How to spot when students are lying - and work out the real reasons why

16th December 2016 at 19:31
Pinocchio, lying, teachers, students, schools
'Lies can provide a way of finding out what’s going on in someone’s head. We lie for very different reasons, so you need to figure out what’s motivating people' says Pamela Meyer

A teacher who hasn’t had to get to the bottom of a “he said/she said” saga is a rare find. Lie telling can be commonplace in schools and for teachers, who are already time-poor, unravelling those fibs can take a frustratingly long time. There must be a quicker way of getting to the truth, right? Unfortunately, it seems that there isn’t.

“Where it’s a complicated situation and you’re trying to figure out the truth, one of the problems is accepting that it will take a long time,” says American lie-detection expert Pamela Meyer. “It may take several days. It may take saying to a student, ‘Why don’t you write me a letter about it?’ It’s not an efficient process. Many interrogations are not like on television – they’re just long, boring conversations.”

Meyer – who previously worked in the media – changed career after attending a 20-year reunion at Harvard Business School, where she’d obtained an MBA. At the event, a professor gave a talk about deception and the signs that someone was lying. The audience was hooked – and no one more so than Meyer.

It was that talk, 10 years ago, that inspired her to become the self-made lies expert that she is today. Meyer reviewed the existing literature on deception, became a certified fraud examiner and undertook training in analysing facial micro-expressions, extracting confessions and statement analysis.

Getting to the truth

All the knowledge she gleaned she shared in her book, Liespotting: proven techniques to detect deception, and her TED Talk, “How to Spot a Liar”. Plus, she founded Calibrate, a deception-detection training company.

While Meyer is often described as an expert “lie-spotter”, she feels that the term can be misleading. “What’s important is not so much spotting lies but being able to get to the truth,” she stresses.

For her, then, it’s about grasping the reasons behind why someone has lied in the first place and what they’re hiding – not just pointing the finger.

Meyer believes a focus on truth is profoundly important in schools. “Every student comes into the classroom with a different back story and yet they’re expected to act in unison,” she notes. “Understanding a student’s truth so you can speak to them in a way that makes sense to them, and makes them feel open, can make a huge difference in their life. Teachers know this.”

And Meyer is confident that most teachers are also skilled at getting the truth from their students: “Often teachers know that with certain kids you get more truth out of them when you have them alone but with others they’re more truthful when they’re being witnessed by someone, for example.”

If a teacher is struggling to untangle a web of lies, though, Meyer suggests paying attention to the structure of the stories that students are telling.

“An honest person will tell you a story with a beginning, middle and end. The main event you’re trying to find out about will usually be towards the middle, and the end will be an emotional comment on what’s happened,” she notes.

“If someone is lying, often they will front-load their story with huge amounts of authentic detail – ‘Oh yes, I was in the classroom, I remember Jonny didn’t have a pencil, but there were three pens…’ – to make you feel they’re honest. The main event will be pushed back, and there will be no emotional comment on it. Essentially, the story has a beginning, a middle and no end.”

If the structure of the story raises suspicions, Meyer suggests asking the students to tell the story out of chronological order as a test.

“If you ask somebody who’s being deceptive to tell their story in bits and pieces by saying ‘What happened at 7?’ or ‘What happened before lunch?’, they may be able to do it, but you will see a lot more ‘leakage’ – indicators they’re being deceitful, such as wringing their hands, a stiff upper body or fiddling with objects.”

While this tactic doesn’t offer conclusive evidence that someone is lying, the strain of it may push them towards honesty if they are being deceitful. Meyer believes people will usually admit the truth eventually: “Most of us are good people and want to discharge the feeling of guilt,” she notes.

The ‘why’ behind a lie

Once the truth has been admitted, it shouldn’t then just be about a process of punishment and moving on. For Meyer, the “why” behind a lie is important.

“Lies can provide a way of finding out what’s going on in someone’s head. We lie for very different reasons. So you need to figure out what’s motivating someone. Were they trying to win admiration? Were they trying to control a situation?

“Sometimes you may want to go with the lie for a while just to get them to talk. You don’t want to encourage lying, but you can deal with the fact that it was a lie later. If you understand their motivation, you’ll learn more than just whether they did or didn’t lie.”

Of course, the aim would be to prevent lies in the first place. Meyer says you can at least reduce the desire to lie but it requires the creation of a truthful environment. She believes it’s vital for staff to set the tone by being as honest as possible.

“To get a more honest, open environment, it has to start from the top. It’s a trickle-down effect where you have a leader who’s saying, ‘I’m committed to open enquiry and transparency.’ But every person has the opportunity to lead by example,” she says.

“So, as a teacher, if you make a mistake, you can say to the kids, ‘I made a mistake. I feel terrible about it. I acknowledge that it affected you all in this way,’ and then say what you’re going to do about it. It signals to everyone that your world is an honest one.”

However, before you start pouring your heart out about your personal life or telling Andrew in 9th grade what you really think of his new haircut, Meyer also emphasises that it’s OK for teachers to lapse from absolute truth sometimes.

White lies are acceptable and teachers should be allowed to retain some personal privacy, she says.

As the Christmas party season gets firmly underway, that is no doubt a welcome get-out clause.

Pamela Meyer

Career: She has become “America’s foremost expert on lying”. She is an author, writer and founder of Calibrate, a deception-detection training company

Best known for: her book, Liespotting: proven techniques to detect deception, and for presenting one of the top 20 most viewed TED Talks of all time.

Qualifications: An MBA from Harvard and an MA in public policy from Claremont Graduate University. She is also a certified fraud examiner.

Find out more about Pamela Meyer and her work here. 

Jessica Powell is a freelance writer based in Melbourne @JPJourno


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