I’m sure you are aware by now that the ‘armed robbery’ of 4 of the USA swimming team during the Rio Olympics has been found out to be completely false.
Whilst the swimmers have now admitted their mistake after being caught out by CCTV, there were earlier signs during a one minute interview with Ryan Lochte on ‘Today’ that gave the impression that there was more to this story.
Here we will take a look at and explain some of the behaviors that sent this story’s credibility tanking, and left the 4 swimmers with some serious egg on their face.
The one minute interview referred to throughout this post begins at 02:06 in the video below this article.
One of the first things you notice about this short interview is the amount and duration of the ‘errrrms’ and ‘ahhhhh’ throughout. These are know as filled pauses, and are used to provide more thinking time to figure out what to say next, whilst avoiding that dreaded gap of the awkward silence.
Similarly, repeating ourselves, or repeating a question back to the questioner, also provides this added thinking time and is often adopted when a person is truly thinking hard about their answer. Whether that is to provide the most accurate answer, or creating thinking time to falsify an answer, is where things get tricky.
Whilst filled pauses do indicate a person is under pressure to perform, this can be for a number of reasons. Given the context of this interview, it may be that there is the pressure of being on camera, the stress of recalling an intense experience, or the stress of telling a false story whilst making sure you do not let the truth leak out or accidentally contradict yourself later on.
So whilst these filled pauses are notable, and there are many factors that can cause them, we need to see more supporting evidence across other behavioral channels before they hold any significance.
Like filled pauses, slow speech rate can be a good indicator of whether a person is thinking hard about what they are saying and what they want to say next. Throughout this interview Ryan speaks very slowly (and quietly), and when combined with the filled pauses above, this may suggest that there are some serious speech control tactics going on here.
It’s worth noting that slow speech is not an indicator of deception alone. All it can demonstrate is that a speaker is continually checking themselves to make sure they are getting their message across exactly how they intended.
For instance, a liar will prefer to keep his story simple and to remain within the confines of a pre-determined track. The concern of going off-piste when in a lie is that you may potentially open up a pathway that could lead to a loose end in the story, or a very difficult question that can’t be answered (more on this in point 4). This fear is enough for a liar to take obsessive control of their speech, and this ultimately presents itself as a slower speech rate.
Now things get more interesting…
We have covered filled pauses and speech rate above, and as noted, whilst these are valuable in the assessment of credibility, they are also influenced heavily by context.
Given the context of this interview – a gold winning athlete, role model to many, (allegedly following a heavy night) and knowingly being filmed on camera – there are many reasons why an honest person may be demonstrating slowed speech and filled pauses. Maybe it’s the nerves of being on camera… maybe he is concerned about painting Rio in a bad light on TV. At this stage, the evidence from filled pauses and slow speech are not enough to form any judgments on this.
We need to look for clusters of deceptive signals across all the communication channels.
Things become more curious when we begin delving into the content and structure of this story.
When listening to an account, there is one big question to begin with – does this story make sense? Could it have happened in the way it is described?
If illogical inconsistencies are present – such as a person being in two places at the same time – this could be a strong indication that the person has either made a mistake, or they are making up a false story.
There is a good example of this lack of coherence in Ryan’s account during the interview (linked above). He opens up his story noting how the thieves “pulled us over.” “They pulled out their guns.” then we hear a change to his story when he says, “the guy pulled out his gun,” he cocked it, put it to my forehead,”.
Whilst it is possible that the other ‘thieves’ had their guns out and this particular one didn’t, or maybe he drew it, put it away and then drew it again, there is an air of contradiction in these two comments. Enough to justify follow up questions to seek clarification.
Spontaneity is thought to be the best single indicator of credibility, and is related to a speaker’s ability to talk about an event in more fluid and less regimented way. When telling a truthful account, it becomes much easier to move around within the story. You can jump from the beginning of the event to the end, back to the middle and even go backwards through the event. This tends to occur when a story has not been rehearsed and is told in the same way that a person retelling the story remembers it.
On the flip side, when a story follows a linear pattern, and is told in a more “First … And then … And then … And then …” format, it tends to indicate a level of rehearsal, as this is not how we typically recall stories that we haven’t heavily rehearsed prior to telling them.
In this interview you can see this same linear pattern. The story is almost told through a series of bullet points with no exploration outside of the very narrow parameters of the account. This contrasts with a truthful account where we expect the teller to jump around the story as they remember different things. Memory is a reconstructive process and we recall memories of actual events spontaneously. This sometimes means the story goes off at a tangent, recalling something that is of no great relevance to the core of the story and often of no real concern to a truth teller who will simply convey the episode. A liar, on the other hand will work hard to convince you with a logical step by step story.