Let Their Words Do the Talking

Verbal cues to detect deception.

Future in the Past: Deception in the Present

Liars use the truth to cover their lies.

"Future in the Past" expresses an idea or action that a person in retrospect thought might happen in the future regardless of the actual outcome. Liars often disguise their lies using "Future in the Past." When liars tell their stories, they transport themselves back in time and then describe what they would have done in the past, not what they actually did. Future in the Past gives the illusion of truth but, in fact, covers a lie.

The following excerpt from a legal deposition demonstrates the use of "Future in the Past."

Investigator: Tell me what you were doing just prior to the accident.

Driver: I was driving north on Main Street. I wanted to go to the supermarket so I had to change lanes. I would’ve looked in my rear view mirror, looked over my shoulder to check my blind spot, turned on my blinker, and changed lanes. The next thing I knew this car hit me.

The driver did not tell the investigator what he did. Using "Future in the Past," the driver told the investigator what he would have done in similar circumstances. The driver gave the investigator the illusion that he looked in his rear view mirror, that he looked over his shoulder to check his blind spot, that he turned on his turn signal, and that he changed lanes. This, in fact, is not what the driver actually did; he only described what he would have done. By using "Future in the Past," the driver was able to make it look like he safely changed lanes and the fault for the accident is with the other driver.

The driver used the word "did" to transport himself into the past. He used the word "woulda" to describe, from the past perspective what he would have done, meaning that the future action took place in the past. In other words, the driver is speculating what he would have done describing a past event from a point where the action has already been completed. This is where the slight of hand takes place. The investigator did not ask the driver what he would have done. He asked the driver what he actually did. Once an action has been completed, no speculation is required when describing what occurred.  

To counter "Future in the Past," the investigator should first recognize the use of "Future in the Past" and then respond, “I didn’t ask what you would have done. I asked you what you actually did. What did you actually do?”

The unique feature of the "Future in the Past" deception technique is that the driver told the truth. There is no way to dispute that the driver did not contemplate the actions he described. Future in the Past is a sophisticated smoke screen liars use to tell lies. Ironically, this is one of the few instances liars can tell the truth when they are really lying.

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.

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