Actions lie louder than words (revisited)

An examination of the psychological versus physiological reasons for deceit signals

By Lt. Jim Glennon, Lombard, IL (ret.)

A brief aside before we begin. I hesitate to even say this because I find many of them to be oddballs of the highest order, but the fact is I’m impressed by good professional actors because they are great fakers. Think about it. Everything they say and do on screen or on stage is essentially a lie. The words they say aren’t theirs — they aren’t the people they’re pretending to be. In many cases, they don’t believe what comes out of their mouths — they don’t personally share the views of their characters. Yet they put the paying public in some sort of collective trance. If Tom Hanks dies in a film, you are sad, partly because you’ve bonded with the character he plays, but mostly because it’s Tom Hanks. By most accounts, Tom is a real nice guy; I’ve seen him on talk shows and he’s funny, down to earth, the type of guy I’d like to have a beer with. But who the hell knows — maybe Tom is an asshole. I can’t tell, because he’s such a great actor.

What really makes the good ones great is that they have total control over their gestures, their illustrators, and their affective displays. Here is what fascinates me: Everything they say is a lie, right? But when they need to act as though they are lying, they can do that, too! They know how to change one little thing about their performance so that everyone in the audience thinks, “Wait a minute, something ain’t right. I know all this stuff is bullshit, but what he just did right there makes me think he’s lying.”


Back to reality. When people tell the truth, when they are honest and sincere, they use gestures, illustrators, and affective displays to accompany their words. In the vast majority of instances, body language naturally precedes or accompanies the words; it doesn’t follow them.

Here’s an example: You are interviewing someone about a crime committed the previous night. You ask the suspect to tell you what he and his friends, Charlie and Bob, did. He says they went for a drive together around 8:00 p.m. You then need to ask him to be specific and tell you everything — how the drive began, who was picked up, where and when, who sat where in the car, which way they drove away from the last house, etc. And you need to watch for the gestures, the illustrators, the affective displays. In most cases, gestures flow naturally and begin prior to the spoken words. But when a person is lying, it doesn’t work that way; there is hesitation, and the gestures generally follow the words.

So if the suspect says that he pulled up in front of Bob’s house and “Bob got in the back seat,” and then he points backwards as if to indicate the back seat, then he’s probably lying. Why? He is creating as he goes. The gestures are part of the made-up story, and his lie revolves around words, not the body language. Words are the focus and the body language is an afterthought.

Also, be aware of gestures and timing that change as the story unfolds. Your suspect will probably tell some truths, and when he does, the gestures will seem more natural and honest. During the creation of a lie, they will lag the words, and there may even be a total absence of gestures and body language.

Failure to answer the actual question asked:

Officer: “Did you steal the $300?”

Idiot thief: “Did I steal the $300?” or “You want to know if I stole the money?” or “Why would you ask me that question?” or “Everyone knows I would never do such a thing.”

The examples of stupid answers given by liars to questions like this are endless. Bottom line: Was the question you asked actually answered? If it wasn’t, there is a reason, which most likely is that the person is lying.

During a pat-down, an officer touches the pants pocket of a subject and notices a bulge. He asks, “Is that your wallet?”

The response is, “Ain’t got no money in there.”

In fact, the bulge was a small handgun and he used it to kill the officer seconds later. The indicator of a problem was in the non-answer. “Is that your wallet?” is a simple, closed-end question requiring a yes or a no. The suspect didn’t answer it, and what he did say made no sense.

Changing the Subject
“While you are wasting your time asking me about a petty theft, Officer, people are speeding up and down my street. Now let me ask you: What is worse, children being run over by cars or money being taken from a person no one likes anyway?” The title of this section speaks for itself. We see this type of deflection of the point all the time.

Race Card, Personal Persecution, Prejudice
Police officers of every race, creed, and color have been accused of taking action against people of every race, creed, and color based only on the race, creed, and color of either the person or the officer himself. Most of the time, if someone takes this tack in response to a question being asked, the person is probably lying. Charges of personal persecution, prejudice, and/or racism are almost always designed to deflect from the point and purpose of the interaction. At some point in my career, I’ve been accused by suspects of initiating enforcement (or an investigation) for all of the following reasons:

“I’m too pretty.”
“I’m fat.”
“I’m skinny.”
“I’m young.”
“I’m old.”
“I’m driving a (insert car and/or color).”
“I’m (insert color, creed, religion, sexual orientation).”
“I’m a fireman.” (That one was true....Just kidding.)
“I’m a Sox fan.”
“I have a bumper sticker that says Fuck the Police! on the back of my car that’s why you pulled me over.” (That one was absolutely true.)

In short, when it comes to deception, look for deflection.

Verifiers, Clarifiers, Hesitators

“My name?”
“Where do I live?”
“You want to know what I’m doing here?”

We’ve all encountered such responses to incredibly simple questions.

Understand that if there is hesitation in answering a straightforward question like “What is your name?” that the hesitation matters. Anytime a person uses a phrase designed to verify or clarify a clear and simple question, there’s only one reason: to stall for time. So the question you need to ask yourself is: Why are they stalling? And you already know why. It’s because the person is thinking about how to answer, evaluating whether answering truthfully would be a bad thing. Honest people generally come up with their names fairly quickly; no real thought is necessary.


Officer: “What are you doing back here?”
Night stroller: “Um, uh, I-I-I’m j-j-just looking fo-fo-fo-for m-m-my dog, Offi-Offi-Officer.”

Is it possible this person has an unfortunate speech impediment? Sure. To figure out if that’s the case, you just have to keep talking to him. If he stutters only when answering questions that are potentially self-incriminating, then maybe you should pay attention to the totality of your immediate circumstances. Don’t dismiss the stuttering or become overly concerned about hurting the person’s feelings. Treat the person with dignity and respect, but don’t avoid the questions that cause the change in conversational pattern and cadence. Stay on him, keep asking the questions. You can even ask, “Do you have a stutter?” If he says he doesn’t, that tells you something.

Religious and Family Affirmations
We all do it — invoke the deity when trying to convey sincerity: “I swear to God, I’m telling you the truth.” And I’ll concede that, on rare occasions, the truth does follow. But you need to be aware of immediate, repeated and continuing religious declarations, especially when delivered with hand over heart, eyes to the heavens, and/or an elevated, affirming palm. Such declarations almost always precede a lie.

Of course, God isn’t the only one called on to guarantee the truth of a statement. Children and dear old Mom are also brought into play. I had a suspect once begin a statement with “On my mother’s life . . .” So, being the smart-ass that I am, I responded, “OK, I believe you, but if I find out you’re lying, I get to kill your mother.” He then looked at me and said, in all seriousness, “OK, then not on my mother’s life, but I’m still telling the truth!”

Here are some other real-life examples that anyone with any time on the job has heard:

“As God is my witness.”
“I am a religious man.”
“May God strike me dead.”
“On my sainted mother’s grave.”
“Find me a Bible and I will swear on it right here and now!”
“On my children’s eyes.”
“May my child drop dead if I’m lying.”

Remember, the more invocations they make, the bigger liars they most likely are.

Miscellaneous Lie / Guilt Signatures
While nothing is 100 percent, there are certain words and phrases that often accompany a lie. Pay particular attention to these:

1. “OK.” Used either before or after a statement, it’s the same as saying, “Do you buy all that crap I just tried to sell you?”
2. “Right?” Pretty much the same as “OK.”
3. “To be totally honest.” Rather than only partially honest.
4. “Everyone knows that I would never (insert whatever the person is suspected of having done).” Having everyone on one’s side is quite an extensive list of character witnesses. How can a person be a liar if everyone on the planet is willing to vouch for him?
5. “Why would I lie?” Well, obviously to keep your lying butt out of jail.
6. “I wouldn’t lie to you.” Which sort of implies that she would lie to everyone else.
7. “To the best of my recollection.” No one talks this way unless he is pretending not to remember something he shouldn’t have done in the first place.
8. “If it would make you happy, I’ll admit it.” What? No one else’s happiness is worth your admitting to a crime you didn’t commit?
9. “I’m trying to be as truthful as I can.” The end of that sentence, which remains unspoken, is “without giving you the real information that would give you the evidence necessary to send me to prison.”
10. “I deny any involvement.” No innocent person accused of a crime he didn’t commit objects in this way. Truly innocent people use direct language and show understandable and real emotion. Variations on this statement are: “I didn’t do it and I can’t believe you have any evidence that I did,” “There is no way you can prove that I did this,” and “I am in no way guilty.” Saying you are not guilty, as opposed to saying you didn’t do something, represents a different mindset. The word guilty is a legal word, but outrage at being wrongly accused of something is personal. Legal words normally come up when the brain is thinking of future proceedings.

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