THE MAGAZINE

The Language of Deception

By Robert Elliott

Regardless of their nationality, criminals share one trait: They think they can fool interrogators with clever stories. That's less likely if they cross paths with skilled investigators like Nejolla B. Korris, dubbed by colleagues and clients alike as the 'Human Lie Detector.'

Korris, the CEO of the Sponsorship Group Ltd in Edmonton, Alberta, uses SCAN, or Scientific Content Analysis, a process of analyzing written testimonies, introduced by Avinoam Sapir in the 1980s after he ran the Israeli Police's polygraph department.

Though Sapir first used the technique to analyze statements written in Hebrew and Arabic, SCAN has proven a useful tool in detecting deceptive statements in any language. For example, Korris, who spoke at the ASIS conference in Bahrain, works in Lithuanian as well as English.

This type of linguistic lie detection relies on a series of reliable tip-offs to catch deceivers in the act. One such trigger is the subject's emotions. Those telling the truth are quite emotive when telling their version of events, and they will use words like stolen, theft, and fraud during their testimony. Conversely, liars are emotionally controlled, because they have rehearsed their answers ahead of time, and they are likely to use words such as missing, misplaced, and gone. "When it is playing like it's a real-time story, it usually is a real-time story, and it is not coming from anywhere in the memory," says Korris.

Omission of certain pronouns is also a sign of deception. A lack of first-person pronouns like "I" or "we" signifies the interviewee does not want to be attached to the narrative. "People will lose the pronoun if they don't want commitment," says Korris.

That doesn't track in every language, however. For example, in Spanish, verbs can often be used without a personal pronoun being specified. In such cases, other clues are relied on. "If we can't apply the same methodology to the missing pronouns, there will still be enough other things to point out the weaknesses in the statement," says Korris.

Conversely, a liar discussing a family member will substitute a personal pronoun for the relative's name. If spouses talk about each other, they normally use their partner's name. When they are lying, they may avoid calling them by name, instead using pronouns where it sounds unnatural.

Another tip-off to the veracity of a statement is its structure. If the setting of the scene leading up to the action or crime takes up an inordinately large portion of the testimony, it's likely that it comes from a subject's imagination rather than from his or her memory. Eighty-five percent of deceivers "spend the overwhelming majority of the time talking about time before the crime, instead of the crime itself," says Korris.

Still other triggers are changes in verb tense - most truthful statements are written in the past tense throughout. Stuttering or repetition of words while relating what happened may also be an indication of nervousness and an attempt to deceive, although clearly some innocent people may simply have a stutter or be nervous.

Several triggers indicating untruthful testimony came out in the case Korris conducted in Lithuanian. A mother had accused a father of sexual assault in order to get custody of their child.

When the mother started describing where the assault took place, she stopped using personal pronouns. "All of a sudden, those signals that would have given commitment to her story were missing," says Korris.

The woman then switched from past to present tense when she described the alleged assault itself. "That violated the first rule of first-person singular past tense, right at the most crucial moment of the statement," says Korris. The mother was found to be lying, and the father won custody of the child.

Korris, a certified fraud examiner (CFE), has taught the SCAN technique in Mexico City and has seen its use by security departments within corporations, including the world's largest, Saudi Aramco. It is also used by government agencies, including Federal Bureau of Investigation profilers and the military. She has also taught police departments, auditors, and accountants at home and abroad.

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