Article: Some experiments with truth

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Some experiments with truth

Decoding the truth and the lies is truly a daunting task. The mystery of decoding what the person opposite us is saying is an eternal tryst with truth.
Some experiments with truth

I have, throughout my career been grappling with the issue of assessing myself in making an accurate judgement about candidates who I interview. I have been fortunate. Majority of the candidates I have selected have been good hires. But I have come across some writings and research that made me more aware of the risks involved. 

Deception research has consistently shown that accuracy rates tend to be just over 50 percent when they are averaged across truthful and deceptive messages and when an equal number of truths and lies are judged. Interpreting the sales pitch of a sales person, inferring from the claims made during a selection interview, the statements made in meetings, all form an important part of human to human communication. 

Decoding the truth and the lies is truly a daunting task. The mystery of decoding what the person opposite us is saying, is an eternal tryst with truth. In transactional analysis we hear about crossed transactions and ulterior transactions. A crossed transaction is one in which the transactional vectors are not parallel, or in which the ego state addressed is not the one which responds. When a transaction is crossed, a break in communication results and one or both individuals will need to shift ego states in order that the communication is re-established. In an ulterior transaction, two messages are conveyed at the same time. One of these is an overt or social level message. The other is a covert or psychological level message. Most often, the social level content is adult to adult ego states. 

Deception research has consistently shown that accuracy rates tend to be just over 50 percent when they are averaged across truthful and deceptive messages and when an equal number of truths and lies are judged

Crossed and ulterior transactions do not necessarily demonstrate motive or intention to deceive. There may or may not be any actus reus and mens reas in such cases of communication. The terms actus reus and mens rea developed in English Law are derived from the principle stated by Edward Coke, namely, actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea, which means: "an act does not make a person guilty unless (their) mind is also guilty"; hence, the general test of guilt is one that requires proof of fault, culpability or blameworthiness both in thought and action. However, the situation is different in the Truth Default Theory (TDT). This is a theory of deception propounded by Timothy R Levine. Levine is a distinguished Professor & Chair of Communications Studies, University of Alabama at Birmingham.  As the term Truth Default Theory (TDT) implies, the key idea is that when people communicate with others, we tend to operate on a default presumption that what the other person says is by and large honest. The presumption of honesty is highly adaptive. It enables efficient communication, and this supposition of honesty makes sense because most communication is honest most of the time. However, the presumption of honesty makes humans vulnerable to occasional deceit. There are, of course, times and situations when people abandon this presumption of honesty, and the theory describes when people are expected to suspect a lie or conclude that a lie was told, and the conditions under which people make truth and lie judgments correctly and incorrectly.

Truth-Bias, is the tendency to actively believe or passively presume that another person’s communication is honest independent of actual honesty. The term was originated by McCornack & Parks (1986). Empirically, truth-bias is the ratio of messages judged as honest to the total number of messages judged. In Levin’s research, truth bias is always greater than 50 percent. Implications of truth bias include the veracity effect and the Park-Levine probability model. A citation for truth-bias and further documentation of truth-bias and its implications are available in Levine et al. (1999). Prevalence of Deception. Lying may be less common than reported in the literature. Most people lie infrequently compared to honest communication, and the distribution of lies told is highly skewed. Most lies are told by a few prolific liars making the average lies-per-day misleading and not reflective of most people. But all these theories on truth and deception can make us over suspicious about every statement made in a job interview. 

Being over suspicious may make the job interview look like a Spanish Inquisition. A professional interview is one in which referees would have been spoken to; for which the preparation will require checking for consistency in statements. Questions whose answers cannot be verified are a travesty. Answers to questions about a candidate with over 20 years of work experience handling a leadership role in school and college in sport or extracurricular activities are rarely verified. In the case of mature hires it is important to even verify claims about scholastics. An exaggerated self-appraisal about how the candidate describes his/her role in a past job or project, is important to sniff out. It is important that the interviewer does not get carried away by either the Halo or the Horn effect. There is sufficient literature and research about how appearance influences judgement, and how appearance can make us even more vulnerable to the truth bias.

Crossed and ulterior transactions do not necessarily demonstrate motive or intention to deceive. There may or may not be any actus reus and mens reas in such cases of communication

A distinction between TDT and earlier narrations on deception is that TDT challenges the idea that the best way to detect deception is to pay attention to nonverbal and verbal “cues.” Using cues make people weak lie detectors. Levine’s research shows that how people appear can be misleading and that there are much better ways not to get fooled. Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Talking to Strangers”, explains the examples on this subject based on how spies for years together, got away with lies. “We look people in the eye, observe their demeanor and behavior and draw conclusions”.

I have seen that in a number of cases where a person has violated the Company’s code of conduct, there is initial disbelief about the fact that “he/she could have done that”. The person might look very innocent and timid but may have got away with such violations and when discovered, the person accused vehemently denies the allegations with a straight face. Because people are most often truth biased, message veracity is an important and often ignored determinant of detection accuracy. There are several reasonable explanations for people’s relatively poor performance in deception detection.

  • There is no behaviour or set of behaviours that infallibly distinguishes deception from truth telling
  • Research naïve people seem to focus on the wrong behaviours when trying to distinguish truths from lies
  • Peoples veracity judgements are often affected by a variety of systematic errors and biases

Successfully deceiving others can be addictive. Slightly exaggerated versions, some twists in a tale become a part of life. I have learnt the hard way. The best way to not get deceived by the quintessential liar is to constantly remember the Latin maxim and principle of caveat emptor. Another way is to use modern technology. The era of lie detectors and graphology is a bit archaic. Today, Artificial Intelligence (AI) can help in raising an alarm about the veracity of statements made by a candidate by checking for consistency in the persons social network profile, declarations made and testimonials. Algorithms can be written to crawl through data and throw up areas that need clarification in the interview process. But AI will fail in throwing up the results desired, if our own biases are baked into it. Hence a good blend of human judgement, an open mind and phygital (physical + digital) fact finding is important. 

Judgement when translated into Hindi as per Google, is  which means decision, verdict, ruling, discretion, conclusion. Judgement as per the Concise Oxford Dictionary (COD) is the ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions. In decoding human to human communication, I would recommend carefully curating experience, with data & technology to reduce the probability of falling into a truth deception trap. To conclude, what we learn from Malcolm Gladwell in his book Talking to Strangers, is Doubts are not the enemy of belief, they are its companion. 

 

*Views in this write up are completely personal and do not in any way have anything to do with my employer, L&T.

Topics: #ExpertViews, Life @ Work

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