The day has come. After a four month silence, Lance Armstrong finally speaks to none other than Oprah Winfrey in a two part interview airing this evening and Friday night at 9PM EST. The International Olympic Committee has just called on the disgraced cyclist to return the bronze medal he won at the 2000 Olympic Games. Media outlets are ablaze with headlines speculating about the confession from bicycling’s king, to the interview queen. Some of the hype is controlled by the OWN Network, in an effort to promote the interview. Oprah herself has piqued my interest with statements such was, “We’ll let the viewers be the judge.” Taking her up on the challenge, I ask you, would you be able to tell if Lance is lying in his conversation with her? In other words, how do we spot a liar?
Recent books on liespotting, most notably Pamela Myers’ Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception may be helpful, but using these techniques is never as easy as we are led to believe.
Liespotting drives my field. During my research interviewing white-collar felons for my documentary Crossing the Line: Ordinary People Committing Extraordinary Crimes, I had little need to employ the liespotting detection techniques I had meticulously studied. In my interviews, the subjects had already admitted guilt. They had no reason to continue the lie. Millions of dollars of endorsements were not on the line. A struggling foundation bearing their name was not at risk. Millions of viewers were not watching. And I was not Oprah Winfrey.
Tonight, Oprah will be judging, and so will you. Liespotting is a skill many claim can be acquired through years of study, but lying seems to be so common, how can we identify it? According to Myers’ blog, a study revealed that in a one-week period lies were detected in 37% of phone calls, 27% of face-to-face meetings, 21% of IM chats and 14% of emails. So let’s take the week of October 12, 2012, when the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency said Armstrong was part of “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.” Using the lying study statistics, if Armstrong met with members of the Livestrong Foundation, tweeted a message to his nearly four million followers, and sent an email to a friend over the course of seven days then, statistically speaking, there is good chance he lied. Chances are, so did you.
How will you know if Armstrong is lying? Myers says one of the 10 ways liars use words to obscure truth is by repeating questions verbatim. Liars may take a guarded tone, tell stories in strict chronological order or hedge statements with preambles such as, “as far as I recall” or “if you really think about it.” Of course, these same characteristics may have little to do with lying and everything to do with common, nervous human behavior. This is what makes spotting liars so difficult.
One rather interesting technique Myers notes, however, is that many liars (including former President Bill Clinton and ex-Olympian Marion Jones) give very specific denials at some point. Clinton emphatically denied (on camera) his relationship with Lewinsky and Jones explicitly denied taking steroids.
We know we’re in for a confession tonight; but will Armstrong continue to righteously deny portions of the story, too? Identifying liespotting behaviors based on a recorded interview can often be easier than in a face-to-face meeting, since freezing frame can be used to better analyze facial expressions.
Research indicates there are seven common facial expressions which are typically grouped based on emotions: fear, happiness, sadness, anger, contempt, disgust and surprise. I’ve reviewed many of the photographs taken of Armstrong since the scandal, and I believe we’ve seen a multitude of expressions on his face. Intrigued by the array of images, I consulted noted psychiatrist Dr. Daven Morrison of Morrison & Associates to better understand the Armstrong facial images.
I sent Dr. Morrison several of the images and a video clip of the interview preview and asked him to determine which emotions Armstrong displayed. Morrison identified anger, an emotion which can easily come up in an interview, he explained, because the interviewee can feel betrayed by a particular question- not necessarily because the interviewee is being deceiving. Other images shown from the Armstrong-Oprah interview depict Armstrong in a mixed emotional state. According to Dr. Morrison, Armstrong appears to be gathering his thoughts. Only a few hours will tell what the future holds for Lance Armstrong, but according to Myers, even the best liars can’t control their facial muscles well enough to hide all emotions. Until we see the entire interview tonight and tomorrow, of course, we can only speculate.
Spotting liars is not as easy as the ‘how-to-spot-a-liar’ books lead us to believe. These liespotting techniques are common behavioral traits most adults inherently display every day. The next time you are speaking to someone and you rub your nose, tug your ear or repeat a question verbatim, someone may think you are lying.
Kelly Pope is a Public Voices Fellow at The OpEd Project and Associate Professor of Accounting in the College of Commerce at DePaul University. Her research and scholarship is in the area of forensic accounting and white-collar crime. She has published papers that investigate factors that encourage whistle-blowing and developed the award-winning documentary, Crossing the Line: Ordinary People Committing Extraordinary Crimes, which chronicles the lives of five white-collar criminals. She currently maintains a blog on Forbes.com, Higher Learning. She is also designing a national training program for the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for the enforcement division that is based on her research.