Celebrity Suspects: Truth or Lies?
When superstars are transformed from famous to infamous, how can fans tell who is telling the truth? First of all, for most of us, even those of us with law enforcement training, our ability to detect lies is as good as a flip of a coin. Nonetheless, when gauging both words and body language, research has some tips.
We have seen our fair share of celebrity suspects over the years.
From athletes to actors, politicians to the press. In contrast to the majority of cases which slide through the criminal justice system under the radar, high profile cases are often frontloaded with public statements by attorneys, as well as celebrity suspects themselves. While ill-advised legally, such statements often yield a plethora of information to analyze in order to judge credibility.
When the stakes are high, even people accustomed to the spotlight may behave differently when the limelight of fandom is outshined by the spotlight of law enforcement scrutiny. Consequently, when a celebrity suspect chooses to take the hot seat, their behavior might yield some credibility clues.
From Limelight to Spotlight — and the Sunshine
One celebrity back in the spotlight recently with new grand jury indictments is Jussie Smollett. Smollett is a musician and actor in Fox's "Empire."
He has alleged two men committed a bias-motivated assault against him in early 2019.
Two suspects were detained, but never charged. Instead, the pendulum swung, resulting in Smollett himself indicted by a grand jury with charges of fabricating a police report. Those charges were subsequently dropped.
In February of this year 2020, Smollett was once again indicted by a grand jury for allegledly lying to the police about having been the victim of a hate crime.
This thrusting him back into a predicament which could jeopardize both his future and his freedom. But unlike many celebrities who hide out behind the scenes in response to the first indication of negative press, Jussie went public in 2019.
He sat down for an interview with ABC News’ Robin Roberts, after some skeptics had begun to question his story.
The resultant footage gave "lie-spotters" a videotape worthy of plenty of verbal and nonverbal "tells" to work with.
When watching high-stakes public statements, however, research reveals how much credence viewers should put in what they hear — and what they see.
Motion and Emotion Can Be Signs of Deception
Some people suspecting dishonesty focused on Jussie Smollett’s posture during the ABC interview, perceiving him as appearing stiff and motionless.
This might be significant, because although many people expect liars to be shifty-eyed and fidgeting, according to Siegfried L. Sporer and Barbara Schwandt in "Moderators of Nonverbal Indicators of Deception," some research indicates that nonverbal behaviors like hand movements, nodding, and foot and leg movements actually decrease while lying, while others remain the same.
But not all research is consistent, meaning that we have to consider more.
Still, other research weighs in on the significance of both fidgeting and gaze aversion.
Clea Wright and Jacqueline M. Wheatcroft (2017) cite a 2006 research study which found that the top two behaviors people across 58 countries believed to be related to deception was gaze-aversion, followed by nervousness.
In reality, however, they note that research indicates that deceivers do not employ gaze-aversion more frequently than truth-tellers.
And regarding fidgeting, Wright and Wheatcroft note that research indicates deceivers make fewer hand, arm, or finger movements, and fewer leg and feet movements.
Other research attributes a decrease in fidgeting displayed by dishonest subjects to an increase in cognitive load. The display of such behaviors, however, depends on the context.
When celebrities choose to profess their innocence in public, their full range of verbal and nonverbal cues are on display. But given the fact that they are "performing" under a different type of spotlight than they are used to, the pivotal question is, what do these behaviors mean?
High Stakes Smiles
Some people believed Jussie Smollett was deceitful in his ABC interview because he was smiling. Given that most people equate both smiling and eye contact with likability and believability, in an interview setting, does context count?
Wright and Wheatcroft note that some studies found gaze aversion to be linked with deception in high stakes contexts. And regarding a smile, they note that smiling is related to deception, although its relevance depends on the seriousness of the situation.
When the stakes are low, they explain that smiling is more likely to accompany honest communication. In the context of investigation of cases where relatives were murdered or went missing, however, they note that deceptive pleaders were more likely to smile.
But again, without having a solid baseline against which to judge behavior in an awkward interview setting, one cannot ever be sure.
Corroboration Compounds Credibility
The bottom line seems to be that while everyone behaves differently under different circumstances, especially when the stakes are high, we need more information to judge credibility than a television interview.
That is what good, thorough investigations are for.
This column was originally published in Psychology Today.
Wendy L. Patrick is a career prosecutor, named the Ronald M. George Public Lawyer of the Year, and recognized by her peers as one of the Top Ten criminal attorneys in San Diego by the San Diego Daily Transcript. She has completed over 150 trials ranging from human trafficking, to domestic violence, to first-degree murder. She is President of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals San Diego Chapter and an ATAP Certified Threat Manager. Dr. Patrick is a frequent media commentator with over 4,000 appearances including CNN, Fox News Channel, Newsmax, and many others. She is author of "Red Flags" (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller "Reading People" (Random House). On a personal note, Dr. Patrick holds a purple belt in Shorin-Ryu karate, is a concert violinist with the La Jolla Symphony, and plays the electric violin with a rock band. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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