Harvard and Wisconsin research identifies traits of deceit

Experiment finds that linguistic clues can reveal dishonesty during business negotiations

Certain linguistic manners can be used to help identify deception in business, experimental research has concluded. The use of complex and long-winded language and even swearing, could point to dishonesty by the person across the negotiating table.

The research, published in the journal Discourse Processes, was undertaken by Harvard Business School’s Deepak Malhotra, a professor in negotiation, organisations and markets, and two colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Michael Braun and Lyn Van Swol.

Their experiment took the form of an ultimatum game. Half the participants were given a sum of money – either $5 or $30 – which they were told to split with a counterpart who did not know the pot’s value. Participants who had been allocated money did not have to disclose how much they had been given when they proposed how much to offer their partner. Though the former had an incentive to offer as little as possible, they would only keep any money if a deal was struck. The latter could reject any offer, receiving a quarter of the pot’s value.

While 70 per cent of participants who were allocated money were honest, splitting their fund evenly with their counterparts, 30 per cent either lied outright about their endowment or deceived their partners by evading questions about its true value.

Analysis of the language used by found that those who lied overtly tended to speak for much longer than their truth-telling peers. They also spoke in more complex sentences and also swore more than truth tellers on average, especially when challenged by their partners.

By contrasting, participants who evaded questions about their fund’s value spoke with fewer words and in shorter sentences than honest money-holders. Relative silence, however, raised more suspicions among negotiating partners, the professors found.

“In terms of succeeding at deception, it was more effective to outright lie,” says Prof Van Swol. “It’s a more Machiavellian strategy, but it’s more successful.”

The researchers emphasise that such linguistic clues are not a foolproof method of detecting lies, but should rather be applied as warning signs to prompt vigilant negotiation. The next phase of their research will investigate the contrast between lying in person and via email.

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