The Human Equation

Serial killers, self-reliance, and everything in between

Big Lies and the Boogie Man

False abduction stories and murder

In May 1983, Oregonian mom Diane Downs pulled up to a Springfield emergency room entrance with her heavily bleeding three young children in the back seat of her car.  The tale she told sent police on a months-long search for a gun-wielding child-murderer; a bushy haired stranger, said Ms. Downs, had flagged down her car, demanded the keys and shot her three children on a lonely back road in the dead of night.  It was only her quick thinking (throwing her keys to divert the gunman’s attention, pushing him out of the way and then jumping back into her car) that saved her own life and enabled her to get medical help for her kids.

However, a series of increasingly bizarre media interviews, the discovery of the mother’s obsession with a married man who didn’t want her children, and the eventual testimony of her surviving 8-year-old daughter that eventually led to a more horrifying reality.  Diane Downs shot her own children. 

Then, in October 1994, along comes Susan Smith, with a similarly wrenching tale.  This time the “culprit was a black man, who allegedly hijacked her car and abducted her two small boys.  For nine days, police officers searched, Americans prayed, and mom Susan Smith pleaded for the safe return of her 3-year-old and 14-month-old sons.  After repeated police questioning, however, Susan Smith confessed to buckling her two children into their car seats and pushing the car into a South Carolina lake.  Once again, the boogie man didn’t exist.

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While fake abduction stories aren’t common, they have been increasingly used as cover ups for murdering parents.  The question I want to address, though, is not why someone would concoct such a lie but how good she is in telling it.  In other words, do lying child murderers show telltale signs of their deception when they’re standing before a camera and pleading for help, or are they indistinguishable from desperate mothers whose child really has been stolen?

The Dance of High Stakes Deception

Psychological research has made one thing pretty clear: Human beings are much better liars than lie detectors.  In fact, despite the fact that most of us believe we can’t easily be duped, our ability to spot a lie — even if we’re a seasoned cop — is about as accurate as calling heads or tails when flipping a coin. 

Little lie detection research, however, has been conducted when the consequence of fooling others is life and death — such as when a parent kills a child and then pretends the perpetrator is someone else.  This is a big acting job; not only must the murderer concoct a believable story, she must convincingly, passionately and consistently communicate it in such a way to maximize her credibility.  And a 2012 study in the Journal of Law and Behavior suggests that, regardless of the stakes involved or the actor’s acting skill, guilty parents aren’t able to act the same as their innocent counterparts.  Signs of their duplicity leak out.   

Researchers in this study examined the videotapes of 78 emotional appeals to the public for the return of a missing relative. These pleas were evaluated for behavioral cues often correlated with deception — inconsistent facial expressions, slower speech with more hesitations, emotionally distancing words (not using “I,” words with less emotional intensity), and faster blinking.

In 35 of these cases, the pleader was ultimately found guilty of murdering the victim before going to the media for assistance.  The other half was unfortunate — and desperate — victims of circumstance.    None of the evaluators were aware which of the pleaders were genuine and which were faking it.

Cry Me a River of Crocodile Tears

We’ve all experienced the impression that what someone was telling us wasn’t how they were feeling.  An acquaintance expresses sadness at our recent romantic breakup, yet we get the distinct impression (from the eyes, perhaps) that s/he is secretly delighted.  Two weeks later, we discover our ex and our insincere acquaintance are a couple.  Or, a work colleague congratulates us on our promotion, yet we detect the distinct curl of distaste in the curl of his upper lip.

These researchers discovered subtle, but distinct, differences in the facial expressions of deceptive murderers versus desperate relatives, too.  These differences were twofold; one, the deceptive pleader was less able to accurately mimic genuine emotions and, second, they were unable to mask real (but inappropriate given the circumstances) ones.   

For example, throughout the entire publicized plea, genuinely distressed innocent relatives displayed sincere, full-face sadness and distress.   In contrast, the faces of deceptive murderers were more likely to express mixed emotions (a surprised brow, a smirk, a sudden smile) in the face of an extremely grim subject.  In particular, the facial expressions of murderers were more likely to contain the raised upper lip of disgust even when talking about the terror and sadness they were experiencing.  (Although we don’t know the source of this disgust, the researchers hypothesized that disgust in this context was either an involuntary visceral reaction to the act of murder the deceptive pleader engaged in just days before, moral disgust or shame concerning one's actions, or a lingering revulsion for the victim).

In addition, the words deceptive pleaders used show the cognitive effort – and emotional strain – of living the lie.  Deceptive pleaders, for instance, used fewer and more tentative, words throughout the plea, especially when directly appealing to the public for help (e.g., Pam Poirier desperately pleading for her daughter's return: “... Katie please call us and tell us you're okay. Whoever took our Katie, please tell her we miss her, we love her, and we want her to come home...” deceptive murderers used tentative words to (unconsciously) avoid commitment in their words to distance themselves from or subtly communicate knowledge of a transgression (e.g., “If whoever has her, or if she’s out there and you see me, and you see this, just stay there, we'll find you. We will, I'll find you.” In this way, deceptive murderers subtly acknowledge that the victim will not be found alive, avoid commitment to the lie, and mitigate the psychological conflict resulting from the discrepancy between their secretly held and outwardly expressed knowledge.

The Bottom Line

No matter how high the stakes, murderers who publicly lie about what they’ve done leave telltale signs of their guilt.  They use less and more tentative words, distance themselves emotionally in their pleas, and are unable to consistently mimic genuine emotions or conceal inappropriate ones.  In fact, researchers who had no idea whether the person they were evaluating was innocent or guilty were able to tell the difference 90 percent of the time when they evaluated the facial expressions and verbal cues in 78 pleas for the return of a missing relative.  While these won’t ever replace hard evidence in convicting a deceptive murderer, they do have the capacity to point detectives in the right direction.  

Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D, is the author of Complete Idiot's Guide to Psychology.

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