Catch Liars Using the This/That Trap
The only escape from tag qualifiers is the truth
Posted September 4, 2012
Adding a Tag Qualifier is a simple technique to maintain the illusion of truth. Tag Qualifiers include words such as this, that, these, those, and though. If a specific action or actions were omitted or added to an otherwise accurate account, then liars could truthfully answer questions by adding Tag Qualifiers. Liars may have done the acts or deeds but not exactly as described. By adding a Tag Qualifier liars can tell the truth but not the whole truth.
One of the unique features of Tag Qualifiers is their Push-Pull qualities. If there is a “that,” then there must be a “this.” The word “that” pushes off the word “this” to complete its meaning and vice versa. Simply stated, you cannot have a “this” without a “that.” In order for people to say, “I didn’t do that,” they must first know what they did. Likewise, if there is a “these” then there must be a “those.”
The following exchange between a child and his mother demonstrates the use of Tag Qualifiers. Timmy’s third grade teacher telephoned Timmy’s mother and told her that during recess, Timmy ran up to Vickie, a fellow classmate, and pulled her hair causing her to fall down and hurt her head.
TIMMY’S MOTHER: Your teacher called and said that during recess you ran up to Vickie and pulled her hair causing her to fall down and hurt her head.
TIMMY: She’s lying. I didn’t do that.
Timmy used the Tag Qualifier “that” to give the illusion of truth. Timmy did pull Vickie’s hair causing her to fall down and hurt her head, but he did not run up to Vickie and pull her hair, he walked up to Vickie and pulled her hair. Since his mother’s description of the event was not exact, Timmy could use the Tag Qualifier “that” to maintain the illusion of truth. However, Timmy cannot use the word “that” without having considered at least one alternate action. The mother’s follow-up question should be, “If you didn’t do that, what did you do?” Timmy cannot know what he did not do unless he knew what he actually did. Additional techniques for parents to detect deception are available in Fibs to Facts: A Parental Guide to Effective Communication.
On January 28, 2003, Diane Sawyer interviewed Scott Peterson on Good Morning America (GMA). Peterson’s wife, Laci, who was eight months pregnant, disappeared from their Modesto, California neighborhood. She had been missing for about a month at the time of the GMA interview. Peterson ostensibly appeared on GMA to plead for Laci’s safe return. An excerpt from that interview demonstrates the use of a Tag Qualifier.
SAWYER: Because again you know that people sitting at home have imagined that either you were in love with someone else, therefore you decided to get rid of this entanglement, namely your wife and your child, or there was just an angry confrontation.
PETERSON: Neither of those was the case. It’s—it’s that simple.
By using the Tag Qualifier “those,” Peterson answered truthfully if he killed Laci for reasons other than the ones listed by Sawyer. He did not deny killing Laci. He only denied killing her for the reasons Sawyer listed, which means other reasons existed for him to kill Laci.
In order for Peterson to know that the reasons for killing Laci stated by Sawyer were not the case, then he would have to have known the reasons that were the case. For people to be able to say what they did not do, they must first know what they did. It is impossible to know what you did not do without knowing what you did. In order to close the trap, Sawyer should have asked the following question, “If the reasons I stated weren’t the reasons you killed Laci, then what were the reasons you killed her?” If Peterson does not want to reveal the reasons why he killed Laci, his only believable answer is, “I don’t know.” As soon as Peterson says this, Sawyer can then slam the trap shut by saying, “If you don’t know the reasons why you killed Laci, then it is possible that one of the reasons I stated is the reason why you killed her. By saying that he does not know the reasons why he killed Laci, then any reasons are plausible. The one possible answer Peterson could have provided would have been, “There are no reasons why I killed Laci because I did not kill her.” However, this answer would not make logical sense because he already tacitly admitted that reasons exist for killing Laci, but they are not the reasons stated by Sawyer. This answer would make logical sense if this was his initial response to Sawyer’s question.
The prime suspect in a rape and murder of a female student was interviewed by police investigators. The suspect 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 a.m., the suspect woke the victim and walked her to her dormitory. The suspect was the last known person to see the victim alive.
(1) INVESTIGATOR: Well, let’s go back to the party for a second. There’s somebody at the party—not just somebody, maybe—how many? Four or five people? Four of five people told us that they saw you trying to kiss her—at the party. In fact, it was in the hallway at the party—and, uh, you were trying to kiss her. In fact, I think she fell down on the ground and you were, kind of laying down next to her. Trying to kiss her or something. What can you remember what happened with that?
SUSPECT: I never even...I don’t remember doing anything like that.
(2) INVESTIGATOR: Okay. This is where some—just one person told us—several people saw this. So, we’re—I was wondering what happened as far as you and the victim were concerned there. Was she kind of pulling you down on the ground or...?
SUSPECT: I don’t even remember doing anything like that.
(3) INVESTIGATOR: Nothin’?
SUSPECT: Nuh uh.
(4) INVESTIGATOR: Nothing like that happened?
(5) INVESTIGATOR: Why do you think these four or five people would tell us that?
SUSPECT: It’s possible thought [sic] I was someone else.
(6) INVESTIGATOR: Well, that’s what we thought. That’s why we showed your picture. And, uh, they picked you out of the picture. ‘Cause we got—she was kissin’ on a lot of guys that night. You know, there was other...
SUSPECT: I never kissed her though.
In the first exchange, the suspect used the Tag Qualifier “that,” which indicates that the incident did not happen exactly how the investigator described it. The Tag Qualifier “that” rendered the response truthful.
In the second exchange, the suspect used the Tag Qualifier “that,” which indicates that the incident did not happen exactly how the investigator described it. The Tag Qualifier “that” rendered the response truthful.
In the fourth exchange, the investigator used the Tag Qualifier “that” to refer back to his description of the incident. The suspect answered truthfully because the incident did not happen exactly the way in which the investigator described it the first time.
In the sixth exchange, the suspect used the Tag Qualifier “though,” which suggests that he may have done the other actions the investigator described but he did not kiss her. The Tag Qualifier “though” renders the suspect’s response truthful.
In each exchange where the suspect used a Tag Qualifier, the investigator should have closed the This/That Trap by asking the question, “If you didn’t do that, then what did you do?” This simple, noninvasive question causes anxiety for liars because they are not prepared to answer this simple, yet probing question. Truthful people will say what they did. Liars will continue to weave the web of deceit.
Tag Qualifiers serve as red flags to detect deception. The This/That Trap is a simple, non-intrusive method to detect deception. Other red flags to detect deception are available in a book titled Psychological Narrative Analysis: A Professional Method to Detect Deception in Oral and Written Communications.