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Five Findings from Interpersonal Deception Theory that Every Negotiator Should Know

Now Cain said to his brother Abel, Let’s go out to the field.” And while they were in the field Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Genesis 4:8-9,
New International Version.


Interpersonal Deception Theory was introduced by David Buller and Judee Burgoon in 1996 in an effort to examine the multi-faceted nature of deception in the context of relational, interactive communication. [1] In order to understand the relevance of IDT to negotiations, one must first have a grasp of two of the theory’s core tenants: First, although one may think that deception is unilateral, a deceiver’s (“sender”) conduct may only be effectively studied in the context of interaction with the individual sought to be deceived (“receiver”). [2] Prior to 1996 the bulk of deception research had focused solely on the behavior of the sender. IDT postulates that, given the myriad of factors that influence parties in communication, the sender’s conduct and messages are affected by conduct and messages of the receiver. [3] Put another way, communication is not static; it is influenced not only by our own goals, but also by the context of the interaction as it unfolds. Second, IDT tells us that intentional (“strategic”) deception requires significantly more cognitive resources than truthful communication, a postulate that has been borne out by clinical observation [4] as well as objectively through the use of magnetic imaging (MRI) of subjects instructed to lie while being tested. [5] Although interaction can be stressful in the context of any negotiation, deception requires significantly greater information management on the part of the deceiver, given the additional requirements of not just developing the architecture of the intended deception, but the significant information requirement – both in sending, receiving and responding that attends the deceptive behavior. [6] Because of this additional cognitive load, deceivers will many times exhibit “non-strategic” (unintentional) communication and behaviors (“leakage”). Non-strategic behavior / leakage can be verbal or non-verbal, and range from spoken miscues to unexpected physiological conduct by the sender that some receivers might view as indicators of deception. [7] The remainder of this article is devoted to five findings that have been made by IDT researchers over the past several years that are applicable to negotiation and mediation.

Finding 1: (Possible) Verbal Cues of Deception

The reasons for deception are varied and complex and in the context of this discussion they are always purposeful, or strategic. IDT researchers have observed several generalized means by which deceivers will verbally manipulate information content, including messages that lack clarity, are impersonal, incomplete, indirect and irrelevant. [8] They also will typically shorten responses while slowing down the conversation, while at the same time attempting to suppress physical movement. [9]Although the conversational attributes that follow are not exhaustive, IDT proposes the following strategic manipulations senders will employ in an effort to make their messages appear believable to receivers: [10]


In attempting to deceive, senders will employ statements that are informationally incomplete and/or conversationally incomplete. [11] By “informational incompleteness” it is meant that the sender provides incomplete information as it relates to the substance of the topic in discussion. [12] Conversational incompleteness is akin to a lack of fluency. Is the communication delivered in such a way as to be understood by the receiver? More germane to the context of negotiations, does the receiver perceive the information to be complete? [13]

“Verdicality” – Trying to Give the Appearance of Veracity / Plausibility:

For the purposes of this discussion the quality of veracity has two basic components: First, from an objective perspective, how true is the statement proffered? Second, as judged by the receiver, does it appear to be truthful? As with the issue of completeness, deceivers must balance the two components in order for the message to be judged as true by the receiver. [14]

Indirectness / Irrelevance:

Given circumstance and contextual considerations, is the message relevant and complete? Deceivers may offer statements that are partially relevant but substantively incomplete, but can also communicate in such a way as to be incomplete and irrelevant in the context of negotiations. [15] As with all verbal strategies / cues discussed herein, it is easy to understand why the balancing act required of deceivers requires significant cognitive effort.

Lack of Clarity:

Is the message understandable by the receiver, or is it equivocal, vague and/or ambiguous? [16] IDT postulates that deceivers use language that can be semantically ambiguous, which includes the use of language that affords the opportunity for more than one interpretation, as well as the use of ambiguous syntax, which is language that lacks clarity. [17] The ultimate purpose for the use of unclear language would appear to provide the deceiver with an “out” in the event that s/he is challenged by the receiver. [18]

Depersonalization / Distancing from the Message:

To what degree does the speaker take personal responsibility for the assertion? [19]Deceivers can engage in “non-immediacy”, where there is an attempt to distance the deceiver from the topic or assertion in question. Distancing can be spatial or temporal in nature, or can go to the speaker’s commitment to the assertion in question. This is typically achieved by using language that shifts the topic to another time and/or place, modification, use of general language as opposed to specific, as well as attributing the statement to a third party. [20]

In the context of negotiations, it is important for participants to understand that research bears out the proposition that deception is purposeful and that deceivers are aware of their attempts to manipulate information to their benefit. [21] Whether verbal deception appears in the form of incompleteness, partial or complete lack of truthfulness, indirectness or irrelevance, lack of clarity or attempts by the sender to distance himself or herself from assertion(s), negotiators should be aware of their possible use in any combination and should remain vigilant to their presence.

Finding 2: (Possible) Physiological Cues of Deception

The verbal behaviors discussed above are not the only indicia of the additional cognitive load associated with deception. Certain non-verbal manifestations have also been correlated with deceptive conduct. Some of these behaviors can include: pressed lips; use of fewer gestures while speaking; chin raising; appearance of nervousness; change in voice pitch (higher); and pupil dilation. [22] Other cues of deceptive behavior may include a rigid “prepared” appearance; speech disturbances (e.g., use of “ahs” between words or phrases); increased “gaze aversion”; and slower (more deliberate) speech rate. [23] In spite of data supporting the possibility that these behaviors may be indicative of deceit, negotiators are cautioned to avoid assuming that their counterpart is engaging in deception based solely upon physiological cues: First, these cues are many times “faint behavioral residues” [24] and can be difficult to discern or properly interpret. Second, unexpected physiological behavior can also be exhibited by truth-tellers, and in turn misinterpreted by receivers as deception. [25] Finally, non-verbal behavior must be viewed in context. That is, the same individual may exhibit differing physiological cues depending upon the nature and underlying purpose of the deception, as well as whether the sender had the opportunity to prepare for the anticipated deception. [26]

While the cognitive stress associated with the increased information management required of deceivers can cause detectable, non-strategic behavior on the part of the sender, this type of behavior is not necessarily indicative of deceit, just as calm, pleasant, “normal” behavior on the part of the sender is not necessarily dispositive on the issue of truthfulness. Indeed, while some may consider themselves to be excellent “lie detectors”, a significant body of research suggests that receivers’ attempts to detect deception based upon non-strategic cues will typically be in the 50-50 range [27] . . . about the same as a coin toss. Interestingly, research indicates that people are far better at judging truthful statements than they are at detecting deception. [28] This may be due in part to “truth bias” [29] , infra.

As discussed, we know that senders will experience greater cognitive demands as a result of engaging in deceptive conduct. Armed with the above information that the increased cognitive load associated with more complex information management required by deception, some might think that negotiators can train themselves to become effective human lie-detectors. As discussed below, existing research does not support this proposition.

Why People Aren’t Good Lie Detectors: Truth Bias; Reciprocity; and Engagement / “Interactivity”

Finding 3: Truth Bias

When humans interact, most do so under an implied “social contract” [30] , which among other things includes a tacit understanding that we will be honest with each other. The cultural norm that we will deal truthfully, and be so treated by our counterpart in return, is a core assumption when engaging in interpersonal communication. [31] This “truth bias” is extremely powerful, and is difficult for receivers to overcome. [32] Moreover, there is support for the proposition that cognitive capacity decreases with greater levels of interaction, which in turn can increase receiver truth bias. [33]

In the typical exchange, communication is the vehicle by which we establish or further relationships. [34] Since mutual trust is the bedrock of any (positive) relationship, the inherent bias of mutual trustworthiness can be very difficult to dislodge – even when receivers are aware of its existence. [35]

Given the powerful, socially conditioned presumption of veracity, combined with the fact that some parties will attempt to deceive, negotiators should enter discussions well-prepared, and deal with their counterparts as objectively as possible. Armed with the knowledge that deceivers are always on the lookout for signs of skepticism – and will attempt to react accordingly (infra) – the honest negotiator should attempt to communicate in such a way to avoid suspicion on the part of the sender in an effort to better distinguish fact from fiction.

Finding 4: Reciprocity

Deception doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It is deliberate, goal oriented and interpersonal. Regardless of the reason(s) for the deception, the sender is aware of the dishonesty, is aware – if only intuitively – that s/he is breaching the “social contract” (of truthfulness) with the receiver, and will engage in a variety of strategies to avoid detection. [36] Because of this built-in advantage – that the sender is aware of the deception while the receiver is not – deceivers who are adept at encoding messages will typically be able to put forth a demeanor that will be well-received by the other party. [37] Further, when faced with skeptsism from the receiver, adept senders will compensate and adjust their communications accordingly. [38]

It is axiomatic that the ultimate success of attempted deception is whether or not the receiver perceives it to be truthful. [39] In order to achieve success, the deceiver must shape his or her behavior and communication is such a way as to “promote the appearance of honesty”. [40] In order to be effective this promotion must be done within the context of the interaction between the parties as the communications unfold, [41] hence the use of the term “reciprocity”.

Finding 5: Engagement / “Interactivity”

As its name implies, interaction is a key component of Interpersonal Deception Theory. [42] Given the dynamics of human interaction, IDT postulates that senders are in a better position to craft their deception as communications unfold than they would by simply delivering messages in monologue form. [43]

For a variety of reasons, including receivers’ own cognitive loading from ongoing information management and the development of rapport between parties as interaction unfolds, receivers will typically judge senders more favorably than passive observers. [44] Obviously, there is a correlation between the level of favorable impression of the sender and the ultimate chances of undetected deception. [45]

Existing research indicates that as a general proposition, the greater the quality and interaction between the sender and receiver, the greater the probability for successful deception. [46] A corollary of this research is that passive observers are typically better at spotting deception than active receivers. [47] Moreover, research indicates that while non-verbal cues of deception may be present when the sender is initially challenged by a suspicious receiver, senders may be able to correct the leakage – in the instant case, response delay – as the dialogue progresses. [48]


Ethical considerations aside, the implications of Interpersonal Deception Theory are apparent for negotiators who wish to engage in deception: First, the cultural bias towards a belief that parties will generally deal truthfully with each other arguably gives the sender an initial advantage in the advancement of the deception. Second, when faced with a skeptical receiver, effective reciprocal communication behaviors may allay any such skepticism. Finally, the longer the sender can stay engaged with the receiver in “high-quality” interaction, the better the opportunity for success. [49]

The potential benefits of IDT findings are not so clear for receivers. On one hand we know that deceivers will typically exhibit certain verbal and non-verbal behaviors that may appear abnormal to the receiver. On the other, we know that such behavior is not necessarily indicative of deceit. Three possible general strategies available to honest negotiators are as follow:


The role of preparation can not be overstated in the context of negotiating in general, and with respect to the negotiator’s ability to spot deception in particular. As noted above, deceivers may provide incomplete, unclear, indirect and irrelevant messages. Intuitively, there should be a positive correlation between a high level of pre-negotiation preparation by the receiver and the ability to spot deceptive conduct on the part of the sender.


The honest negotiator should be aware of the powerful cultural expectancy of truth. As the discussions unfold, the negotiator should remain vigilant as to possible cues (clues) of dishonestly, and be prepared to act accordingly. Although “Vigilance” is multi-faceted, of significant importance are the receiver’s active listening skills, the ability to cross-check sender assertions against prior statements and known facts, and the ability to engage the sender in such a way as to avoid arousing your counter-part’s suspicions . . . of your suspicions. Even if the negotiator is not well prepared s/he should always be on the lookout for messages that are incomplete, unclear, indirect and irrelevant, or that simply sound “too good to be true”. Several responses are available to the negotiator when confronted with suspected deception from the other party. Obviously, these responses will be largely dependent upon the type of behavior exhibited by the sender as well as the context of the negotiations. Of the cues to deceptive communications discussed above, responses to incompleteness, indirectness and lack of clarity will typically evoke similar responses regardless of the context of the negotiations: When confronted with these types of messages, the receiver should ask the sender questions that will prompt complete, direct and clear responses. If the sender’s responses remain incomplete, indirect and unclear, it may be time to suspend negotiations.

Take an Observer to the Negotiation / Mediation:

Don’t count on the mediator to spot deception. First, s/he is an active participant and may fall victim to the same cultural “traps” as the receiver. Second, even if deception is suspected, ethical constraints would probably preclude the mediator from divulging his or her suspicions. Instead, in certain situations it may be practical to employ a team approach with respect to negotiation sessions. While one member of the team serves as the active negotiator, the other would remain passive, taking notes and consulting with the active member at appropriate intervals. Finally, a sixth finding from IDT is a melding of the five discussed above: you can’t judge a book by its cover. One cannot say with positive assurance that deception is present simply because one negotiator behaves or communicates in a particular way. They can be indicators of an attempt to deceive however, hence the recommendation that receivers / honest negotiators be well-prepared, vigilant, and attempt to communicate in an objective / non-threatening manner.

End Notes

1 David B. Buller & Judee K. Burgoon, Interpersonal Deception Theory, 6:3 Communication Theory 203 (1996).

2 Judee K. Burgoon, David B. Buller & Kory Floyd, Does Participation Affect Deception Success? A Test of the Interactivity Principle, 27:4 Human Communication Research 503, 2001 529, 511-12, 525-26 (Oct., 2001).

3 See, e.g., D. Buller, et al., supra note 2 at 203-205.

4 Burgoon, et al., supra note 3 at 510.

5 Jennifer Maria Nunez, B.J. Casey, Tobias Egner, Todd Hare & Joy Hirsch, Intentional false responding shares neural substrates with response conflict and cognitive control, 25 NeuroImage 267, 273-76 (2005).

6 Burgoon, et al., supra note 3 at 506-511.

7 Miron Zuckerman & Robert Driver, Telling Lies: Verbal and Nonverbal Correlates of Deception, in Multichannel Integrations of Nonverbal Behavior, 129-48 (Aron Siegman and Stanley Feldstein eds., Lawrence Erlbaum Associates 1985); Bella M. DePaulo, Brian E. Malone, James J. Lindsay, Laura Muhlenbruck, Kelly Charlton and Harris Cooper, Cues to Deception, 129:1 Psychological Bulletin 74 (2003); Aldert Vrij, Gün R. Semin and Ray Bull, Insight Into Behavior Displayed During Deception, 22:4 Human Communication Research 544 (June, 1996); Jaume Masip, Eugenio Garrido & Carmen Herrero, The Nonverbal Approach to the Detection of Deception: Judgemental Accuracy, 8:1 Psychology in Spain 48, 51-3 (2004).

8 Burgoon, et al., supra note 3 at 509; See also: Judee K. Burgoon, David B. Buller, Kory Floyd & Joseph Grandpre, Deceptive Realities – Sender, Receiver and Observer Perspectives in Deceptive Conversations, 23:6 Communication Research 724, 728 (1996).

9 Burgoon, et al., supra note 3 at 509.

10 Judee K. Burgoon, David B. Buller, Laura K. Guerrero, Walid A. Afifi & Clyde M. Feldman, Interpersonal Deception: XI. Information Management Dimensions Underlying Deceptive and Truthful Messages, 63 Communication Monographs 50, 50-51 (March, 1996).

11 Id. at 53.

12 Id.

13 Id.

14 Id.

15 Id. at 54.

16 Id.

17 Id.

18 Id.

19 Id. at 55.

20 Id.

21 Id. at 64.

22 DePaulo, et al. supra note 8, 91-106; Masip, et al. supra note 8 at 51-3.

23 Vrij, et al, supra note 8.

24 DePaulo, et al. supra note 8 at 81.

25 See e.g., DePaulo et al. supra note 8 at 106.

26 Id., at 97-8.

27 Maureen O’Sullivan, The Fundamental Attribution Error in Detecting Deception: The Boy-Who-Cried-Wolf Effect, 29:10 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 1316; See also: J. Masip, et al. supra note 7 at 49-50. But see, D. Eric Anderson, Bella M. Depaulo and Matthew E. Ansfield, The Development of Deception Detection Skill: A Longitudinal Study of Same-Sex Friends, 28:4 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 536, 539 (April, 2002), suggesting a positive correlation between a party’s ability to detect deception with the length and depth of the relationship with his or her counterpart.

28 Timothy R. Levine, Hee Sun Park & Steven A. McCornack, Accuracy in Detecting Truth and Lies: Documenting the “Veracity Effect”, 66 Communication Monographs 125, 139-42 (June, 1999).

29 Id. at 126-28.

30 Burgoon, et al., supra note 9 at 724-5.

31 Burgoon, et al., supra note 3 at 508.

32 Burgoon, et al., supra note 2 at 207-211.

33 Murray G. Millar & Karen U. Millar, The Effects of Cognitive Capacity and Suspicion on Truth Bias, 24:5 Communication Research 556, 564-6 (October, 1997).

34 Burgoon, et al., supra note 2 at 209.

35 Id.

36 See generally, Cindy H. White & Judee K. Burgoon, Adaptation and Communicative Design – Patterns of Interaction in Truthful and Deceptive Conversations, 27:1 Human Communication Research 9 (January, 2001).

37 Judee K. Burgoon, David B. Buller, Cindy H. White, Walid Afifi & Aileen L.S. Buslig, The Role of Conversational Involvement in Interpersonal Interactions, 25:6 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 669, 670-72 (June, 1999).

38 Burgoon, et al., supra note 2 at 233-4.

39 Burgoon, et al., supra note 38 at 672.

40 Id. at 683.

41 Id.

42 Norah E. Dunbar, Artemio Ramirez, Jr. & Judee K. Burgoon, The Effects of Participation on the Ability to Judge Deceit, 16:1 Communication Reports 23 (Winter, 2003).

43 Id. at 23-4.

44 Id. at 24-30.

45 Burgoon, et al., supra note 38 at 671.

46 See: Burgoon, et al., supra note 38 at 671.

47 Burgoon, et al., supra note 9 at 741-3.

48 See generally, James Stiff, Steve Corman, Bob Krizek & Eric Snider, Individual Differences and Changes in Nonverbal Behavior – Unmasking the Changing Faces of Deception, 21:5 Communication Research 555 (October 1994).

49 This assumes that the negotiators are strangers or do not know each other well. See Anderson, et al., supra note 28.


Reed Leverton

<B>Reed Leverton </B> is an Attorney-Mediator from El Paso, Texas; B.A. - Wake Forest University; J.D. – The University of Texas School of Law; LL.M. student (part-time), Pepperdine University School of Law – Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution MORE >

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