Beware “Demeanor” Evidence

Part Ten in our Ten-Part Series on Investigation Blunders to Avoid 

We’ve all seen the scene in the movies.  A suspect is being asked questions.  The suspect starts sweating, is shifting in their chair, and looking up and to the left (or is it right?!).  The message is always clear, even when it’s not stated, i.e., this person must be lying.  Look at their demeanor.

The above are all “tells”, right?  A guilty conscience?  Signs that they’ve been “caught”?  Subconscious indicators?  No.

It’s not clear what they mean, if anything of importance.  You’d be hard pressed to accurately analyze such demeanor evidence.  Let’s start with somebody sweating.  Maybe it is a sign of being nervous.  But, could it be that they’re always sweaty?  That they, unlike you, find the room to be hot?  Maybe they’re sick?  And, even if they’re nervous, why shouldn’t they be?  You’re likely asking them a bunch of questions about alleged misconduct.  Imagine for a moment that they didn’t engage in that behavior and feel like they’re being falsely accused.  That certainly might make somebody sweat.

Many attempts to form systematic and reliable ways of interpreting demeanor have been relegated to the dustbin.  So, avoid it.  And, if an investigator claims some special insight into the demeanor of others and an ability to act as a one-person lie detector, beware.  Analyze evidence.  Compare statements and shifting explanations.  Unpack inconsistencies or non-answers.  Don’t focus on why the person is antsy.  The chair’s probably uncomfortable!

Avoid the Following Investigation Blunders
In February we provided you with an overview of “Investigation Blunders” to avoid in 2020 (click here).  Over the rest of the year, we will be highlighting each in turn.

1.Not investigating “hearsay” or “rumor” or not investigating because the complainant asked you not to
2.Sitting on your hands
3.Prioritizing being done over being thorough
4.Failing to talk to comparators or former employees
5.Building a case instead of investigating a complaint with an open mind
6.Talking too much and/or closing off possible responses by using leading or accusatory questions
7.Not getting facts – letting the witness characterize events
8.Promising confidentiality
9.Checking your other senses – including common sense – at the door
10.Relying too much (or at all!) on “demeanor” evidence