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Verbal & Non-Verbal Deception Behavior Analysis
By Tracy E. Barnhart
Published: 07/20/2009


“Truth is generally the best vindication against slander.”

Abraham Lincoln

In the course of a day the average correctional officer can be deceived more often than they are spoken the truth. Inmates will mix truthful information with lies when speaking to officers and you need to be able to pick out the truths and discard the deceptions. Inmates rely on deception, manipulation and bewilderment in order to gain favors, outside contraband, a phone call or items such as an extra bar of soap. The correctional officer needs to be able to recognize the verbal and non-verbal deception indicators that will aid them in making better choices during inmate interactions. The following information will indicate verbal and non-verbal behavior indicators to deception during average interactions with inmates. When we deal with inmates on a daily basis, we must understand the following statement.

“Manipulators frequently tell self-orientated lies, tend to persist in lying when they are challenged to tell the truth, do not feel uncomfortable when they lie, do not feel cognitively too complicated, view others cynically, show little concern for conventional morality, and will openly admit that they will lie, cheat and manipulate others in order to get what they want.”

What are the motives for inmate deception? You can say, “If their mouth is moving, they are lying.” Experience and a continued education will be your greatest asset for detecting motivation to lie. During my experience as a correctional officer, I have found the following are the nine (9) different motives for individuals to lie:
  • To avoid being punished
  • To obtain a reward
  • To protect another person from being punished
  • To protect oneself from the threats of physical harm
  • To win the admiration of others
  • To get out of an awkward social situation
  • To avoid embarrassment
  • To maintain privacy
  • To exercise power over another

The problem with lies, though, is that they have a habit of multiplying. Lies breed like rabbits. As we speak to inmates, we need to be evaluating their attitudes, behaviors, mannerisms and questioning responses during communication interactions; the following will generally indicate truthful verbiage:
  • Time and setting: The inmate will want to talk to you out of earshot of other inmates and prying ears. This may indicate that an inmate may want to be truthful with you.
  • Spontaneous answers, the obvious stating of what is openly on their mind.
  • Helpful with your conversation, willing to give information on the topics.
  • Concerned with the topic in which you are communicating.
  • Sincere, presenting true and active statements.

The following criminal behavior analysis, indicate deceptive attitudes and mannerisms:
  • Guarded, reluctance to offer information when asked questions, the inmate will attempt to get you off topic by sidetracking and humor. Sometimes the ‘umms’ and ‘huhs’ are normal. However, if they are coming at you every other word or so… This liar’s brain is trying to work and their mouth isn’t grasping what the brain is trying to tell them… Lies, Lies, Everywhere, Lies….
  • You must evaluate an inmate’s truthfulness by looking at the amount of detail or information given when responding to questions. Officers should get suspicious when answers contain more details or information than was required. Essentially, providing too many details should make an officer wonder if the truth is being told. This effect is called the “falsifiability heuristic.”
  • Unhelpful inmates will answer questions with generalities about their request.
  • Unconcerned inmates will be disinterested or aggressive with your conversation when you start questioning their actions or requests, they will attempt to rush you or overwhelm you during busy periods.
  • Inmates not sincere or when talking with you or they become overly polite and generous requesting to do unrelated work with no compensation.
  • After they realize you are questioning their request they may say things like, “Just forget it!” “I knew that you would not help me anyway.” “I will just ask someone else.”

When an inmate requests that you do something or any general request for your services out of the ordinary you should always ask them “WHY.” Sometimes this simple word will throw them into a frenzy and you will see them fumbling to obtain an answer that will make their request seem legitimate. “Ask questions and question every inmate activity.” The more you question and pry the deeper you will get into their deceptive verbiage and motivations and eventually get to the truth. When questioning an inmate about their behavior, actions, or requests the following information will assist you in evaluating their denials:
  • Truthful denials will be strong, distinct and sincere, unequivocal and direct. The inmate will make sure that you will know that they did not do it or that they need it because. There will be no delays in their responses to your questions and they will utilize realistic words and will only introduce relevant matters into the conversation. Not every request, answer, or conversation will be false but they may have bits of deception mixed into the information.
  • Deceptive denials will have a delay in their answering to your questions. There will be a hesitation or stalling in order to mentally scramble for an answer. There will be a weak tone of voice and they will project their verbiage away from you. Their verbal responses will include qualification phrases like: “I swear to God,” or “I swear on my mother’s grave,” and “I’ll put anything on it being true.” Liars will tend to mumble and have poor memory and interject irrelevant matters into the conversation or ask you to repeat your questions. Inmates will often have another inmate present for support and conformation of their tall tales in an attempt to deceive you and add pressure to requests.

It is often difficult to identify pathological liars, but the symptoms become clear once you get to know the individual. Most pathological liars have a narcissistic attitude toward home life and career, will lie even when the lies are transparent, will stick to their lies even when they are confronted with evidence of their treachery, and the lies will often be unnecessarily dramatic and unbelievable.

Most people tell lies for a variety of reasons: to gain favor with someone, to hide a mistake or to avoid conflicts in interpersonal relationships. A pathological liar, however, will often lie for no reason at all. That is because the pattern of lying is so pervasive, it becomes a habit. A pathological liar will often lie about routine and mundane things that are really of no consequence. In addition, when confronted with a lie, a pathological liar will pile on more lies to get out of the situation.

How to Spot a Pathological Liar
  1. They change their story all the time.
  2. They will exaggerate and lie about everything, the smallest and easiest things to tell the truth about and the big serious things.
  3. What ever you do, they can do it better.
  4. They often do not value the truth, and can often live in their own type of reality.
  5. They will act defensively when questioned or challenged, they see their lies as not hurting anyone.
  6. They lie for sympathy or to seem better.
  7. They usually never own up to the lies.
  8. They contradict what they say, they lose track of the many lies told.
  9. They lie because they are insecure.

Other deceptive denial strategies will include:
  • Qualification phrases such as, “To the best of my knowledge,” or “If I recall correctly,” and “I don’t remember, but.” They may bolster their answers with, “To tell you the truth,” or “To be perfectly honest,” and “Come on, we are running out of time.”
  • The inmate will give you general clearly understood responses, generalities and avoid the specifics, may rush you to get your compliance through bewilderment and think it funny that you would question their motives.
  • The inmate will utilize evasive responses like, “At this point in time,” or “It’s my understanding.” “I would never lie to you about this!”
  • There will be avoidance in a specific denial or they will become overly polite, friendly, accommodating, or apologetic.

This information above will assist you in detecting “verbal” deception techniques utilized by inmates in order to obtain your services or favors. Used in conjunction with the non-verbal observations listed below you should be able to make an educated response prior to making hasteful actions. Communications is a chess game and you want to always be a move ahead of your opponent. You can direct the communications in a direction that the inmate will ultimately trip him up and make him talk to you truthfully.

Now let’s talk about the non-verbal cues to deception in which inmates me utilize to manipulate, bewilder and dupe you during an average day. We may not read non-verbal body cues all the time but you best believe that they are there. Consciously take the time next time to look specifically at how an inmate stands, holds their hands and how they express themselves when you converse with them. Combine your knowledge of verbal and now non-verbal cues to deception and place the pieces of the truth puzzle together.

Generally speaking, an inmate who does not make direct eye contact probably is being untruthful. However, officers need to understand how different cultures respond in conversations utilizing direct eye contact as well as the following:
  • Some consideration should be given to the possibility of an eye injury.
  • An inferiority complex or emotional instability.
  • Feelings of disrespect via cultures (However, these feelings diminish the longer the individual has resided in the United States or the length of time incarcerated)

Under no circumstances should an officer challenge an inmate to, “look at me, directly in the eye.” Many inmates will accept this challenge, will do just that, and will continue to stare at the officer throughout the conversation just to show the officer that they can do this task. The inmate should never know that you are evaluating and judging their non-verbal body cues to assess any deception. Instead of continually starring at the inmate the officer should be somewhat casually observe his eyes and other behavior symptoms and avoid making the individual uncomfortable. You should be evaluating the inmate’s behavior each time you communicate with them.

Of all the areas of the body that can reveal deception cues, the face is probably the most important one. Just the eyes alone can tell one a great deal about the truthfulness of an answer. Gaze avoidance for instance is not an excellent nonverbal cue. If one is lying and does not make eye contact when he/she should, then a lie could be taking place. Of course, many learn as children to look at someone when you lie to them to make them believe you are truthful. If one is looking at something else while talking to you, does that mean they are lying? Certainly not. One could be distracted by something else or simply positioned in a way with an inability to face you. Therefore, simple gaze avoidance may or may not be useful in lie detection.

Which way a person’s eyes move also may tell a lot about the honesty of an answer. The general theory that the correctional community hold is that the direction of eye movement is critical.
  • If one looks up and to the left while answering a question, then that person is accessing the lobe of the brain that is responsible for fact retrieval. That person is looking to access the truth and remember what happened.
  • Now, if a person looks up and to the right, then that person is accessing the lobe of the brain responsible for creativity. In other words, they are making up an answer or altering one into a lie.

Although these theories are not scientifically proven, many correctional officers use it in order to determine the honesty of an inmates answers in an interaction setting. While eye movements cannot be used as proof of guilt, they can be used as signs by the officers that there is more to learn from the subject. All of these are behavior indicators that you can use in conjunction with your “Gut Feeling” to get to the truth.

Throughout the conversation, or inmate action request the officer should, “Bleed Sincerity and Empathy.” You must place yourself into the inmate’s shoes.
  • A lying inmates eyes will appear foggy, puzzled, probing, pleading (as if seeking pity), evasive, or shifty. On the other hand, truthful inmate’s eyes will appear clear, bright, wide-awake, warm, direct, easy, soft and unassuming.
  • The inmates body posturing will alert the officer to their true intentions. An innocent, realistic and truthful inmate will sit or stand upright, not be rigid, they will directly position themselves in front of you and they may even lean forward toward you when speaking. In general, a truthful inmate will seem relaxed and casual and any posture that they assume will seem smooth and natural.
  • A lying inmate will often slouch or lean back away from you in a chair, or he may be unnaturally rigid. Perhaps his legs will be drawn back under the chair or if standing they will seem tightly wound together. The deceptive will not sit or stand with a direct frontal alignment with you but rather with an angle or off to the side. Their arms will be folded and locked in making grooming habits such as rubbing hands or face, fingers through their hair. The deceptive will make rapid erratic or otherwise unnatural posture changes and just seem uncomfortable.
  • The inmate will tend to get close to you in order to make you feel uncomfortable and rushed when asking for your services or favor. The faster that you perform their request the less time that you have to think that it is wrong.
  • The inmate will make what is called gross body movements such as posture changes, Big arm movements and move back away from you when questioned and will look away either to get conformation from other inmates or to mentally scramble for an answer.
  • The deceptive inmate will make gross grooming gestures such as rubbing or ringing their hands, stroking the back of their head, touching their nose or face, tapping their fingers on a table or adjusting their glasses.

Always question any inmate request with statements that require him to explain themselves.
  • “Why do you want that?”
  • “Who authorized this?”
  • “Where did you get this information?”

Look at how they respond to your questioning and their body cues. Do they get agitated when you question them or do they offer answers freely without aggression? Utilizing the aforementioned information cues you should be able to determine the inmate’s true intentions and make a better-informed decision and have the ability to question.

“Force is all-conquering, but its victories are short lived.”

Abraham Lincoln

Visit the Tracy Barnhart page


  1. Cooneytunes on 07/30/2009:

    Great article, especially for the new hire or (THE ROOKIE)...Every inmate has a sad story, and will try and get you with it. It's OK to feel empathty...but don't get symphthetic or he'll snow you from hear to enternity day in and day out. Ofc. TP Cooney In. Dept of Correction

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