People who make public statements are generally expected to tell the truth, and most of the time that’s the case. Severe stress, however, can override ethical obligations. People in public positions, such as CEOs, political figures, athletes, entertainers who are under media or legal scrutiny may and do lie about facts and circumstances. How to tell if and when someone is not telling the truth? Conducted by a team of researchers at the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, a detailed analysis of over 29,000 public statements by CEOs made between 2003 and 2007 which turned out to be false or deceptive sheds some light on the process.
Results of the study show that, in general, public figures who are not telling the truth use more references to general knowledge (“as you know”), fewer non-extreme positive emotions words (great, good), and fewer references to ethical values and value creation. Deceivers use significantly fewer self-references (“I believe,” “I think”), preferring to use more third person plural and impersonal pronouns (“it is believed,” “many people think”), fewer extreme negative emotions words (terrible, disastrous), more extreme positive emotions words (fantastic, terrific), fewer certainty words (“to be specific,” “as a matter of fact”), and fewer hesitations.
This and earlier studies on the language of deception suggest that the use of “I” statements implies an individual’s taking ownership of a statement, whereas covert liars try to dissociate themselves from their words by using general attributions (everyone, everybody, anyone, nobody). Dissociation is also evidenced by a greater use of group references rather than self-references, as for example in saying “we, as a company, believe…” Not surprisingly, liars are less forthcoming with their own opinion than truth-tellers and refer to themselves less often in their stories. In extreme cases, people using deceptive statements may choose to omit references to themselves entirely.
The Liar Unmasked
Behind the words chosen by public figures to deceive their audience, say the researchers, are severe stress, a cognitive effort to misrepresent the facts, an attempt to control the audience’s perception of the liar, and a desire to distance themselves from the situation.
The severe stress experienced by deceivers is a consequence of the guilt they feel and the anxiety of being caught in their deceptive act. The high stress level is manifested not only in their negative comments but also in their negative emotional state, which they may or may not be able to hide from the audience. Because of their guilty feelings and their desire to dissociate themselves from the lie, deceivers are also likely to use general terms and not to refer explicitly to themselves. As a result of this dissociation, their statements are often short, indirect, and evasive.
A cognitive effort is necessary to misrepresent the facts because fabricating a “good” lie is inherently difficult. Especially when a liar has little or no opportunity to prepare or rehearse, his or her verbal statements are likely to lack specific detail and include more general terms. Thus, a liar may sound implausible, vague and non-immediate, telling a story that avoids mentioning any personal experiences.
The attempt to control the audience’s perception of the liars themselves induces them to avoid making any statements that are self-incriminating. As a result, the content of deceptive statements is tightly controlled so that listeners would not easily perceive it to be a lie. To achieve this deception, deceptive statements contain more general, non-specific language, fewer self-references, short statements with little detail, and more irrelevant information as a substitute for information that the deceiver does not want to provide. For example, a liar will speak with greater caution, using a greater number of unique words to restate the same information. In contrast, truth-tellers often just repeat the information they have provided, using the exact same words.
The attempt to control may also lead to a very smooth speech when a narrative is prepared and rehearsed in advance, whereas truth-tellers often forget (or adapt) what they have said previously. In contrast to the cognitive effort perspective, the attempted control implies that the deceiver’s well-prepared answers are likely to contain fewer hesitations, more specific statements, and a reduced number of general claims.
In their desire to distance themselves from the situation, liars often appear to lack conviction because they feel uncomfortable when they lie, or because they have not personally experienced the supposed claims. This implies that liars use more general terms, fewer self-references, and shorter answers.