likely it is they are doing so. Another giveaway is the “convincing statement” — used to answer a direct question. So, when you ask a child if they have ever used drugs, instead of saying “no” or “absolutely not”, they reply with “why don’t you trust me”, or “I can’t believe you would think I would do that.” Or there is the unfaithful spouse who says, “But I love you, I would never do anything to hurt you”, rather than “No, I didn’t sleep with her/him.” If someone comes out with a slew of these statements then something is probably up.

The authors quote the testimony of a mother who killed her two sons when her car rolled into a lake with the ­children trapped inside. Initially she claimed that the car had been hijacked, and repeatedly said, “I love my children, why would I do anything to hurt my kids, I would never hurt my kids.” The investigators believed her, because in their experience mothers did not kill their ­children. They were astonished when she confessed to the crime three days later. Or, as that 17th-century lie detector Hamlet said, “The lady doth ­protest too much, methinks.”

Another giveaway is the overly specific answer. When the then governor Bill Clinton was asked on 60 Minutes about the allegation made by Gennifer Flowers that she’d had a 12-year affair with him, Clinton (trained as a lawyer) replied, “That allegation is false.” Technically he was ­correct: the affair had gone on for 11½ years. When questioned later about the Monica Lewinsky affair, Clinton was again ­suspiciously precise, saying “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” — oral sex in America not counting as sexual relations legally. The other giveaway was calling his former intern “that woman”; instead of using her name he was distancing himself verbally from any association with her. If you ask, “Does my bum look big in this?” and the answer comes back, “It depends how you define big”, you might want to wear something else.

The authors, two of whom now run a truth-consultancy business called QVerity, are generous with their tips for a successful interrogation. If a subject says “I don’t remember”, rather than responding “How can you not remember?”, you should instead ask, “Is there any reason that anyone might tell us that he saw the two of you together?” Another trick is to ask the suspect what they think should happen to someone who has committed the crime of which they are suspected: if they suggest a two-week holiday in the Bahamas as a punishment for child abuse rather than locking them up and throwing away the key, you may well have made a breakthrough.

Apart from stating the bleeding obvious, there are two main problems with this book. The first is that lie detectors are born and not made. In a famous experiment conducted in California in the 1970s, the researchers found that judges, policemen, lawyers and polygraph operators were no better than college students at spotting liars — they found that the ability to spot fibbers at least 80% of the time was a rare phenomenon, occurring in only about one in 400 people. The second problem is that even if you are one of those exceptional people, is this ability going to improve your quality of life? Do you really want to know when you ask, “Where were you last night”, that the answer is a lie? Ignorance, quite often, can be bliss

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