Liespotting for insurers: An interview with Pamela Meyer

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Editor: To begin, what is liespotting?

Pamela Meyer: Liespotting is an essential deception detection skill that combines facial micro-expression analysis, statement analysis and interrogation/interviewing techniques. These techniques are well known in the law enforcement and intelligence worlds but have not been used until now in the corporate world. When I wrote Liespotting, I went a bit further to survey most of the research on deception, as there is a well funded robust field that has surfaced many myth-busters regarding lying. For example, we think liars won’t look you in the eyes…well it turns out the average honest person will only look you in the eye a comfortable 60% of the time. The science of deception is both useful and fascinating.

Editor: What can the insurance industry hope to accomplish with liespotting?

Meyer: Insurance related decision making requires that judgment calls be made regarding risk levels, valuation, fraud prevention and incident reporting. Imagine the enormous cost benefits to being even 5%-15% more accurate in determining which entities should be insured, whether someone is lying about an incident, or what value to place on particular assets. Anyone who is in an interviewing or investigation role, or who is managing teams of executives that must make difficult decisions regarding information they have collected, can be trained to get to the truth 80%-90% of the time, at low cost. It is just a matter of time before the industry moves to include deception detection as a necessary tool in the arsenal of its senior managers and negotiators, as well as its field based executives and investigators.

Editor: How might one quantify the cost of deception?

Meyer: Imagine a bank with $200 million in loans gone bad. Now consider if the loan officers reduced that number by a significant percentage simply by rejecting more outliers who appeared deceptive. The savings would be verifiable. Economists have long known that reduction in transaction costs significantly alter the economic equation.

All aspects of the business negotiation cycle are more costly in the absence of trust:

  • R&D
  • Due diligence
  • Legal negotiations/interrogations
  • Hiring and keeping employees

There is an incalculable cost to a business when deals are made with partners it doesn’t trust, or people are hired that are not totally trusted….and when you do work with those you really trust, then every aspect of the transaction is lubricated by trust and the overall cost is reduced.

Editor: So are we born liars?

Meyer: Lying is as old as breathing. It starts at 6 months where studies show babies will fake a cry or a smile for attention – they will pause in the middle of a howl to make sure Mommy is coming. In one study, three year olds were left in a room, told not to peek at a toy and then asked if they peeked. Only 38% confessed. By the time the kids were five, none confessed and all lied, saying that they didn’t peek.

Also, researchers have long known that the more intelligent the species, the more deceptive behavior it will display. Koko, the famous gorilla who was taught sign language, once blamed her pet kitten for ripping a sink out of the wall.

Editor: Speaking of Koko, you mention in your book that we are no better than apes at detecting lies, with only a 54% accuracy rate. Why is it difficult to tell when we are being lied to?

Meyer: There are three reasons that we are poor lie detectors:

  1. Researchers have found that Americans in particular have a truth bias – as a nation we grow up believing George Washington could never tell a lie, and that we are innocent until proven guilty. We tend to believe someone when they say, “Oh, I sent that report two days ago…I wonder why you didn’t get it”.  A truth bias is a good thing for civilization, but it does get in the way of detecting deception.
  2. We have a learning curve problem: the best, most convincing lies go undetected, or we don’t uncover them until long afterward. So we don’t learn the distinguishing features of a lie such as the nuances of speech or tone in real time. Its not like tennis where you can instantly adjust your serve each time you see its fallen out of bounds.
  3. There is an arms race phenomenon with deceivers. The better we get at detecting them, the better they get at finding new ways to deceive us. We see this with spammers for example who continually find new ways around our firewalls.

Editor: Why do people lie?

Meyer: There are nine strong motives, classified as offensive or defensive. Here they are, the four offensive ones first:

  1. To obtain a reward that’s not otherwise easily attainable
  2. To gain advantage over another person or situation
  3. To create a positive impression and win the admiration of others
  4. To exercise powers over others by controlling information

Now the defensive ones:

  1. To avoid being punished or to avoid embarrassment
  2. To protect another person from being punished
  3. To protect yourself from the threat of physical or emotional harm
  4. To get out of an awkward social situation
  5. To maintain privacy

Editor: In what types of business settings might one encounter an offensive lie as opposed to a defensive lie?

Meyer: We know that unrealistic “stretch goals” encourage deception, so managers should think about the goals they set for their employees carefully. Though there are many types of offensive and defensive lies, the most common lies are to present a good impression, whether in a negotiation, an interview or a meeting.

Editor: Are some people more likely than others to lie?

Meyer: Studies show that extroverts lie more frequently than introverts, and that we lie more to strangers than we lie to co-workers. Studies also show that liars tend to be “high self monitors” who manage and keep their own emotions in check and are able to think strategically about others. Research has also surfaced that indicates rich people and people who are powerful are better liars, and that women are far more uncomfortable being on the receiving end of lies than men.

Editor: In what types of situations are people more likely to lie?

Meyer: The most common lies are lies of omission. This is why information retrieval specialists or any professional that interviews people on the phone or in person for a living needs to learn how to get to the truth and how to recognize signs of deception.

Editor: Are people more likely to lie during phone calls, via e-mail or during face-to-face meetings?

Meyer: The frequency of lying in phone calls is twice that of email. One study conducted over a weeklong period discovered that lies were detected in:

  • 37% of phone calls
  • 27% of face-to-face meetings
  • 21% of IM chats
  • 14% of emails

Notice that only the last two forms of communication leave a paper trail. That probably explains their higher incidence of honesty.

Editor: What about white lies and fibs?

Meyer: I make it a point to downplay the effects of white lies – telling your boss her new hairdo is gorgeous when its clearly a hair-don’t is kind. The people who answer “fine” to the “how are you” question when in fact they are miserable at the loss of their job or the acrimony of their divorce are not liars…they are soldiering on, keeping a stiff upper lip, resisting the urge to lapse into a narcissistic rant and tell you ad nauseam just how they are. White lies are part of our social structure. What I am concerned with is deception that harms its recipient – think about Aldrich Ames or Robert Hanssen or Bernie Madoff – deception  can cost businesses billions. Its dangerous to our country, it can cause the deaths of those that try to defend us and it’s not very helpful to family harmony either.

Editor: In your book, you write about self-deception being a primary form of deception. Can you elaborate on this?

Meyer: Deception is a cooperative act. No one can lie to you without your approval. A lie does not have power by its utterance. Its power lies in someone agreeing to believe it – If you can’t keep your greed or your fantasy of getting rich quick at bay, you are much more likely to buy that can of worms known as a bad investment when someone touts it as the next big thing. Self -deception is where it starts. Despite what many people say, most of us wish we were smarter, richer, better looking, taller, shorter, thinner, more powerful, younger, better executives, golfers, cooks, wives, husbands, parents…and of course the list goes on. Lying – whether to others or to ourselves – is an attempt to bridge that gap, to connect wishes and fantasies of how we wish our world and ourselves should be with how they really are. So know that you are a lot less likely to be duped if you understand your own blind spots. Know yourself well, first and foremost.

Editor: What steps can insurers take to protect themselves?

Meyer: Smart managers arm their employees with interviewing skills, and with deception detection techniques. By doing so they also send a message throughout the organization that integrity is a prime corporate value. Being a Liespotter doesn’t mean being the nitpicky kid in the back saying “your eyebrow twitched…I gotcha!” It means you are someone who has learned a critical modern skill. Managers ultimately need to pay attention to what I call the three T’s:

  1. Transparency: being committed to openly communicating goals, concerns, disappointments and expectations.
  2. Trust: managers at every level can learn to recognize the signs of deception, weed out the bad apples from the garden and build a much smaller and more significant circle of trust around them that simply won’t let them fail.
  3. Tenacity to communicate during uncomfortable times: this is critical – most of us sabotage deceptive situations by going behind someone’s back, acting passive aggressively toward deceitful people via email, or by avoiding conflict altogether. The tenacity to have that uncomfortable conversation is a necessary social skill that mature leaders must develop. And when they do, they infuse an entire organization with trust. Difficult news well delivered still breeds trust. Great news delivered by gossip and hearsay is actually more damaging to morale and organizational culture in the long run.

Editor: Can you explain a few of the basic techniques that insurance companies can use to spot lies?

Meyer: Here are a few tips for starters:

Watch for the fleeting micro-expression in the facial muscles immediately after asking a question in search of an honest answer. That nanosecond of facial reaction – of truth disclosure, actually – is of paramount importance in determining whether the answer you’re about to receive is honest or not.

During the three years I studied lying and deceit I undertook the training in Paul Ekman’s Facial Action Coding System, or FACS, as it’s called. Recently Time magazine voted Ekman one of the hundred most influential Americans for his groundbreaking research that discovered every combination of the fleeting voluntary and involuntary facial expressions that reveal emotion on the human face. You may be an intuitive freak, a kind of genius, and know how to do this naturally, but that capability is very rare, to the point of being nearly nonexistent. The training in liespotting such as I underwent teaches you how to capture and interpret the facial micro-movement under questioning that is uncontrollable even by a sociopath or psychopath. Even a world-class pathological liar can’t control it. Microexpressions of contempt, sadness or anger are easy to learn to recognize.

Also, when someone is over-determined and too emphatic in denying something, that person will often resort to non-contracted language, instead of relaxed language using contractions: e.g., Exhibit A from recent history: Clinton: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Instead of “I didn’t.”

Also, practiced liars under questioning repeat the entire question in order to buy time to formulate their dishonest answer. “What time did I lock the safe and leave the office on the night in question? Let me think. As far as I can recall, it must have been slightly after nine o’clock.” Two more indicators in this statement that should put you the questioner on Red Alert:  In addition to the question repeated in its entirety, the first giveaway is the additional interjection, buying still more time, “Let me think.” The second red flag is the qualifying phrase, “As far as I can recall,” which renders the answer perceptual rather than factual, another form of covering yourself when you’re about to lie. An honest person seeking clarification of a question will invariably repeat only the part of the question not understood fully, as opposed to the whole question.

Watch also for the subject’s upper body going stiff and rigid. It often precedes a lie.

Editor: How accurate is this methodology?

Meyer: Studies show that with beginner level training the average person can increase their accuracy at spotting deception from 54% accuracy to 90% accuracy.

Editor: What can humans accomplish in lie detection that machines can’t?

Meyer: The technology is still quite raw, but it is advancing especially quickly in the area of statement analysis of large amounts of data. The science of spotting facial micro-expressions may well someday be automated. The art of interviewing and getting to the truth is another matter altogether and a good liespotter has both skills.

Editor: Are there any other thoughts that you would like to leave us with?

Meyer: Insurance industry professionals could benefit greatly from deception detection training for their employees. The commercial availability of custom programs enhances the probability of immediate results, something I’m quite passionate about.


Deception Detection expert Pamela Meyer can tell when you’re lying. If it’s not your words that give you away, it’s your posture, eyes, breathing rate, fidgets, and a host of other indicators. Worse, we are all lied to up to 200 times a day, she says, from the white lies that allow society to function smoothly to the devastating duplicities that bring down corporations and break up families.

Liespotting

Working with a team of researchers over several years, Meyer collected and reviewed most of the research on deception that has been published, from such fields as law-enforcement, military, psychology and espionage. She then became an expert herself, receiving advanced training in deception detection, including multiple courses of advanced training in interrogation, microexpression analysis, statement analysis, behavior and body language interpretation, and emotion recognition. Synthesizing this knowledge in her best-selling book Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception, Meyer offers the general public easy to master tools that help us recognize truth from fiction, friend from foe. She blogs regularly and can be contacted at www.LieSpotting.com.

Ms. Meyer holds an MBA from Harvard, a Masters in Public Policy and is a Certified Fraud Examiner.