baseline first step in lie detection

The Baseline: A Key Indicator to Identifying Deception

Establishing a baseline is one of the most important steps in lie detection

By: Joseph L. Giacalone


Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire!

Raise your hand if you have ever been lied to? Yes, me too. That is like asking how many of you have ever gone to the bathroom? We have all deceived and we all have been lied to. The one question that remains about lying is: do we telegraph our deception? Identifying a change in the baseline may show that the person is not being entirely truthful.

What is a baseline? It is how the person normally talks, acts or non-verbally communicates. When I bring this topic up for discussion, I always ask the same question, “If you knew the person lied to you, why didn’t you confront him / her?” That question is easier asked than answered. When you understand how a person acts under “normal” conditions (the baseline) it is easy to spot a break in their behavior. I am sure that you spotted the change, but chose to disregard it because the stakes were not that high.

I conducted a poll on lying in October. Even though it was a small sample of participants, 82% said they used a break in eye contact as a determinate if someone was lying. Eye contact is part of the baseline and a very important factor, however, its use can be limited. In American culture, eye contact is very important, “Look at me when I’m talking to you.” But, in some cultures, making direct eye contact with a person is a sign of disrespect. We always have to be mindful of cross-cultural cues, especially when it comes to detecting deception.There are many training courses, strategies and books that help us detect deception, but I have found the baseline to be the best indicator to identify it. It is something we all use – you don’t have to be interrogating a perpetrator, it could be just your significant other. Whether we act on the change in baseline is another story. Have you ever asked someone what is bothering them? If you did, you were reacting to a change in their baseline. You knew how they normally act and they “weren’t themselves.” That’s a baseline change. So, why when it comes to deception, do we not pick up on the same baseline changes?

For those of you just learning about this topic, I recommend watching videos of people that we know for sure lied and study them. There are so many, that it shouldn’t take long to find one. Whether it is a video from one of our politicians or from a baseball player denying the use of steroids, deception is often easy to spot. For instance, watch the Katie Couric interview with baseball player, Alex Rodriguez. He starts off very strong and confident and then quickly fades and deflects answer after answer.Interviews are generally staged – meaning the persons knows what questions are going to be asked. There are so many changes in his baseline: both verbal and nonverbal that it is has become a classic teaching tool. The lesson in this interview was that he knew what questions were coming, had plenty of time to prepare for them, but still couldn’t keep his non-verbal cues from leaking out. He misdirects answers, twitches at the times when he knows the heavy question is coming and seems to be rather itchy all of a sudden. Yes or no questions require just one word – not a complete paragraph.

It is easier to identify the baseline changes in people we know because we are around them so much. The difficult part is finding it in strangers, such as in the interrogation room. “In the box” – police jargon for interrogation room, detectives work the first part of the interrogation to help establish a baseline – how the person reacts under normal questioning. They are ground ball type questions that should not even require any thought. This way, investigators can observe changes both verbally and non-verbally.

Types of baseline questions in the interrogation room:

  • For the record, please state your name
  • How old are you?
  • What is your date of birth?
  • What is your current address?

Using changes in a person’s baseline is not to be used as the sole determinate if someone is lying. It is just another tool that you, or for the investigator, can add to the tool belt to complete the whole picture of what happened. Lie detection is a combination of several things:

  • Eye contact
  • Verbal responses
  • Body language

Have you ever bought a new car and then all of a sudden you see the same model everywhere? Baseline changes is like a lot of things, once you are aware of it, you are more apt to spot it. No course, article or experience can ever be 100% accurate and you shouldn’t act on one sign. The good thing about detecting deception is that you train yourself to spot it and get better at it the more you do it.