Lie Detection 101 for Financial Analysts: How to Spot Manipulators and Actors
Financial analysts are in the business of evaluating the truth of information. But there is a shocking lack of academic research about how financial analysts can improve their lie and deception detection skills even though the monetary stakes are measured in trillions (choose your currency).
We hope to remedy this situation by covering the topic of lie detection regularly on this blog. For my inaugural piece on the topic, read “Lie Detection: How Can Financial Analysts Improve Their Ability to Discern the Truth?” What follows below in this series is a review and synopsis of what many criminal justice researchers and practitioners consider to be the standard-bearer among classic texts on the subject: Detecting Lies and Deceit: The Psychology of Lying and the Implications for Professional Practice by Aldert Vrij, professor of applied social psychology at the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom. Written in nonclinical language, Vrij’s book provides many penetrating insights about lying and deceitful behavior that provide the groundwork for understanding this important financial industry topic.
Defining Lying and Deceitful Behavior
Let’s start at the beginning: Many people know a lie when they spot it but have never stopped to consider a proper definition. Vrij defines a lie as “a successful or unsuccessful deliberate attempt, without forewarning, to create in another a belief which the communicator considers to be untrue.”
Vrij’s definition has the following advantages:
- It incorporates intent as an important component of a lie. So statements made in ignorance or due to forgetfulness do not count as a lie. Neither do sarcastic comments count as a lie.
- Lying does not require the use of words. Think of the student feigning illness to avoid going to school.
- It states the important lack of forewarning in a lie, so a magician’s performance is not considered a lie, because audience members know beforehand that they will be deceived.
- It incorporates attempts, and not just successes. This definitively puts the burden of responsibility on the liar.
Environments for Lying and Deceitful Behavior
Belief that lies and deceit can be detected rests on a fundamental assumption: That there is a difference in behavior between a liar and truth teller that can be detected. It is true that there are differences between liars and truth tellers, but those differences are very difficult to detect. Even professionally trained experts are not significantly better than the average person at lie detection.
To improve your chance at catching a deceitful statement, you need to know what types of behaviors occur in different contexts. Think: The difference between lying about a murder and lying about sneaking a cookie from the cookie jar. Here are some of the contexts, scientifically measured, in which liars’ behavior changes:
- Severity of the lie: Is the lie an outright lie, an exaggeration, or just a lie of omission in which the truth is shared but important details are left out? More severe lies lead to greater changes in behaviors. Think: The intense response on a 2001 conference call by Enron’s Jeff Skilling to questions about its accounting.
- Complexity of the lie: More complicated lies tax liars. For example, if there is evidence that the liar must refute or if the questioner is suspicious. The taxing effect of these factors can be mitigated by the amount of time the liar has to prepare before telling lies or engaging in deceitful behavior. Think: The complex compensation arrangement in place at AIG circa 2004.
- Consequence of the lie: If the consequences of being caught are severe, there are increased differences in the liar’s behavior. Think: The behavior of traders who refuse to admit losses and increase the risks they take in order to get back to breakeven.
Why Do People Engage in Lying and Deceitful Behavior?
Researchers have consistently found that lies of varying degree are told twice per day on average and by all people. In fact, nearly 25% of all social interactions involve lying or deceitful behavior. Why do people engage in lying and deceitful behavior when the consequences of discovery can be severe?
- To make a positive impression on others or to protect themselves from embarrassment or disapproval. Think: A quarterly earnings conference call or one-on-one meeting in which management is trying to maintain a high stock price by relating positive information about the company.
- In order to obtain advantage. Think: Securing funding in the primary market for a new business endeavor.
- To avoid punishment. Think: Lying to investors, regulators, or legislative bodies to avoid prosecution.
- To make others appear better or for another person’s benefit. Think: Companies voting for their favorite sell side analyst in the annual Institutional Investor “All Star” surveys.
- For the sake of social relationships, that is “social lies.” Think: the braggadocio and flattery of infamous CEOs at analyst conferences.
Clearly the consequences for being caught are very different for each of the above reasons to lie/deceive. In fact, researchers have found mildly negative correlations between the frequency of lies and the severity of punishment, so the more severe punishment, the less people lie.
Types of People Engaging in Lying and Deceitful Behavior
There are four categories of people that tend to tell lies more frequently than others. They include: manipulators, actors, sociable people, and adaptors. For the first two categories of liars I have provided “How to Spot Them” guides because these types of people are frequently encountered in the investment world.
- Manipulators. These are people who score high in Machiavellianism and who are good in social situations. In other words, people who financial analysts encounter frequently. Not surprisingly manipulators tend to tell more self-oriented lies (lies that benefit the liar) rather than other-oriented lies (lies that benefit someone else). Unfortunately, manipulators tend to persist in lying when they are challenged to tell the truth. Further, this category of liars feels comfortable lying, and they are frequently very good at lying. This makes detection very difficult.
- Actors. People in this category of lying are often more skilled in regulating their verbal and nonverbal behavior than others. They have high degrees of emotional control and can frequently conceal their true feelings. Additionally, many in this category are very good at playing a role and at self-presentation. Actors also are often very verbally fluent.
- Sociable people. This category of liars is typically extraverted, and they like to be around lots of people. Lies are more frequent with this crowd, though the types of lies are likely more tilted toward other-oriented lies as they try and smooth social relationships. Not surprisingly, this category of liars is more comfortable lying than those that are socially withdrawn. Last, to a lesser degree than manipulators and actors, sociable people persist longer than truth tellers when lying.
- Adaptors. Social interactions cause “adaptors” to feel anxious and insecure. Often this makes them highly motivated to make a positive impression on others; one way of accomplishing this is through lying.
- Manipulators tend to dominate conversations, but often seem relaxed, talented, and confident. Sadly, in the financial world, almost every business executive encountered fits this description.
- Research has continually shown that manipulators are more liked than people with low manipulative skills and are preferred leaders, friends, and partners. In terms of behavioral finance, there is near perfect overlap with manipulators and those who are highly overconfident.
- Manipulators persist in lying when challenged with the truth. Thus being in possession of the facts is essential when dealing with them.
- They do not find lying cognitively complicated. If you catch them in a social lie or other-oriented lie, evaluate the complexity of the lie they told. If they were able to tell a complex lie without much effort, they are likely a manipulator.
- Manipulators view others cynically. To spot them look at their statements about, or treatment of, other people. High degrees of expressed cynicism about other people and groups can indicate a manipulator.
- They show little concern for conventional morality. Look for evidence of behavior that clearly falls outside of the edges of even marginal behavior. Think: Wire tapping the competition.
- Fortunately, manipulators often publicly self-identify as they openly admit that they will lie, cheat, and manipulate others in order to get what they want. Think: Justifying deceitful behavior under the auspices of “it was good for competition” or “everyone else does it, too.”
- In moments of high stress, look for extreme breaks from the normal behavioral pattern into one that is more emotional. Think: Those that are not only passive aggressive but also massive aggressive.
- Does the behavior of the person dramatically change depending on the context/role they are expected to play? How different are they when they “take the stage”?
- When confronted with facts contrary to their view, do they persist in lying? Actors often do persist in lying. (Note: Manipulators also engage in this behavior.)
- Actors are comfortable lying and find it less difficult to lie. Just as with manipulators, pay attention to how easily they find it to lie in social situations.
Please note that the content of this site should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute.