Detecting High-Stake Lies

It is a scenario that has played across television screens too many times over the years: a tearful plea for the safe return of a loved one. But in some of these cases, the person making the plea has eventually proven to be responsible for the disappearance.

Forensic psychologist student Leanne ten Brinke, who is studying at the UBC’s Okanagan campus, spent the last six years working with psychology professor Stephen Porter to study 78 cases in Canada, the US, UK and Australia of people pleading for the safe return of a loved one.

In half of the cases, the people were lying and were actually the perpetrators. Through extensive frame-by-frame study of the pleas, ten Brinke and Porter established solid guidelines to help ascertain if a plea is genuine. Ten Brinke hopes the information they have developed will help law enforcement in future cases.

This is the most comprehensive study of high-stakes deception ever undertaken. “Most previous deception studies have focused on lies that are trivial relative to those about crime or terrorism, and this study offers new insights into high-stakes lies,” says Porter. “The problem of high-stakes lies cannot be over-stated, as they occur in politics, business and criminal contexts.”

“We looked at body language as well as verbal and linguistic cues. Close attention to the face can give lots of clues,” says ten Brinke. While the researchers cannot simply tell police outright that someone is lying, they can point out indicators and characteristics that could show the person is not being truthful.

The same group recently found that psychopaths – who have a high recidivism rate and do not benefit from treatment – are more than twice as likely as their non-psychopathic counterparts to be granted parole after the parole interview. These researchers attributed this pattern to the “Academy Award-winning” performances of psychopaths in the parole hearing, adopting the persona of the remorseful, rehabilitated offender.

Porter says in another study, these researchers also found “psychopathic individuals are able to mimic or fake emotions better than the rest of us, at least to the untrained eye.”

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