The Art of Identifying Deception

  • James F. KennyEmail author


The art of identifying deception is not something new, and it has been utilized in many contexts. Over the past fifty years, numerous researchers have attempted to identify and interpret both verbal and nonverbal communications to help individuals make better judgments regarding business associates, clients, acquaintances, intimates, witnesses, and suspects in criminal cases. Identifying deception is an art rather than a science because research has only been able to find weak associations between interpersonal communications and deception. Most researchers agree that recognizing deception is difficult, but individual skills can be improved with proper training and practice. Effective training seeks to develop and improve a person’s abilities to observe, listen, and interpret deception. Practicing these skills can improve one’s ability to notice subtle expressions, gestures, and body movements that contradict verbal statements (Fig. 2.1).


The art of identifying deception is not something new, and it has been utilized in many contexts. Over the past fifty years, numerous researchers have attempted to identify and interpret both verbal and nonverbal communications to help individuals make better judgments regarding business associates, clients, acquaintances, intimates, witnesses, and suspects in criminal cases. Identifying deception is an art rather than a science because research has only been able to find weak associations between interpersonal communications and deception. Most researchers agree that recognizing deception is difficult, but individual skills can be improved with proper training and practice. Effective training seeks to develop and improve a person’s abilities to observe, listen, and interpret deception. Practicing these skills can improve one’s ability to notice subtle expressions, gestures, and body movements that contradict verbal statements (Fig. 2.1).
Fig. 2.1

The art of identifying deception

The Importance of Recognizing Deception

The ability to identify and interpret deception enhances the chances of making effective personal and professional decisions. If everyone were angels, the ability to identify deceit would be less important. Aggressive individuals will often use deception as a tool to disguise their advances until they are prepared to attack. It provides an opportunity for the wolves to blend in with the sheep. Those with evil intentions may employ words to distract, confuse, or manipulate others. While words can serve as their trusted messengers, their emotions are not so loyal and can often betray them. They may even provide clues as to their true intentions.

Detecting criminal approaches has become more important in an age of increasing violent events and greater predator access. Recent mass shootings with rising body counts have left many feeling helpless with fears that future killings will exceed the horrors of past tragedies. Personal information detailing lifestyles, schedules, and assets is commonly available on social media. While those with criminal intent may be highly skilled at disguising their advances, they often unwittingly reveal clues to their true intentions. Potential targets who detect deception prior to the attack can choose to build up their defenses, secure help, or remove themselves from the situation.

The ability to identify deception can expose potentially dangerous coworkers, acquaintances, friends, intimates, and strangers. This skill can help employers make better hiring decisions, and employees make better choices when interacting with aggressive customers. Identifying deceptive practices during social encounters can provide targets more time to disengage before they are trapped by significant emotional investments, attachments, and commitments. Recognizing manipulative or controlling behaviors can serve as warning signs of potentially destructive and physically abusive relationships. Criminal Justice professionals who can properly evaluate truthfulness during interrogations or investigations can secure clues to solve cases more quickly. Inaccurate reads involving witnesses, suspects, or informants can lead to misplaced confidence about the strengths or weaknesses of cases. It can result in the loss of precious time and the wasting of resources pursuing false leads.

Research Limitations on Detecting Deception

Detecting deception is an inexact science that often stumps the most experienced law enforcement, judicial, and forensic experts. Ex-FBI Agent Joe Navarro (2012) noted that every study since 1986 has demonstrated that normal people have no better than chance in detecting deception. He contends that there are only a few people who are better than average, but they are only correct around sixty percent of the time.

The search for universal messages contained in body language is often exaggerated and misleading. Some contend that a person is acting deceptively when they avoid eye contact, touch their lips while speaking, or clear their throats when being questioned. It is also possible that the person is attempting to relieve stress. Many truthful individuals are often nervous when facing the prospect of embarrassment, interrogation, or arrest. Matsumoto, Hwang, Skinner, and Frank (2011) contend that the presence of only one of these clues means very little. These clues become more significant based upon how they change over time from the person’s baseline behaviors and how they combine with the subject’s words and behaviors under stress. It is not only inconsistencies in the person’s story, but also how they tell it. Individuals should pay attention to the facial expressions, gestures, voice tone, and verbal style when the story is conveyed.

Too often research on identifying deceptive patterns is secured from experiments involving college students. While these experiments may have been logically designed, the results are obtained in a controlled laboratory setting and not in a real-life context. The circumstances involving law enforcement interviews are very different. These interviews often take place in dark, noisy, or outdoor places with many distractions. When researching deceptive behaviors, most college students have personalities and motives different from criminal suspects. In criminal justice situations, most statements from suspects need to be thoroughly reviewed. Many of the suspects have issues with substance abuse, mental illness, or antisocial tendencies. In addition, career criminals are habitual liars, and they have learned to master lying in order to live and stay out of jail. Some lie so often that they begin to believe their lies.

The use of polygraphs to detect some forms of lying is widespread. Employers use these tests in pre-employment screening. Criminal justice professionals use them on suspects, witnesses, and those seeking security clearances. Generally, polygraph results are not admissible evidence at trial. There is considerable disagreement among professionals concerning the accuracy of the polygraph. Ekman (2009) contends that accuracy of the polygraph depends upon the nature of the lie, the liar, and the lie catcher. The examiner’s skill can depend on the particular questioning technique and the scoring polygraph charts.

Enhancing Identification of Deception

Despite all the previously stated limitations, it is possible for individuals to improve their chances of identifying and decoding nonverbal behaviors. Research has demonstrated that emotions and cognitive thinking are “leaked” through changes in the use of gestures, microfacial expressions, and variations in blinking, pauses, and speech rates (Matsumoto, Skinner, & Hwang, 2014). These behaviors normally go unnoticed in daily social interactions because they happen in the blink of an eye. Despite attempts by liars to hide their feelings and expressions, individuals can learn to recognize these involuntary signals. Matsumoto et al. (2011) contend that trainees at the FBI National Academy typically recognize microexpressions seventy to ninety percent of the time. Regular people can improve their skills by learning to observe clusters of behaviors, establish baselines, and understand the context in which they occur.

Detecting deception is more accurate when observing clusters of behaviors. Any solitary gesture in isolation of others could mean a number of things. Dimitrius and Mazzarella (2008) noted that single traits or behaviors seldom hold the key to someone’s character or emotions. True understanding comes from identifying recurring themes. The more pieces of a puzzle you possess, the better are your chances of putting them all together and seeing the larger picture. Someone who engages in a weak handshake may have negative feelings toward the other person. They could also have arthritis in their hands and it may be painful to engage in a strong handshake. Those whose occupations involve the use of their hands (surgeons, musicians, artists) may use soft handshakes to protect their hands from injury. One way to confirm suspicions is to gather and interpret information from various sources. This includes noticing inconsistent and contradictory body movements, verbal communications, appearance characteristics, and behaviors toward others.

Navarro (2008) contends that it is important to establish a baseline of normal behaviors before attempting to identify deceptive ones. Knowing the normal response to situations provides a point of comparison with the person being observed. It helps to differentiate their normal behaviors from those in response to stressful stimuli. For example, it is important to establish a baseline on the person’s normal sitting habits, hand movements, and facial expressions. Sudden changes in these behaviors can help reveal how a person is processing information or reacting to emotional events. Changes in a person’s behavior can also demonstrate her or his interest in conversations or social interactions.

It is the context of the situation that provides the content’s true meaning. The circumstances, gestures, and relationship of the parties may be more revealing than the person’s statements. The words “I am going to kill you” can cause a great deal of anxiety when initiated by a stranger, criminal, or terrorist. They may cause little fear when initiated by a six-year-old or a friend who is smiling. Threats like promises are easy to make, but harder to honor. The alarming words speak more to the person’s desire to frighten. They often betray the speaker by revealing frustration and desperation, not intention. The nonverbal signals carry much more impact than the verbal content. Pease and Pease (2004) contend that if the body-language signals do not match the words, the person is probably lying. For example, if the person covers their mouth with their fingers after making a statement, it is almost as if their brain instructed the hand to cover the mouth to block the deceitful words.

Looking for Verbal and Nonverbal Clues

Communication involves much more than the spoken words. Criminals tend to choose their words carefully as they have learned that they can be used against them. A person’s true feelings or intentions are often revealed not in what is said, but how the person says it. Research by Mehrabian (1971) concluded that only seven percent of the impact of a presentation is produced by the content of the words. He found that posture, gestures, eye contact, and voice tonality are much more important. Because many people are not always aware of how they are communicating nonverbally, these messages are often more honest than their verbal statements (Frank, 2016). It is possible for a person to choose the words they want to convey, but it is much more difficult to suppress nonverbal messages contained in a smile, laugh, or a shake of the hand. The speaker may not even be aware that their body is revealing their true emotions as these expressions may be brief. Because it is harder to manage nonverbal communications, these can provide greater insight into what the person is thinking, or planning.

Individuals constantly send out involuntary messages. The way they walk, sit, or stand often reveals inner emotions and reactions to what is happening around them. These actions can reveal when a person is nervous, fearful, frustrated, or being honest. By becoming more aware of another’s body language and understanding its meaning, it can becomes possible to understand how a person is feeling and to anticipate future actions. This can lead to more effective and safer decision-making. These silent messages are found in a person’s facial expressions, body movements, voice patterns, personal appearance, and social interactions.

Facial Expressions

The face is used more than any other part of the body to cover up lies. Liars can deliberately choose facial expressions such as smiles, nods, or winks to hide their true feelings. These expressions help to fabricate confidence, happiness, enthusiasm, and acceptance. Lieberman (2000) contends that these types of facial expressions help to create favorable first impressions so that the recipients are kinder in future evaluations of that person.

Conversely, Ekman and Friesen (2003) suggest that the face can also reveal a person’s true emotions. This happens spontaneously and emotional expressions occur without the person even knowing it. Matsumoto et al. (2011) contend that attempts to detect deception should start with focusing on facial microexpressions because they are involuntary. The expressions of concealed emotion happen in as fast as one-fifteenth of a second as the individual will attempt to hide them quickly. Facial expressions of emotion are the closest thing to a universal language. Matsumoto et al. (2011) suggest that people express certain emotions on their faces in exactly the same ways independent of race, culture, nationality, or any demographic variable. Since they are immediate and often unconscious reactions, messages sent from the eyes and mouths are difficult to control.

The eyes are often called “the windows to the soul”. They can be accurate indicators of true feelings because the muscles in the eyes respond automatically to external dangers and internal thoughts and emotions. The eyes can send messages through the dilation or constriction of the pupils. Pupils will dilate or become larger when the person becomes excited. Adelson (2004) suggests that when people lie the pupil size increases due to increased tension and concentration. Once they have a moment to process the information, the pupils constrict. When people are angry, their eyes can constrict. This is often referred to as “beady eyes”.

On the other hand, eye gaze is a learned behavior from one’s culture. Looking directly at others could mean that the person likes them or is curious about them. It could also mean that the initiator may be attempting to threaten them. One of the most common misconceptions is that failing to look someone directly in their eyes is a sign of deceit. This is typically neither a sign of deception nor of disinterest, but one of comfort (Vrij, 2003). A person may look away to enhance the clarity of thoughts. In addition, certain cultures believe that looking down or away is a sign of respect. Argyle and Ingham (1972) found that in Japan and some South American cultures extended eye contact is viewed as aggressive and disrespectful. The Japanese tend to look away or below the face.

Navarro (2012) states that some predators and habitual liars will engage in greater eye contact as a way to deceive their targets. They consciously do this in order to create the impression of being truthful. Pease and Pease (2004) conducted an experiment and found that only thirty percent of the liars consistently looked away. The other seventy percent of the liars maintained strong eye contact. They were caught in their lies only twenty-five percent of the time.

The research on the use of smiles in deception is mixed. Many believe that criminals will use smiles to reassure or reduce their target’s apprehension. This makes sense as genuine smiles are universally considered as a sign that a person is happy to see them. One of the benefits is that it can secure positive reactions from others. Other research suggests that criminals and common liars believe that smiling can be associated with lying; hence, they will intentionally decrease their smiling (Ekman, 2009). Pease and Pease (2004) in their work with Australian Customs in 1986 found that when individuals made false statements, they smiled less or not at all.

Ekman and Friesen (2003) developed a Facial Action Coding System (FACS ) that detects when a person is giving a genuine versus a fake smile. They conclude that in genuine smiles the mouth muscles move, the cheeks rise, and the eyes crease up. As a result, the fleshy part of the eye between the eyebrow and the eyelid moves downward and the ends of the eyebrows dip slightly. Ekman (2009) contends that when liars do utilize the smile, it comes more quickly than a genuine smile. In addition, they hold it much longer. Pease and Pease (2004) state that the tight-lipped smile suggests that the person is withholding information. In this type of smile, the lips are stretched tight across the face to form a straight line and the teeth are concealed. The aggressor seems to be signaling that I have a secret, so try to guess what it is.

Body Movements

Many nonverbal clues are revealed in body movements because most people cannot monitor or disguise them. Those who are lying or feeling guilty must carry the knowledge of their deception. Many find it difficult to be comfortable with this burden. Attempting to disguise their deception places a very distressing cognitive load on them as they struggle to think of answers to what would normally be very simple questions. Their discomfort can be readily observed in body movements involving the legs, feet, hands, torso, and gait.

Navarro (2008) contends that the feet and the legs are the most likely body part to reveal a person’s true emotions. The farther away from the brain a body part is positioned, the less awareness the person has of what it is doing. He says that the face is the part of the body most often used to conceal true sentiments. People have learned to lie with their faces since childhood and, with practice, some can get good at it. Children are told to put on their happy faces when relatives come to visit. While most people know how to put on a happy face, few pay attention to the lower parts of their body that reveal nervousness, anxiety, or happiness.

Navarro (2008) suggests that the movement of the feet and legs can indicate discomfort and possibly deception. He says that discomfort is demonstrated physiologically due to the arousal of the limbic brain. Some people will attempt to block or distance themselves from uncomfortable questions or situations by jiggling their feet or turning them away. By doing this, the person is exhibiting a sign of disengagement from their current position. When a person is attempting to become confrontational, they will spread their feet and legs apart. This will provide greater balance, but also signal a desire to claim greater territory. Vrij (2003) found that people who are lying tend to interlock their feet in such a way as to restrict movement. This behavior is indicative of self-restraint and caution in someone who is troubled, nervous, or lying.

Hand gestures can provide powerful insights into a person’s emotional state. Scientists have noted that there are more nerve connections between the hands and the brain than any other parts of the body. Hand gestures are often easy to see because the hands are in the front of the body. Pease and Pease (2004) suggest that when people want to be open and honest, they will often hold both palms out to the other person suggesting a submissive or nonthreatening gesture. Conversely, moving the hand to cover the mouth, touching the nose, tugging the ear, or rubbing the eye is the brain subconsciously instructing it to suppress deception.

The way a person positions their torso can reveal their true feelings or intentions. The torso covers the hips, abdomen, chest, and shoulders. The torso contains many vital internal organs such as the heart and lungs. The brain will unconsciously protect this area when threatened, stressed, or challenged. People tend to expose the front part of their body toward the person when they like them. When encountering conflict or aggression, it is strategic to turn to the side. This helps to protect the most vulnerable parts of the body from enemies.

Givens (2007) contends that when a person is about to strike another, their chest will puff out. This is a way to try to establish dominance and control. The person may lean into the opponent to project a certainty of winning. Those who are aggressive will lean forward with noticeable tension in their upper body. They may even demonstrate clinched fists. Prizefighters often do this during prefight events.

The shoulder shrug in American culture generally means “I don’t know”, “I’m helpless”, or “what does it matter”. This deliberate gesture is typically done to send a message. Ekman (2009) contends that a modified shrug reflects a person unsure of their responses or an attempt by that person to conceal information. This occurs because the respondent is not fully committed to what was communicated. The person is expressing discomfort or responding deceptively when only one shoulder comes up or both rise to the point where the person’s head seems to disappear. Shrugs may also exhibit feelings of helplessness reflected by a small rotation of the hands while they are positioned on the leg.

Pease and Pease (2004) suggest that those in the process of deceiving need to pull the collar away from their necks. This will permit cool air to circulate as increased blood pressure on the neck causes sweat to form. In addition, they may scratch their lower necks. This is often a signal of doubt or uncertainty.

Criminals will often target individuals with certain walking styles, but their own movements can alert that individual of a potential attack. Frank (2016) contends that muggers will target individuals who walk with more arm waving and shorter strides perceiving them to be more submissive. Alert individuals who notice changes in suspicious strangers’ walking styles can let this serve as important nonverbal clues that a problem might be developing. Street predators can give themselves away when they suddenly change their walking speed as they prowl the area looking for good targets. Unlike people who walk with a purpose and place to go to, muggers and thieves may appear to be walking aimlessly until they spot a good target. They will change their direction and pace as they prepare to strike.

A person’s gait can reveal whether they are carrying a gun. Carrying the weight of a weapon can alter the way a person normally walks. Robert Gallagher, a former New York Police Officer, noted that a vast majority of street criminals carry their guns in their waistbands (Eckholm, 1992). When they walk, the leg on the gun side takes a slightly shorter stride and the arm a shorter arm swing. When the person is getting out of the car or going up or down stairs, the hand automatically reaches to the waistband to adjust the gun. In rainy weather when a person runs for cover, they hold their hand over the weapon.

Vocal Indicators

Liars tend to be careful about their choice of words because they receive the greatest amount of attention from others. The problem is that they often mislead or disguise the truth. Words are easy to falsify because they can be written down and rehearsed in advance. The involuntary vocal clues of communication may provide evidence of what the person is really thinking. The tone, rhythms, and speech errors can reveal emotions that the person may be reluctant to reveal.

Frank (2016) suggests that the voice tone reflected in pitch and loudness can be indicative of various emotional states. He defines pitch as the measurement of vocal frequency. Changes in pitch can occur when someone is experiencing joy, fear, excitement, or agitation. He suggests that when people lie, their voice pitch tends to rise. Ekman (2009) cautions that the raised pitch is not always a sign of deceit. A truthful person may raise their pitch when they are worried about being believed. The best way to determine whether the change in a person’s pitch is a sign of deception is to become familiar with the person’s usual emotional behaviors.

Loudness reflects the intensity of the voice. People who are angry or happy may get louder. A soft voice is often associated with someone who is sad or lacks confidence or assertiveness. Dimitrius and Mazzarella (2008) caution listeners not to be fooled by a low tone, suggesting that the speaker could be doing it intentionally. The person could be lowering their voice because they feel nervous or intimidated. They may be doing it to hide a lie. The key is to determine whether the volume is indicative of the speaker’s normal tone.

A person’s rhythms of speech can reflect their emotional state. This can involve length of responses, hesitation, and rate of speech. Dimitrius and Mazzarella (2008) suggest that when people are lying, they choose to utter shorter sentences, respond slower, and hesitate before they answer questions. Matsumoto et al. (2014) suggest that lies place more demands on memory that result in fewer words, repeated details, and more omissions of structured information. Slower than normal response usually means that they are thinking more about what they are saying. Longer than normal hesitations could mean that they are considering what they said earlier and weighing their current response for plausibility.

Liars can reveal themselves with speech errors such as repeating words, stuttering, grammar inaccuracies, and incoherent sounds (Ekman, 2009). Some liars are betrayed by their words because of carelessness in preparation. Others are caught because they did not anticipate a particular question. This may cause them to repeat their words or phrases as they work through and evaluate the content of their story before stating it. Someone may utter sounds such as “um” or “ah” between words as they stall for time. Those trying to think of a believable response tend to have more pauses in their speech.

Appearance and Personal Space

Candid observations about another’s appearance and personal space can often provide a great deal of information about that person’s values, beliefs, tastes, hobbies, interests, or economic success. People select clothes, makeup, accessories, and hairstyles to project how they want to be seen by the outside world. They shape their personal space to fit their personalities, habits, and lifestyles.

Dimitrius and Mazzarella (2008) contend that an individual’s appearance and personal space alone seldom provide definitive answers about their character and personality. They can tell only part of the story without examining the person’s body language. Body language is involuntary and tends to provide insight into the person’s true emotions involving nervousness, fear, and honesty. Personal appearance is a voluntary choice and can reflect an individual’s true beliefs, or present an image they want others to believe.

Any trait in a person’s appearance that dramatically deviates from a social norm has some meaning. It can be indicative of poor common sense or it could reflect someone who is insensitive, rebellious, or nonconformist. Casual shorts would be appropriate for a date in warm weather, but not for a job interview. Inappropriate clothing, hairstyles, or makeup can reflect poor judgment, or that the individuals just do not care about what other people think. Some of these individuals might prove to be antisocial, difficult, argumentative, or hostile. Identifying strange appearances may point out a need to focus attention on the person’s body language and past social interactions.

Sometimes inappropriate attire can reveal something more dangerous than poor fashion. A person wearing a coat on a hot day or a big sweater that does not fit may seem to lack good judgment. However, these outfits make perfect sense if the individual is choosing clothing that can best hide weapons. Presidential assassin Leon Czolgosz wore an oversized jacket that covered a handkerchief wrapped around his hand and wrist. This helped conceal a handgun that killed President William McKinley. While other award recipients were dressed in white, Carlito Dimaali wore a long black suit that gave him the appearance of a priest. When it was his turn to receive an award, he drew a large machete knife from his coat and attacked Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos (De Becker, Taylor, & Marquart, 2008).

In some cultures, it is most appropriate for women to wear loose-fitting clothing, and terrorists have used this to their advantage. The terrorist group Boko Haram has commonly used females as suicide bombers, especially in West Africa (Meservey & Vadyak, 2018). Females make good suicide bombers because they draw less suspicion and normally wear loose-fitting clothing that can hide bombs. In addition, cultural norms forbid men from touching women in a way that is required to search for explosives.

Fashion accessories are often worn to garner attention, but they should be scrutinized when they appear to be excessive (De Becker et al., 2008). Attacker Arthur Bremer was wearing numerous Wallace-for-President buttons when he shot and paralyzed the candidate. The buttons gave him the appearance of being an avid supporter, but the intention was to help him get close to Wallace. In 1970, Benjamin Mendoza was able to approach the Pope and stab him with a foot-long dagger. He minimized suspicion by dressing in gray clerical clothing with a large crucifix attached. Mendoza pulled the weapon out of the crucifix once he was within arm’s reach.

A person’s appearance can reveal information about their affiliations, travel, or cultural background. Tattoos or attachments to clothing can reflect a relationship or identification with gangs, hate groups, or other social organizations. Souvenir T-shirts can reflect places recently visited. Clothing, jewelry, or other accessories can provide clues as to where individuals live, or lifestyles they prefer. If these articles are flamboyant, it could suggest that the person is creative, independent, or possibly nonconformist.

One’s office or living space can reveal clues about education, religion, marital status, political beliefs, or interests. Being observant of these clues can confirm or question what one has seen in their body language or appearance. You do not have to open drawers, but rather, just notice what is right in front of you.

A person’s workspace is typically limited and personal items that occupy that space are usually very important to that employee. An office or cubicle will contain business furniture, but photos, calendars, books, artwork, and desktop items can be indicators of personal taste and lifestyle. A messy and cluttered desk can suggest a disorganized life. The layout of the furniture can reveal whether the space is arranged to make guests and coworkers comfortable. A coworker of mine once set up the visitor’s chair in a small crowded area and raised his chair higher. He explained that this configuration helped establish dominance and control.

Once you enter a person’s home, you can find out some very important clues about their personalities, especially if they live alone. While they may not have a total control over their workspace, the home is the private and personal space a person has created for their own comfort and enjoyment. When there is a great difference between a person’s public and private persona, the home may offer a more reliable picture of the true person. A visual examination can reveal photographs, CD collections, and other items reflecting personal interests. They may openly display guns or disturbing reading material. They may abruptly cover up things they do not want seen. Smells can provide insights into their food or tobacco interests or problems with hygiene. Sounds can reveal their taste in music, television, or whether they have dogs or children. Certain TV shows, movies, video games, social media sites, or music can demonstrate a preoccupation with violence.

Interactions with Others

People are creatures of habit. Watching people interact with others over time can give a true sense of the character of a person. It is not what the person says they will do, but rather, what they consistently does that matters. Talk is cheap; choices reflect what a person truly believes. Former FBI Behavioral Analyst Mary Ellen O’Toole contends that those who commit serious acts of violence have previously exhibited behaviors of concern (O’Toole & Bowman, 2012). If you want to get a sense of the person’s true personality, watch how that person handles a crisis and daily activities with coworkers, family members, and ordinary people.

Almost everyone can be happy, kind, and generous when things are going well. It is more difficult to fake these emotions when people are ill, stressed, broke, or experiencing personal loss. Some people in distress may choose not to accept responsibility, but rather, blame others for their current situations. Others sink into depression and cannot move forward in a positive way. The U.S. Secret Service (2018) analysis of school shootings noted that many of the attackers committed the acts of targeted violence after being overwhelmed by negative events in their lives. Their analysis noted that most students are resilient in the face of setbacks, losses, and challenges, but some become overwhelmed and cannot cope with these situations. The lack of friends and family members to help them overcome these events may ultimately factor into their decision to carry out an attack.

The workplace offers a unique opportunity to watch how individuals interact with different types of people in varied situations. As many people spend a great deal of time in the office, their true personalities will eventually surface. Some employees proclaim to be “team players” at meetings, but afterward choose to be unsupportive and highly critical of the work of their peers. Others may appear respectful to, and cooperative and friendly with their bosses in the boardroom, but become angry with, and resentful and critical of them when they return to their workstations. De Becker (1997) points out that before an employee progresses to the stage of committing acts of violence, their files contain numerous reports that show coworkers felt uncomfortable, threatened, intimidated, and violated by their actions.

Watching how individuals interact with the disenfranchised, disadvantaged, and powerless people in social settings can give some insight into their true personalities. Caring and thoughtful people should treat all people consistently well, not just those with power and social status. A person may treat judges, lawyers, and police officers with respect, but it is more important to notice how they treat gas attendants, bank tellers, or waiters. It can be very revealing to notice whether they are nasty or supportive to these people when they make a mistake. In addition, when a person is experiencing difficult times, do they take out their frustration and anger on those paid to provide service? Kind and caring people may not be overly polite and gentle during difficult times, but they should not be confrontational, degrading, and physically aggressive. O’Toole and Bowman (2012) noted that third parties often fail to recognize these warning signs of potential violence because they do not want to believe that friends and acquaintances are capable of it. In addition, relatively rare aggressive behaviors are hard to distinguish when they are mixed in with more common normal behaviors.

Observing how people treat family members in private settings should be compared to how they treat others in public situations. For many, their homes are their castles where their true personalities can go unfiltered behind closed doors. Those who are emotionally abusive to loved ones may eventually become abusive to others. Those who treat their spouses like servants and make all the decisions in the relationship may be demonstrating controlling tendencies that will eventually surface when social and employment decisions are needed. Those who criticize, minimize, and blame intimates may be revealing their deep-seated needs to exercise power over others. Children who act inconsiderately or bully others may be reflecting how their parents have treated them.


Identifying deception is considered by many experts to be more of an art than a science. Even professionals often miss reading people’s intentions. Despite the difficulties, individual skills can be improved with training and practice. It is important to try, as the modern world has presented increasingly violent events and greater predator access. By possessing a greater understanding of nonverbal behavior, individuals can achieve a more meaningful view of the world around them. This knowledge can enrich interpersonal relationships. In addition, this knowledge can improve the person’s ability to identify deception. If identified promptly, the potential aggressor may not continue on a path toward criminal victimization.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Fairleigh Dickinson UniversityTeaneckUSA

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