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Categories of Stress Behavior

by Stan B. Walters, CSP
“The Lie Guy®”

Each of us experience stress creating events on a regularly basis and in a large number of different settings. Everything from the simple aggravating issues of daily life up to and including the stress that is associated with creating and maintaining deception.  The ability of the interviewer to be able to accurately diagnose deception rests on his or her knowledge of which stress behaviors are those that are associated with deception versus those behaviors that are merely the result of “ambient stress” of the current interview setting.  Those individuals who fail at accurately identifying deception in other people invariably misidentify a large number of general stress behaviors as being signs of deception while at the same time failing to recognize reliable behavioral cues of deception. Understanding the classification of human stress indicators into the three basic categories of general, incriminating and discriminatory cues can dramatically improve the investigative interviewer’s deception detection accuracy.

The “general”category of stress cues is the largest and most diverse of all the three categories.  These are behaviors that each of us experiences in varying degrees throughout our day.  These cues are present when things are absolutely crazy in the mornings as everyone in the household scrambles to get ready for the day’s activities, the project at work is going badly, the relationship with another person is deteriorating, the bills are late, or one of your children has come home early with a surprise case of the measles and you’ve never had them!  This is the type of stress we experience when we are at the bank applying for a loan or when we are at the restaurant and we’re worried that your credit card may be other limit and will be declined when we “pick up the tab.”  It is these types of behaviors that we may describe as being nothing more than the “background” noise of human behaviors that goes on all the time.  Some of these symptoms include a louder voice along with higher voice pitch, agitated facial expressions, increased hand and arm behaviors and even a few speech flaws.  They are by no means signs of deception yet are often seized upon by the eye of many untrained or ill-informed observers as reliable signs of deception.  If these are signs of deception we all must be lying all the time!

The “incriminating” category of stress cues tend to be more prolific than the “lie signs” but there is nowhere as many as those that populate the “general” stress category.  These behaviors are more likely to be seen during moments of evasive response by a subject but will not specifically pinpoint to moment of deception by the speaker.  The presence of these symptoms appears to be more scattered and not always recurring when the issue is raised at a later time by the interviewer. At the same time both truthful and deceptive subjects are capable of generating these cues but we find that deceptive subjects generate are far higher number of them overall during their general response to some form of inquiry.  These can include stuttering, stammering, mumbling speech and general pausing.  These symptoms much like the “general” category are problematic in that they are often inappropriately given far more weight toward an end analysis of specific deception.  A more accurate analysis from observing these behaviors would be that the subject’s overall behavior “concerns” the interviewer therefore he or she should spend more time with the subject and ask in-depth questions regarding the specifics of the issue under investigation and watch to see if the subject begins to generate the stress signals that are capable of isolating the stress behaviors associated with deception.

The “discriminatory” category of stress cues are those behaviors that when observed under stringent scientific conditions have been found to be highly reliable in marking moments of deception.  It is this category that we focus on a great deal in Practical Kinesic Interview & Interrogation courses.  With a good understanding of the “general” and “incriminating” stress categories, the stress behaviors associate with deception become more obvious.  The interviewer will find this category populated with nonverbal behaviors such as aversion, negation, contradictions, and to some extent performance and control cues.  Verbal cues include the content category of “denial” as well as elements seem in the presentation of an “unclear thought line” or cognitive dissonance.

In-depth knowledge of the “incriminating” and “discriminatory” categories along with accurate recognition of their occurrences can dramatically improve the observer’s ability to spot deception.  Just as critical however is to understand the significance of the general stress behaviors. These cues can tell the interviewer a lot about the subject’s current emotional and cognitive state as well as the strength of the emotion being expressed.  These cues can guide the interviewer through the entire interview and allow him or her to maintain control over the flow of information and improve the quality of communication.  At the same time, the interviewer must still understand that “general” stress cues will often “populate” a deception cluster and can indicate level of severity of stress the subject is experiencing while perpetrating the lie.

Insuring Against False Confession

by Stan B. Walters, CSP “The Lie Guy®”


In the last couple of years there has been a growing public interest and media documentation of cases of wrongful conviction.  Many of the more sensational cases overturned and receiving high profile media coverage have been those that where resolved using new DNA technology. In some cases however, one of key points upon which the wrongful conviction turned was a false confession by the suspect.
Despite overwhelming evidence, there are still some investigators, prosecutors and members of the general public who believe that there is no such thing as a false
confession and it doesn’t really matter because the subject most likely is guilty of some other undiscovered crime or offense anyway.  Unfortunately there will always be people who will never be convinced of the phenomenon but a more important question for us as investigative interviewers is what are the conditions that could possibly exist that create such confessions and what can we do to prevent such
possible miscarriages of justice?

Although this e-zine, “The Interview Room” goes out to subscribers in at least five countries outside the United States, I feel that the United States Supreme Court
definition of a “confession” could still be used as a reliable standard from which to establish the goals and objectives of our interviews.  At the same time, if you are
a reader whose work is in the private sector, intelligence community, military or even adult and juvenile probation and parole, the objectives still remain the same but translated to your specific needs.  In the case James v. State of Georgia, App. 282, 71, S.E. 2d 568 (1952) the court defined a confession as: “An accused person knowingly makes an acknowledgement that he or she committed or participated in
the commission of the criminal act.  This acknowledgement must be broad enough to comprehend every essential element necessary to make a case against the defendant.”  Does the confession you have obtained contain the critical elements
of “causation” and “criminal intent?”

First, the case against a subject can be protected from the fatal flaw of being a labeled a false confession if it contains the subject’s descriptive details of his or her
exact actions, behaviors, or participation that “caused” the event to occur ñ malicious, negligent or otherwise   How the subject specifically entered the house, the point of origin of the fire and materials used, how they accessed the
computer system, physically approached the victim, weapon used and in what manner or form, method of egress from the scene, any attempt at displacement, obliteration, or disposal of evidence such as clothing, the murder weapon,
etc.  Has he or she told you details that the only way they would know those details is if they had been to the scene and committed the offense?  At the same time those details should be confirmed by the presence of physical evidence in some form.  In addition, are you sure that you as the interviewer, by the way you have conducted your interview, asked of phrased your questions in some form that has
inadvertently given the subject such details thereby contaminating the subject’s statement, a common error made in the interview room?

Second what was the subject’s initial “intent” when engaging in their behavior?  Your subject’s statement should not only reflect that the subject did something bad or criminal but also that they had “bad intent” when the incident occurred.
The outcome may not be what the subject intended, anticipated, or every expected but would the results have been the same without some form of intent on the part of
your subject?  Does your subject’s statement disclose that their behaviors where malicious by virtue of information they have supplied that their actions were wanton, to what degree was the intent and was it a conscious act on their
part?  Is it apparent from the physical evidence and your subject’s statement that there was time for deliberation of their part?  Where there moments when it is obvious that the subject was at a one or more crossroads in the decision
making process and at these opportune moments chose a specific course of action?  Does the subject’s remarks validate evidence that this act was premeditated in that the subject engaged in behaviors in advance of the event that “facilitated” a specific outcome by arranging, orchestrating, staging or specific planning?

The burden of the existence of false confessions rests on the shoulders of the interviewer.  A confession that contains the critical elements of “causation” and “intent” that have be obtained without contamination from the interviewer solidifies the reliability of the confession. An individual without such specific knowledge could not provide such critical information.   Justice is ultimately served for the victim, the correct subject, the professional interviewer and ultimately the public’s faith in its
criminal justice system.