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Thursday, May 14, 2009 | Even as a little girl, Cheryl Hiscock-Anisman was an expert at sniffing out deception.

Her father, a senior official at the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department in Michigan, used to take her with him on trips for a business he ran on the side. In the evenings, he’d bring his young daughter out with him to dinners with businesspeople.

“I would appear to be kind of the cute daughter with her businessman dad and, after dinner, we’d go back to the hotel and he’d ask me my thoughts and opinions on the individuals — he’d say ‘Do you trust them or not?’” she said. “It was just something I had that was intuitive.”

These days, Hiscock-Anisman is a professor of psychology at National University in La Jolla. She and a colleague have developed an interview technique that could revolutionize how criminal suspects, captured military personnel and suspected terrorists are interrogated.

At the core of the new approach to interviewing, which Hiscock-Anisman developed with Kevin Colwell, an assistant professor of psychology at Southern Connecticut University, is a focus on what an interviewee says rather than how they say.

Traditionally, the investigation of deception has focused on the physiology of the suspected liar, Hiscock-Anisman said. Interviewers, whether detectives or military investigators, searched for signs that the interviewee was under stress by measuring, for example, whether their heart-rate quickened or their palms started sweating.

But Hiscock-Anisman claims her research has shown that such external displays of stress actually detract from an interviewer’s ability to tell whether the person is lying. Focusing on physiological anomalies detracts an interviewer’s attention from the details of what the person is actually saying, wherein lie the real clues to whether they are telling the truth, she said.

The approach Hiscock-Anisman and Colwell have developed focuses on the amount of detail an interviewee includes in his or her account of an incident. The psychologists are wary of giving away too much detail to the media about their methodology, lest criminals read about it, but they sketched out the basics of their interview technique.

The researchers teach interviewers to ask suspects about incidents via a questionnaire they have developed. The questionnaire asks an interviewee to recount an incident in gradually increasing levels of detail. At different stages in the process, the interviewer also uses prompts that should provoke the suspect into remembering more details about the incident, provided they’re telling the truth.

For example, at one point in the process, the suspect is asked to recount the incident in reverse order, something Hiscock-Anisman said is particularly hard to do if you’re not telling the truth.

When the interview is completed, it is transcribed in its entirety and the interviewer analyzes how much detail the suspect has included in their account. Crucially, that analysis focuses on how much detail the interviewee added when they were prompted by the interviewer.

In general, Colwell said, people who are telling the truth will include more detail in their account and will add even more detail when they’re prompted, because as they tell the story they remember more and more details about what happened. Liars, on the other hand, have a limited script that they’re sticking to and that script doesn’t evolve like the recollection of a memory, he said.

“Good liars can give you a tremendous amount of detail on their first telling, but their story doesn’t grow and change as the interview goes on,” Colwell said.

But Stuart Henry, professor of criminal justice and director of the School of Public Affairs at San Diego State University, said the technique appears to be limited in its application.

Henry said research has shown that about 80 percent of the lies people tell are not discrete but are a variation of facts that are actually truthful. In a criminal justice setting for example, he said, most deception involves recalling something that is true but tweaking that recollection in order to hide whatever wrongdoing has taken place.

Depending on the circumstances that are being investigated, therefore, an interviewee aiming to deceive might be able to provide as much detail as one who is telling the truth, but will simply not mention whatever it is that he or she is trying to hide.

Hiscock-Anisman and Colwell’s approach might work excellently for identifying black-and-white deception or a complete fabrication of events, Henry said, but it’s less likely to spot the sort of lies most people tell — lies based on some element of truth.

Colwell said the technique has proved effective in up to 95 percent of test cases. He claimed research has proven that traditional methods of detecting deception — those that focus on measuring physical characteristics — are not just inaccurate, but are also a hindrance to good investigation.

“If you look at the research, a person off the street is actually better at perceiving deception than a police officer is. A new police officer is also better at perceiving deception than a veteran officer. People actually become worse at this because they’re looking for the physical cues,” he said.

Hiscock-Anisman and Colwell have already presented their research to police departments around the country and to the Pentagon. This summer, they will hold a series of training seminars for the San Diego Police Department.

SDPD Lt. Chris Ellis of the department’s Training Division said he’s going to hold a couple of training sessions with the psychologists and see how the technique is received by detectives.

“We’re open to anything that makes our lives easier,” Ellis said.

The psychologists’ research has been well-proven at an academic level, Ellis said, but he doesn’t know how well it will work in practice in day-to-day investigative work. Hiscock-Anisman said she is aware that detectives have limited time to spare, so she’s working on tailoring the approach for everyday police work.

And she said merely opening detectives’ minds to the fact that physical cues aren’t everything and that they need to focus on the details of the stories they are being told will be a positive step for the department.

The SDPD training starts in July. Meanwhile, Colwell and Hiscock-Anisman are researching whether their technique crosses cultural and linguistic boundaries.

In Connecticut, Colwell has been testing the interview process on Arabic speakers and found that the results are just as effective for interviews conducted in Arabic. In La Jolla, Hiscock-Anisman has been working with a team of Chinese students to see whether the technique is applicable to Chinese speakers.

If the interview technique proves effective in other languages, not just for English speakers, its possibilities are enormous, she said.

Please contact Will Carless directly at with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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