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A One-Two Approach to Snare the Double-Crosser

New research suggests two steps that can identify treacherous individuals.

Key points

  • No one likes a double-crosser who, by definition, can be difficult to identify.
  • According to a new study on honesty-humility, a one-two approach can help you expose duplicitous people.
  • By giving the double-crosser the right kind of questions, you can trap them before they trap you.

How many times has it seemed that someone had your best interest at heart, only to be revealed later that they did not? Worse, did that person sneak around you to get those you trusted to turn against you? Perhaps you’re running a group working on a joint project. The person you thought of as your ally, you come to suspect, seems to have poisoned the rest of the group members against you, and all of a sudden, you find yourself being ousted.

Even though you feel hurt when this happens, this type of double-crossing in everyday life may be minor compared to the way that people engaging in criminal behavior relate to each other. If you’ve been keeping up with the Netflix series Ozark, you can see plenty of examples on display of characters constantly scheming against each other to unseat, incriminate, or end the life of other major characters, often their very own relatives.

The kind of treachery you might encounter in both your own real-life situation and ones involving actual illegal behavior falls somewhat outside of psychology’s focus on the related behavior of deception or even psychopathy. However, new research on the personality trait of honesty-humility in the workplace can provide some ideas for learning to read the duplicitous behavior of others before it comes back to haunt you.

The Realistic Accuracy Model (RAM) of Personality Testing

According to a newly-published study by University of Guelph’s Melissa Pike and colleagues (2022), identifying where people stand on the honesty-humility dimension is one of the most important decisions that a potential employer needs to make. As they note, “employee levels of Honesty-Humility are related to a variety of crucial workplace behaviors, including counterproductive work behaviors, unethical decision-making and task performance.” The question is, why should a dishonest person admit to their own dishonesty when trying to get hired?

Normal self-report questionnaires clearly don’t work when you’re asking people to admit to their less-than-desirable qualities in a high-stakes situation such as a job assessment. The “less fakable” interviews, the Canadian researchers suggest, could provide just such a litmus test. Even so, interviewers can be easily deceived unless they know which questions to ask because honesty-humility is “one of the most difficult traits to judge.”

There may be a way out of this bind, however, and it can provide you with some ideas about how to figure out who’s really on your side the next time you need to trust someone. In the “Realistic Assessment Model” (RAM), proposed in a landmark paper by personality psychologist David Funder (1995), the accurate detection of an individual’s level on a given trait reflects an interaction between the target (interviewee) and perceiver (interviewer). The target must provide cues that are both relevant and available (i.e. viewable) and the perceiver must both detect and then utilize those cues.

Sounds simple, but as you can undoubtedly attest from your own experience, easier said than done. People disguise their true traits all the time, but the trustworthy among us don’t expect this to happen. The onus, then, is on the perceiver to ask the right questions and then be prepared for answers that require a strong dose of skepticism.

The Two Questions to Ask, and How to Ask Them

Starting off with which questions to ask, it’s important that they actually tap into the trait of honesty-humility itself and not some other personality quality. The “Trait Activation Theory” (TAT) component of this process, as described by Pike et al., involves coming up with questions that will lead the target to talk about their honesty and humility but without necessarily realizing that this is what they’re being grilled on (otherwise they would lie). The situation should be “weak, but relevant to the specific trait.”

Not only should the original questions be on the vague side but, as the researchers point out, they need to be accompanied by probes (follow-ups) that can lead the target down the path to showing their true colors.

The basic premise of the Pike et al. study was that the right type of interview could indeed reveal a person’s honesty-humility in ways that self-report questionnaires cannot. Their study involved the online viewing by 788 adults who saw one of four videotaped mock interviews. Participants rated the interviewees on honesty-humility, and their ratings were compared with self-reports and “expert” raters of the same traits.

The four interviews varied according to the study criteria of being specific or general to honesty-humility, and whether they included probes or not. A general personality non-probe question was “Tell me about a time you had a difference of opinion or conflict with a supervisor/co-worker.” A probe for this question was “How did you feel during this situation?”

A specific personality non-probe question also asked for a time involving a difference of opinion or conflict, but ended with the phrase “and tried to persuade them to see things your way.” The probes for this specific question were the same (e.g. asking how they felt).

Turning to the results, the best interview combination, supporting the RAM, involved general personality trait questions along with specific honesty-humility probes. As the authors concluded, “a weak situation may allow more personality cues to be emitted,” and by using probes, the interviewer can engage the “detection and utilization stages of the RAM.”

In other words, give the person a vague enough question so they don’t know what you’re after, and then you can use follow-up questions to pin the individual down. If it’s obvious as to what you’re after, you have no hope of even getting to the kind of probes that can reveal the individual’s true colors.

How to Ask Your Own Telling Questions

There are plenty of situations in which you’re trying to figure out whether a new person you’re about to enter into a relationship with is someone you can trust. This study suggests a one-two approach in which you start in a vague and general direction but then don’t allow the target to provide “not enough, or irrelevant information” (in the words of the authors). Don’t be afraid to “go there,” for risk of seeming rude. The stakes of getting it wrong are too high.

When someone you already know (and thought you could trust) is the person you want to put in the hot seat, the U. Guelph approach may not be directly translatable. The person in your group trying to unseat you is already there, and there was no way you could have prevented this in any kind of practical sense. You may not be able to conduct an “interview,” then, but you can have a conversation with this person in which you follow the vague-specific principle of question-asking.

You might begin the questioning by asking whether anything happened recently among the group without letting on that you know the dirty details. Providing that wide berth gives the person a chance to give you some type of vague assurances ("Oh, I have no idea what happened"). Then you're ready to launch into the specifics of your follow-ups.

By the time you've been double-crossed, though, knowing exactly what happened may provide little consolation. Better instead to use the knowledge gained from this unpleasant experience to be more cautious when deciding whether to trust new people in the future.

To sum up, it’s unfortunate that there are double-crossers in the world. However, by letting them reveal their true colors in stages, you can protect yourself from their most brazen ways to keep you from reaching your own fulfillment.

References

Funder, D. C. (1995). On the accuracy of personality judgment: A realistic approach. Psychological Review, 102(4), 652–670. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.102.4.652

Pike, M. D., Powell, D. M., Bourdage, J. S., & Lukacik, E.-R. (2021). Why not interview? Investigating interviews as a method for judging honesty-humility. Journal of Personnel Psychology. https://doi. 10.1027/1866-5888/a000293

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