Is the Truth Out There?

Is the Truth Out There?

written by: Susan Krauss Whitbourne

by: Susan Krauss Whitbourne
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We've been hearing a lot in the last week about who is lying when "facts" and "alternative facts" are presented by government spokespersons. This focus on truth-telling leads to the question of how to figure out whether any of the people you know are providing you with so-called alternatives to the truth. Psychologists suggest all sorts of ways to figure out how to sniff out a fibber, but so far these do not provide clear guidelines. Among professionals in law enforcement, this is more than an academic question as it can literally be a matter of life and death. A new proposal by John Jay College's Timothy Luke and colleagues describes a procedure for law enforcement officers that can have the potential help those of us who just want to get to the bottom of the stories people tell us.

Luke and his collaborators describe the "SUE" procedure, short for the Strategic Use of Evidence, as a way to plan, structure, and conduct an interview with a criminal suspect. Its premise is that "liars and truth-tellers use different strategies to convince" (p. 271). Liars will offer as little information as possible because they don't want to be caught in an inconsistency with the actual facts, and truth-tellers will offer very complete answers to questions because they have nothing to hide. The SUE procedure uses a "funnel" approach in which you ask first for a free narrative of events followed by increasingly specific questions. Using this procedure, you don't present the evidence first because this will give the liar information that he or she can use to construct a scenario that will just so happen to match that evidence.

Let's start with an example of how this might work. Suppose a coworker told you that he sent an email that you discover, later, he did not send. As a result of his ineptitude and cover-up, you and your office look inefficient. Or perhaps your roommate or partner claims to have paid a bill but didn't actually pay that bill. In both cases, something was supposed to happen that didn't, but was easily discovered by you. It's clear that you've been lied to, but you're not sure how to get the other person to admit to the truth.

The SUE procedure is intended to be used for determining who's lying when someone is a "suspect" in the legal sense, but it would also be useful in these situations when someone you know has been dishonest. In these cases, your goal isn't to discover the truth about that act, but to reveal the other person's deception.

You would begin to get your own "suspect" to admit the truth, the Luke et al. team would suggest, by asking the individual to tell you what happened in an open-ended fashion: "So, when you sent that email, what response did you get?" You could then present some of the evidence you have, such as "I didn't see that response, though" (or "I didn't see that bill pay record on the online bank app"). Now you might get a truthful admission of guilt, or another lie such as "I must have accidentally deleted the email" or "I've been having trouble with that email account. The response in the case of the bill might be more difficult to lie about, but it could take the form of "I know I submitted the payment, something must have gone wrong at the bank's end."

As your "questioning" proceeds, you can start to narrow the funnel even more, making it clear that you've done some investigating already and found the evidence of the missing email or payment. Eventually, depending on your relationship with this person, the truth will come out, according to the SUE model.

In the Luke and colleagues study, the "suspects" were 59 adults ranging from 19 to 74 years of age who were interviewed by 59 students and instructors at a U.S. federal law enforcement training facility in Georgia. The suspects were experimentally assigned either to a truth-telling or lying condition regarding the theft of sensitive documents from a simulated bus station. Both innocent and guilty suspects handled the same materials (a briefcase containing those sensitive documents) in the process of locating supposed bus maps (that were not in fact present at the scene). The participants were enticed with the chance to win $100 if they could convince their interviewers that they were innocent.

The interrogators were divided into two groups: those who received SUE training (treatment group) and those who did not (controls). After familiarizing themselves with the case files, they then interrogated their assigned suspect for 30 minutes. The interviews were recorded and transcribed, and coded on the variables of withholding of evidence, disclosure of case facts, use of funnel-type questions, and the framing of evidence. Suspects were rated according to whether they volunteered information and whether their statements were inconsistent. The main variable of interest, though, was whether the interviewers correctly sniffed out the liars.

As the John Jay team predicted, interviewers trained in the SUE technique conducted their questioning in line with its principles. For the most part, they also were more accurate in detecting lies as shown by the fact that 65% of the trained were correct vs. 43% of the untrained. The trained interviewers also were less likely than the untrained to withhold evidence, force inconsistencies out of their suspects, and engage in systematic questioning. Considering that the interviewers all had experience in law enforcement, the improvement of accuracy by SUE training suggests that the method had considerable value.

If you work with or are in a relationship with someone who consistently lies, it might be worth considering taking a page from the SUE playbook in your future interactions with this person. When the lie is about a distinct event that did or did not happen, the funneling approach may actually help you improve your relationship with this person. If the individual is prone to "white lies," or "inaccurate facts," the task may be more difficult, but not impossible. With people you don't know that well and whose lies don't really matter to you, it may be sufficient to let those lies lie.

Fulfillment in relationships certainly depends on honesty. When it's not there, you can either leave those relationships or allow your partners to know that it's okay to tell the truth, even if that truth means they didn't live up to their promises.