A clue to deception?

Observation of nonverbal clues

By Mark Malinowski, CFE, CAMS; Denise Lawhorn, CFE; Colin Pingree, CFE, CIA; Inger Jensen
mark-malinowski denise-lawhorn colin-pingree inger-jensen

Investigate This: Interviewing, data analysis, digital forensics and more

Fraud examiners know that a suspect's body language can reveal more than that subject realizes. However, without empirical evidence, interviewers are at risk of assuming guilt or innocence. This column is adapted from a paper written by recent graduates or current students in Carlow University's Master of Science in Fraud and Forensics program for a class taught by Associate Professor Enrique Mu, Ph.D. — ed.

In 1989, a woman jogging in New York's Central Park was brutally beaten and raped. In what became known as the Central Park Jogger case, aggressive investigators coerced five juvenile men into confessing. Police investigators — faced with a lack of forensic evidence — believed that some of the men's nonverbal gestures were indications of guilt. However, the confessions were false, and the investigators' assumptions were wrong. Forensic author and former FBI agent, Joe Navarro, wrote, "Officers mistook nonverbals of stress for deception and pressured the innocent into [making] confessions." (See the book, "What Every BODY is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent's Guide to Speed-Reading People," by Joe Navarro and Marvin Karlins, page 206.)

This case exemplifies how relying on non-scientific methodologies, including observation and nonverbal indicators as sole measures of determining deception, can be problematic. As poignantly illustrated in the book, "Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong," by Brandon L. Garrett, false confessions are present in more than 16 percent of wrongful convictions (page 8).

Nonverbal communication is the outward expression of our inner feelings and emotions. (See Fraud Basics.) During the interview process of a fraud examination, body language — also known as nonverbal cues — can be a critical tool in determining deceptive actions. Generally speaking, fraud examiners are able to look at a cluster of signals, not just one, to alert them of possible false statements or omissions.

Commonly accepted nonverbal cues include hand gestures, face touching, self-rubbing, scratching, memory reanimation, tactile gestures affected by culture, types of smiles, cutaneous responses and shifting eyes/non-eye contact (which is the most prevalent cue monitored during an interview). Other responses include fast blinking, yawning and leaning backward and/or forward during questioning.

While all of these tools are extremely useful and have been used successfully in obtaining confessions and criminal convictions, there's still an argument against some of the common assumptions about nonverbal communications as to whether they're actually grounded in science; thus relying on the interview process alone is not enough to secure an evidence-based conviction.

Examples of assumptions about the use of eyes as a detection tool include, "If a person does not make eye contact with you, then he must be lying," or "Our eyes are windows to our soul," both of which are actually examples of common misconceptions in this field. Unfortunately, direct eye contact is the easiest behavior to spot but also one of the easiest to misinterpret. (From a 2011 course, "Communication Analysis," sponsored by the National Drug Intelligence Center, taught by Joelle Fisher.) The evaluation of how nonverbal communication can be used to determine deceptive actions should be further studied to develop empirical research.


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