Let Their Words Do the Talking

Verbal cues to detect deception.

Spontaneous Negations

Spontaneous Negations serve as road blocks to avoid sensitive topics

Spontaneous Negations

Spontaneous Negations signal a high probability of deception. When people provide narrative answers or respond to open-ended questions, they should describe the actions they took rather than the actions they did not take. Spontaneous Negations occur when people report activities that they did not do rather than activities that they did. Spontaneous Negations differ from negations in that negations are in response to direct questions. For example, if a person is asked a direct question such as "Did you rob the bank?" and answers "No, I did not rob the bank," the answer is not a Spontaneous Negation because it is in response to a direct question. Using the previous example, if the person was instructed, "Tell me everything you did on Monday (the day the bank was robbed) and the suspect responded something to the effect, "I did this and I did that, but I didn't rob the bank," constitutes a Spontaneous Negation, because it was uttered during an open-ended narrative.

For my dissertation research, I studied the grammatical differences between truthful and deceptive written narratives. The study examined the predictive value of grammar structures to differentiate truthful written narratives from deceptive written narratives. Native English speakers watched a digital presentation of a person shoplifting an item from a conve-nience store and wrote truthful and deceptive narratives regarding the shoplifting event. Of the 608 truthful and deceptive narratives collected in the study, 60 percent contained Spontaneous Negations and 90 percent of those were used in deceptive narratives. In other words, in nine out of ten times when Spontaneous Negations were used, they were used in deceptive narratives. Therefore, the presence of a Spontaneous Negation in open-ended narĀ¬rative statements or questions indicates a high probability of deception. A copy of my dissertation research is available for download on my profile page under the heading "Research Papers."

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

I interviewed a suspect in a rape and murder investigation that occurred on a Southern California college campus. The suspect was a college student. He met the victim at a party where she drank heavily. Witnesses at the party saw the suspect push the victim to the floor, hold her down, and attempt to forcibly kiss her. Later that evening, the victim passed out on a couch. At about 1:00 a.m., the suspect woke the victim and walked her to her dormitory. The suspect was the last known person to see the vicĀ¬tim alive. Three weeks later, volunteer searchers found the victim's body in a wooded area not far from the campus. A forensic examination determined that the victim was raped and murdered. No DNA evidence was recovered. The following excerpt from the police interview of the suspect demonstrates how the suspect used a Spontaneous Negation.

INTERVIEWER: Did you want to kiss her?

SUSPECT: I . . . I . . . I didn't feel . . . I didn't remember feeling any attraction towards her, so...

The interviewer asked a yes or no question, but the suspect did not give a yes or no answer. If the suspect answered, "No, I didn't want to kiss her," the answer would not be a Spontaneous Negation because the answer would have been a direct response to a direct question. Instead, he answered with two Spontaneous Negations, "I didn't feel" and "I didn't remember," which indicates a high probability that he "did feel" and "did remember" having feelings and an attraction to the victim.

Parents should be on the alert for Spontaneous Negations when they talk with their kids not only to detect deception but also to identify sensitive topics they might be reluctant to discuss. Consider the following exchange between a mother and her daughter.

MOTHER: Tell me what you think about the availability of drugs in your high school.

DAUGHTER: Drugs are easy to get in high school. I know a lot of kids who do drugs but I never took any drugs.

Mom asked her daughter to describe the availability of drugs in high school. The daughter talked about the availability of drugs in her school and then added the Spontaneous Negation, "I never took any drugs." The addition of this Spontaneous Negation indicates a high probability of deception; however, there are some caveats. First, the presence of Spontaneous Negations is only an indicator of deception not proof of deception. Second, based on the topic her mother inquired about, the daughter could have thought, "My mother wants to know if I do drugs" and formed the question in her mind, "Do you do drugs?" In response to this unarticulated question, she could have provided the answer, "I never took drugs." In this instance, her answer is not a Spontaneous Negation, but rather an answer to an unarticulated question she formed while responding to her mother's inquiry. Additional techniques for parents to detect deception or identify sensitive topics their kids may be reluctant to discuss can be found in a booklet titled, Fibs to Facts: A Parental Guide to Effective Communication.

People have a natural tendency to avoid pain and discomfort. During inquiries, they want to avoid topics that are uncomfortable, so they use Spontaneous Negations as road blocks. The person is signaling "Do not enter this road. There is nothing down there." If the road block succeeds in blocking further inquiry, then the pain and discomfort of confronting the truth or sensitive topic is avoided. Other techniques to detect deception can be found in a booklet titled, Catch a Liar.

 

 

 

John R. "Jack" Schafer, Ph.D., earned his degree in psychology from Fielding Graduate University, Santa Barbara, California and served as a behavioral analyst for the FBI.

more...

Subscribe to Let Their Words Do the Talking

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?