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3 Subtle Questions That Detect Deception

Assessment questions are an effective way to determine veracity.

Key points

  • Direct questions do not always reveal the truth.
  • Assessment questions are subtle, indirect questions not related directly to the activity in question.
  • Assessment questions are effective in business and social environments.
  • Assessment questions are not foolproof, but they can eliminate innocent people and highlight topics that need further inquiry.

Criminal investigators use various investigative tools to determine if someone is telling the truth. Asking direct questions does not always arrive at the truth, so investigators developed alternative questioning techniques to assess the veracity of the person being interviewed.

Rather than asking direct questions, investigators developed a set of indirect assessment questions to test for veracity. Assessment questions are subtle, indirect questions not related directly to the activity in question. The anecdotal evidence demonstrated that truthful people typically answer the assessment questions one way, and deceptive people answer the same assessment question in a different way. Recently, researchers tested the efficacy of the assessment questions used by criminal investigators and found that the use of assessment questions is an effective way to test for veracity.

The following assessment questions are typically used by criminal investigators but can be adapted to test the veracity of people in a variety of situations involving dishonest behavior.

Assessment Question 1

What do you think should happen to the person who committed (Fill in the offensive behavior)? Truthful people usually recommend harsh consequences. Guilty people typically downplay the seriousness of the behavior by recommending relatively lenient consequences. Guilty people will try to minimize the seriousness of their actions as part of the rationalization process to justify their actions. Truthful people do not need to justify their actions and have no problem offering harsher consequences.

For example, in a business situation involving the theft of merchandise from a warehouse, the owner may want to narrow the pool of suspects. The owner could screen the employees who have access to the warehouse by asking them the following assessment question.

Assessment Question: “What do you think should happen to the person who stole the merchandise?”

Truthful response: Whoever stole the merchandise should be arrested and sent to jail.

Deceptive response: Whoever took the merchandise probably had a good reason and should be given a chance to keep their job if they return the merchandise.

Assessment Question 2

Who in the organization has the opportunity to commit (Fill in the offensive behavior)? Truthful people will answer the question by providing the names or job positions of people who could logically commit the offending behavior. Conversely, guilty people will provide the names of people who would not have the opportunity to commit the offense.

Guilty people often answer, “Anyone in the organization has the opportunity to commit the offense.” Guilty people want to spread the blame to a wide range of possible suspects. Guilty people want as many people as possible in the suspect pool to divert attention from themselves.

For example, in a business situation where an investigator is trying to identify the person who embezzled money from the company, they could ask the following assessment question to identify the embezzler or, at best, to limit the pool of possible suspects.

Assessment Question: Who in the organization has the opportunity to embezzle money from the company?

Truthful Person: Well, the accountants could easily embezzle money, or the Chief Financial Officer also could embezzle money. (Lists logical suspects)

Guilty Person: Anybody in the company could embezzle money, from the cashiers to any number of managers. (Identifies people who could not logically embezzle money)

Assessment Question 3

How common do you believe (Fill in the offensive behavior) is at this company? Truthful people will typically respond that they don’t know anyone who has committed that type of offense, or comment that the type of offense is not very common in the company. Guilty people will try to give the illusion that stealing money is commonplace in the organization. Again, guilty people want to widen the pool of suspects to divert attention from themselves. Additionally, theft can be more easily justified if the guilty person believes everyone in the organization steals money.

In a business situation where money is stolen from the company, internal investigators could identify the possible offender or narrow the pool of potential suspects by asking the following assessment question.

Assessment Question: How commonly do you believe that people steal money from the company?

Truthful Person: Not very common I suppose. I don’t know anybody who has stolen money from the company.

Guilty Person: Everybody steals money in today’s world with high inflation. Can you blame them? People just want to survive.

Using Assessment questions is a subtle technique to determine if people are telling the truth or not. Assessment questions are nonaggressive, noninvasive inquiries that can be used to screen a large number of possible suspects or to identify the offender. Assessment questions are also effective in social situations when you want to discover the truth without offending the person with whom you are speaking.

Assessment questions are not foolproof, but they can eliminate innocent people and highlight areas in a person’s story that need further inquiry.

References

Jensen, K, & Smith, M. (2021). A preliminary examination of the effectiveness of assessment questions in detecting dishonest behavior. Journal of Forensic Accounting Research, 6, 127-148.

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