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Dishonesty Uncovered: Thinking about thinking - Overcoming cognitive bias

Posted on 13 July 2021

Successful intelligence work relies on the ability to identify deception, but analysts must first overcome the impact of their own cognitive biases.

In our first Dishonesty Uncovered event, we took a look at the role of cognitive bias and the challenges it and other factors pose to obtaining truthful evidence.

Our guest John Taylor took us through some of the tradecraft techniques used in the intelligence community to overcome cognitive biases and encourage truth-telling, and how these might apply to the legal profession and wider business arena.

John joined the UK Foreign Office in 1971, focusing initially on the Soviet Union before broadening out to work on terrorism and in HR, including as head of training. Since 2001 he has run his own company, training intelligence and security services around the world. He is a Visiting Research Fellow at King's College London.

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.

Annabel Thomas

A very warm welcome to this Mishcon Academy Digital Session. I'm Annabelle Thomas, I'm a partner in the Fraud, Defense and Business Disputes Team and I am absolutely delighted to welcome you all to the first event in our Dishonesty Uncovered series. As I am sure you are all aware the impact on the global economy of fraud is very significant. Cyber fraud in particular is on the rise and today our focus is on the role of cognitive bias in spotting deception for which I will hand over to my colleague, Adam Lorimer to introduce the topic.

Adam Lorimer

Thank you very much Annabel. when we started looking at this subject it occurred that the challenges of identifying dishonesty, mitigating cognitive biases are likely to be particularly significant in the work of the world's intelligence communities.

Intelligence analysts have to develop objective, timely assessments on complex issues while understanding and addressing their own biases and continually factoring the possibility of adversary attempts at deception. Joining me to discuss the topic of using techniques from the intelligence community in the private sector is John Taylor; an expert on intelligence analysis and identifying deception.  John joined the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1971. Since 2001 he has run his own company training intelligence and security services around the world and providing expert consultancy and training to the private sector.  John welcome.  With that I will hand over to you.

John Taylor

Adam thank you very much.

So my background is very much in the intelligence world, public sector. I think actually the subject matter of analysis, these subjects like cognitive bias, whether you're in the public or the private sector it makes very little difference. So these are the sorts of headlines that people were talking about you know, there are failures all over the criminal investigative world and, and people often use this thing about bias, why is it that we get it wrong?  I, I ask you as you look at this quote and you say, oh yes that's other people, but you know the more I've been in this business and the more I've tried myself to think about it, I recognise that actually I have prejudice and I  have pride and vanity and it's really hard to pull back and to think a little bit more, a little, a little bit more carefully about what it is.

So this is what I'm going to try and do. I've chosen those words quite carefully, well, very carefully actually.  It's… this is a world not of blacks and whites when we talk about detecting deceit there's no 100% certainty about whether somebody is lying or not. All we can do is reduce the impact, of these things and the way to do that is by more rigorous analytical techniques. It's about making decisions with, without any logic. There are many, many examples although psychologists and others give them different names; I've got four - it's where we infer or interpret information from data to support beliefs that you already have. You tend to collect information which confirms your initial suspicions, and this is a bias and it's something to be avoided.

The next one is anchoring, you jump to conclusions too quickly and particularly based on first impressions. When you go into an interview with somebody and you notice you know, that they're slovenly or they're not really paying attention you sort of dismiss them but somebody who's smartly dressed, somebody who's attentive, who smiles at you, pays… immediately makes a good impression, you tend, you’re going to tend to believe that.  I know this is well known but so often we forget it. Group think, everybody else is thinking this, this is how it's going to be.

There was an experiment done in a hotel and there used to be notices in the bathroom which says, please if you can, use your towels at the same time. We want to save the environment, it saves costs, it helps us keep the price down of the hotel. Makes not a scrap of difference. The one that works best is the one that says, 78% of our customers re-use their towels.

And then the final one that I want to talk about is overconfidence and that is that we have too much faith in our own knowledge or opinions and we tend to act on hunches. I remember when I was working in, well working years ago through recruitment and recruit people into the office and there was a colleague of mine who was senior to me and he was always chairman and he said to me, John what's your gut feeling, what's your gut instinct about this woman or this man? And in the early days before I'd been on all my various HR courses, I would give my gut feeling but it's very dangerous. Now I don't personally dismiss gut feeling but what I do say is I want you to be able to define why you feel like this and they have to have evidence.

How do we resist it?  A strategy for the team and this is, yes for individuals in the team but particularly for the line managers. Line managers have to be, they have to encourage dissent, they must make it clear that they welcome people who disagree. And then strategy for the individual, cognitive interviewing is incredibly difficult. If you are interviewing somebody in the accounts department because you're looking at a fraud and you want to find out the best information from these people, then these three things are so important.

The discipline of open questions.  We all know what an open question is but goodness me it’s difficult to do.  As you walk down the pavement did you see anything? That's a perfectly open question and then if you said, as you walk down the street did you see any broken glass on the pavement? That's immediately suggesting that there was but not definitely.  But then if you say ha…, did you see the broken glass on the pavement? That immediately says there was and anybody as you know, who is answering that question will say, oh my goodness there was broken glass on the floor I should know about it.  And they will say, well yeah I think there was. And that's the problem. Once you've asked a question don't interrupt. Immediately the speaker says, okay fine well I'm not going to try and remember anything here. And then finally, get people to see it from a different perspective.  So who else was there, what would they have seen? 

A lie comes in many, many ways. It's… I'm not going to go through each of these but basically they're all up there; Impression management exaggeration. If I give you some information which I've been doing, quite a lot of information, how much of that information do you remember after five minutes, one hour, eight hours?  There isn't a psychologist or scientist who would disagree with this now, that after five minutes we have forgotten 50% of the information and that goes down to about 29% over, over a month, it goes much slower.  What happens when we lie? Our heart rate goes up, our pulse changes, we sweat a bit more and that's what the polygraph measures. But there are verbal cues that we give, the way that we use words, we tend to use the passive tense, vocal cues - so that's the tone of your language and of course what everybody's favourite is, is body language and whether you touch your nose.  There is good evidence that suggests that when you lie your pulse rate goes up, the hairs in the back of your nose, stand up a little bit on end.

What causes these changes? Our brain is having to work harder, we're having to think more and that changes what's going on in our body. For many of us you know, we don't want to be caught lying you know, it's something that we, we, we're taught from a very young age; not to lie and this is something which we, we work hard on.  We feel guilty about lying and then afterwards we’re "wehey we've done" it and I'm afraid Bill Clinton after that tremendous press interview when he denied um having any sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, as he walks away you can see him smirking.  What are the influences, fairly simple is complexity, motivation.

The liar's personality, interestingly psychopaths don't have any guilt, they find it really easy, it's a sort of bit of a thing for them, they like doing it and so regularly they lie just for fun really.  There is no 100%, the polygraph is about 80% when handled with a really good polygrapher. So many other things can cause the same reactions, anything from bad memory, so you're recalling something that happened and it's associated with some terribly bad thing that happened in a person's life, nothing to do with whether they're telling the truth or not. It can also be because you fancy someone. Both men and women, when we fancy someone our pupils of our eyes gets bigger but that happens when you lie as well so you don't know if somebody is lying to you or whether they fancy you, that's a bit of a problem there sometimes.

If you detect any of these signals what we train people to do is to investigate further. The amber light is flashing, have a look at it. So I'm just going to show you here, this is a… we took some videos with an actor, actress and a policeman and this is to establish the baseline. We go into, in to slow motion because we always like to use slow motion, see where their hands are, their face and everything else like that.  So that's the baseline; that's Lara who's the actress there.  That was her telling the truth.

Here the policeman has asked her something else and a genuine lie - she's not acting - it is a genuine lie and you can see a very different kind of uh body language. Let's have a look at its analysis.  Situational awareness; so this is the, the what, the, the who, the when and the where if you like and I still think it's useful but what is actually happening now and then to look at the, the whys and the hows and try and understand that. Explaining why the situation is as it is. But then we look if we carry on with the w's, the wither, where is this going to take you. What are the events that are going to fo… unfold in the next thing if this situation is not changed.

We go into companies we've, we've developed a tool which identifies the wha… the, the estimates and the strategic notice so we can ex… we know that there is a problem and we come in with a solution and we, we're working with cyber people and others. We identify the what is happening and things like that and then we say, okay well let me, what we want to do is to do a survey to find out more about the whys. But the answer always comes back that the why is because of bad management. This analysis is not very accountable for senior managers. It's difficult information, it's uncomfortable information, it doesn't fit with their perception which is, it's an individual, he's a bad un, he's a bad apple, get rid of him.  So some of the tools and this is the sort of thing that we use, I used to and King's College do. Now mind mapping, very good way of doing the… along with star bursting, very good way of doing the uh who, what, where, when. SWAT, looking at what the situation is now, the threats now but also looking to the future. 

One of the, one of the things in the, in the future, the opportunities and the threats in the future uh so quite good. Timeline, uh pattern analysis, you can see the sort of thing at the bottom, really important when you're doing an investigation about what's happening there.  Red teaming, as I said before, this is where you come up with ideas.  People deliberately in there to come up with different points of view so you get a full picture and of course link charts uh which will be familiar to you I'm sure.

Adam Lorimer 

So to conclude?

John Taylor

Bias is a real thing, it's much more covalent.  Deception, detecting deceit - well you can get an amber light, you can get warnings but it is also very, very difficult.  The answer is that your analysis has to be free of assumptions or bad assumptions, free of that kind of bias and looking at some of these tools - there are many more than the ones I put up there - and it is analysis is a core skill.  So I'll just end by saying thank you, a couple of books, wait until September and you'll be able to buy the one on the left there and willing and very happy to take any questions.

Adam Lorimer 

Thank you very much John.  As an investigator and analyst I, you know I've been trained in quite a lot of the stuff that you were talking about before but still consistently find it difficult to remember to do it.  Is there perhaps one thing that the audience and everyone listening can kind of take away as a sensible thing to do to kind of hold yourself back and reset a little bit the way that you're thinking?

John Taylor

I think you have to sit back and think about you know, whether you've got all the right information.  Now the danger is that you want more information and that's wrong.  You don't need vast amounts of information, you need important, significant, crucial bits of information.  The rest of it becomes distracting.

Adam Lorimer 

So when interviewing and trying to assess whether someone you're speaking with is lying, what ways or techniques or methods would you use to account for potentially neuro-divergent behaviours such as someone who has autism but not a formal diagnosis.

John Taylor

For that kind of thing it's going to take longer because what you have to do is establish the baseline behaviour.  Whatever the circumstances whether somebody's very extrovert, somebody is very introvert, somebody who looks scruffy, somebody who's neurotic, somebody who's bipolar - whatever it is - so you have to give yourself sufficient time to get what we call the baseline.  Polygraphers' do this; the first questions in a polygraph are always how old are you, you know, and some difficult questions and then gradually move it into a field where… of your particular interest and for people who have autism or bipolar or any of those sorts of psychological disorders, you just need a bit more time I suspect to get the, get the baseline.

Adam Lorimer 

John thank you so much for taking the time to join us this afternoon and to everyone in the audience thank you very much

John Taylor

Thank you to you, Adam particularly for… very well chaired, thank you.

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions. To access advice for businesses that is regularly updated please visit michigan.com

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