For all the information about this episode, and to hear it, visit theallusionist.org/criminallusionist.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, command language to put its hands where I can see 'em.
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I hope the statute of limitations has run out for this petty theft. But, this is an inadvertently apt segue into today's visiting Radiotopians:
PJ: I’m Phoebe Judge, this is Criminallusionist.
HZ: That’s Phoebe Judge from Criminal, which is a two-person operation.
LS: My name is Lauren Spohrer and I’m the co-creator of Criminal.
HZ: Criminal have a much more linguistically exacting job than most of us podcasters. I can bandy words around willy nilly with very few likely repercussions. Whereas, since they’re talking about serious and often traumatic events in real people’s lives, if they’re not careful, there could be significant emotional and legal consequences.
PJ: A lot of the topics of the shows, we’re dealing with the material where the words can be very triggering and sensitive to people. We do take it very seriously. We take the script and the words - we’re a narrative show, so we argue over one word, and go back and forth so often; every script, there’s one word the other one wants and we think is wild. It can just be about one word.
HZ: There’s also a tricky linguistic balance to strike in crime journalism. At one end, there is a linguistic style which is so dry and technical it makes the story sound, well, boring, and there’s also some danger of making it seem detached from the real damage it caused to people. At the other end of the scale, there’s crime reporting that is as splashy and sensational as fiction.
PJ: I hope we’re never accused of sensationalising a crime, or story, or person. We’re maybe hyper-aware of that, maybe because so often in crime reporting you find that sensationalism.
LS: I’m interested in these people, and the way they think about themselves and what happened to them or what they did; so we let them tell their story from a completely first person point of view. We always try to get them to reflect on their experience; then we take that tape and go through it and say, “OK, how do they know that, how do they know that,” then we seek out court documents and primary sources so we can vet their first person experience. So we end up leaving out a lot of, I think, fascinating and charming pieces of tape on the floor, because we can’t back it up so we’re not going to take that chance.
PJ: And at the same time, while we’re not trying to sensationalise anything, we’re very deliberate about the stories we choose. So we’re not going to pick a story that doesn’t have the elements that are ripe to make it interesting. So I think by being so careful on the front end about the stories we do find, we don’t have to then sensationalise the material once we’re actually telling the story.
HZ: Crime-related vocabulary also shifts over time, to which one has to be sensitive. For example, in recent years I’ve noticed a lot more objection to the word ‘victim’, as it rather dehumanises the person in question, and deprives them of agency and power.
LS: I’ve certainly noticed more and more use of ‘survivor’: survivor of sexual violence, survivor of sexual assault, as opposed to ‘victim’.
HZ: ‘Victim’ derives from the Latin ‘victima’, a person or animal killed as a sacrifice, which is another mark against it. Actually, I wonder whether nouns are problematic more widely when describing the people connected to crimes - that also applies to the people who perpetrated those crimes. Thief, murderer, burglar - the noun characterises the person solely as their criminal act.
PJ: Of course, there’s power to words like ‘murder’, and certainly ‘murderer’. We interviewed a man who was a murderer - he had killed a man - and his comfort in saying that, “I murdered someone, I am a murderer” was very surprising to me, because I don’t know how you could ever be comfortable using that label for yourself, even if it’s true. But he seemed to have a different understanding of it. It was an act; and it put him in the certain category of being called ‘a murderer’; but that’s not the only thing that he was, and so he could say it, much more freely than I could say it to him, “Oh, you’re a murderer now”. One time I shied away from using that sentence, and he said, “Yeah, I murdered someone.” He finished it for me. So sometimes, we’ve had experiences where we’ve been dealing with these experiences that are very dire, and the people we’re speaking to have surprised us: we’ve been trying to be respectful, and tiptoe around these terms, and they’re the ones who just come out and say it.
HZ: Do you think he was like that because he was proud to be a murderer, or because he was like, “I’ve got to face it and not hide the act, because I’m repentant about it.”
PJ: Yes. I think he was not proud to be a murderer; I think he was repentant.
HZ: Very early on - their second ever episode, indeed - Criminal made a show about lying, which I think you’ll be interested in, because lying is a linguistic act, the spoken language often belied by the body language. Lauren and Phoebe have very generously said I could play this episode here for you in a moment, but I wanted to ask them about lying.
PJ: I can’t think of a time when I’ve been interviewing someone and thought, “You’re lying. I’m going to have to call you out on this,” or we’re not going to be able to use the tape. I think that’s because, if someone agrees to be interviewed by us, they’re pretty much OK with telling their story. And if they’re going to need to lie, or be embarrassed, or try to change the truth, they’ll probably just decline the interview.
LS: There is a way in which people - I think this is something we all do - people tell their story in a way that puts themselves in the most sympathetic light. It’s not lying; it’s a version of events. We engineer these things in our minds; if I’m telling a story from my point of view, I’m obviously going to favour my perspective on things. It’s not a lie, but I don’t think there’s much objectivity in the first place.
PJ: There are times when I ask someone a direct question and they’ll totally just be evasive, and not try to answer it. But I don’t think I’ve been directly lied to. Yet.
HZ: Maybe you’re just very trusting.
PJ: Maybe people lie to me all the time!
HZ: Well, Phoebe, learn what to look out for from yourself. Here’s Pants On Fire by Criminal.
Phoebe Judge [on phone]: And what about those that have been trained to lie? They know how to do this. Is it possible? Are we able to train people to lie?
Andy Morgan: Oh, people lie all the time. I don’t know if you have to be trained, I think people learn to lie as they grow up. You can tell lies about all sorts of things; the past, the present, the future, yourself, other people. You can lie for fun. You can lie to not be punished. You can lie because it’s your job – if you’re a professional working undercover, you have to lie. You can tell lies about what you did, or what you will do. Those are all different kinds of lies. So in the context of people being trained by the police, there’s a number of ways in which a person could look, if they’re deceptive, could look absolutely normal. Whereas a truthful person might actually be frightened of the police and they ironically would look deceptive.
Phoebe Judge: There’s this thought – that if you want to know if someone is lying, you should be able to tell by just looking at them. That people give off signals of dishonesty. This is huge in TV shows like Sherlock, and Lie To Me –
Lie to Me: Classic one sided shrug. Translation, I have absolutely no confidence in what I just said. The body contradicts the words. He’s lying.
Andy Morgan: It feels so compelling that you should be able to recognize fear, disgust, anger, sadness, and that these are universal expressions. And I think it’s true that around the planet, similar emotions are expressed through similar facial muscles. But what’s more questionable scientifically, is whether or not these expressions or micro- facial expressions, these quick flashes of human expression on the face are actually signals of lying.
Phoebe Judge: So if your body doesn’t matter, the way we thought it has for so long, then what does? I’m Phoebe Judge. And this is Criminal.
For 20 years, Andy Morgan has been studying human memory and deception. He’s worked with intelligence agencies, the military, law enforcement groups - And it goes without saying, that all those people Morgan worked with – they really like to know when someone is lying to them. They will do some crazy, expensive, exhaustive things to find out if someone is lying to them. But what we’re learning now is that a lot of those things they’ve been trying, they just don’t work. We’ve been looking for physiological clues since the 1920’s with the invention of the lie detector.
This is the Reat polygraph lie detector. In the past 20 years as estimated 200,000 persons have staked their futures, many their lives on this machine.
Andy Morgan: The polygraph is a device that records how fast your breathing, sort of your respiration rate, how much your chest is moving. They put tubes around chest, and the general belief in law enforcement and the polygraph community has been routed in the idea that we call the fear and alarm hypothesis.
That variations in blood pressure and pulse rate are present during and after the act of lying.
Andy Morgan: That telling a lie is threatening in some way, and that threat to you will trigger a difference, a shift…
The conscious act of lying creates an emotional disturbance.
Andy Morgan: and cause your blood pressure to rise, or your skin conductants to go up, or your respiration rate to change, like holding your breath or breathing more rapidly.
Phoebe Judge: Now, it may not shock you that the polygraph isn’t a perfect tool. But we were actually surprised to learn just how inaccurate the machine is…
Andy Morgan: We actually know the polygraph, in the way that it is mainly used, is not better than chance at detecting deception. Maybe slightly at 52, 53 percent.
Phoebe Judge: You could literally flip a coin and be just as accurate as the polygraph at detecting a lie. But, the idea that your body gives you away is still very much alive. It’s still being used in police departments all over the country. Cops are trained to read body language. Some investigators claim they can watch an interrogation with the sound off and know if someone is lying.
But what Andy Morgan says is that when put to the test people aren’t any better at sensing a lie than chance. And if that is true, that we can’t see a lie, that we can’t hear a lie, or smell a lie, or physically sense in any way when someone is playing us--then what do we do? About a decade ago, Morgan and some colleagues decided to test a different technique. Started interviewing people from all over the world. About 1,200 of them.
Andy Morgan: So ranging from white Brits, to Chinese, to East Indians, Lebanese, Jordanians, Moroccans, Sudanese, Afghans, Iraqis, Vietnamese, Russians. My colleagues and I have tried to study people inside and outside the United States and we have mainly used a particular technique called cognitive interviewing.
Phoebe Judge: Cognitive Interviewing is based on the premise that memory doesn’t work like a video camera – there are sights and sounds and smells stored deep in your brain that can all be recalled, if pushed hard enough. So every time Morgan sat down to interview an American or a Jordanian, some of them would be lying and are others would be telling the truth. And he would ask them to do something pretty simple.
Andy Morgan: To tell us a story about what they had been doing…
Subject #1: The most memorable concert that I have been to, it is not the best, but it was the most memorable.
Phoebe Judge: So obviously this isn’t actually tape from Morgan’s research, we just put some of our friends to the test.
Subject #1: Was Yeasayer about a year ago.
Subject #2: I went to a Foo Fighters concert in 2005 for the In Your Honor Tour.
Andy Morgan: And then say, so if you imagine for a minute that I was there with you, what would I have seen if I had been there with you the entire time.
Subject #1: They had the lights programmed with the music, and so the mirrors really reflected the light and so it like formed shapes.
Andy Morgan: Then we say when they are done, so I think that I am getting a better picture in my head, so imagine for a moment that I was with you but this time I was blind and I could only listen. What would I have heard during that time?
Subject #2: So it is more of a shuffling of like rubber against pavement there. Go down metal steps. Go down to the car. Our car doors open.
Andy Morgan: You know depending on the context you might say, What would I have smelled
Subject #1: There was this girl that was standing next to me that was in a sweater dress who did not wear deodorant.
Andy Morgan: And then we say starting with the very last thing that happened, what do you remember happening right before that?
Subject #2: Um, leave dorm.
Andy Morgan: Right before that?
Subject #2: Go walk backwards to car.
Andy Morgan: Right before that?
Subject #2: Get in car. Come back to dorm.
Andy Morgan: Kind of having them walk us backwards through their memory.
Subject #2: Crushing guitars and awesome drum stuff.
Andy Morgan: It’s been found over the years in many studies of cognitive interviewing that using those pneumonic prompts, those sensory prompts, what you have seen, heard, smelled, thought, touched or tasted they trigger more memory recall. You get more detail, the picture becomes much more rich and complex without suggesting anything specific to the person you are interviewing.
Phoebe Judge: But here’s where things get interesting. Turns out, if you’re telling a lie, a made up story, even one that’s well rehearsed… you can’t complete this interview. Not without giving yourself away.
Andy Morgan: If you tell a very simple lie there is not much work to do, you go "I don’t know" and you have nothing to say. Kids do that all the time. But if you are telling a story that is reasonably complicated and is supposed to be believable, because if I am lying to you my goal is to sell you the story I am telling you and then to leave before you figure out it’s not true. Or not to bring up anything that might lead you to suspect that it is not true. I am trying to tell my story and stick to it. We find that liars are often worried that if they are inconsistent they will be thought to be lying. So what they do is they tell you a story, so if I say tell me everything that happened, they might tell me quite a wonderful story.
Subject #1: I went to see Florence and The Machine, it was like in the spring.
Andy Morgan: But then when I say, So let’s go back to the beginning. Imagine if I was with you, what would I have seen? You know, heard, thought smelled, touched, tasted or walk through it backwards, the overall result is that they have little to say.
Eric Mennel: Do you remember the car ride home?
Subject #1: Ah, not really.
Andy Morgan: They will say things like, well pretty much like I told you before and they will repeat very closely the same thing that they have already told me. So that I am not learning anything new over time.
Subject #1: The thing is I don’t even really remember.
Andy Morgan: It is sort of like carrying a digital photograph of your house with the tree in the front yard and a child’s picture of it where there is a house, and there is a tree and there are clouds, and there are birds but there is not a lot of detail. And what we tend to do is when people tell us lies, is I think we fill in the blanks.
Phoebe Judge: And that, Morgan says, is where the problem lies. We fill in the blanks because of course we want to believe people. So Andy Morgan’s challenge was to find a way to take these interviews and analyze them without filling in the blanks. To do this he had to put a little distance between the person and the interesting story.
Andy Morgan: The way we’ve analyzed that in most of our studies is that we record the interviews and we do a transcript and we let the computer just count the number of words that comes out of a persons mouth in the interview and the number of unique words that comes out of their mouth. So if you think about the phrase, one small step for man.
[Archive Neil Armstrong] That’s one small step for man…
Andy Morgan: One giant leap for mankind.
[Archive Neil Armstrong] One giant leap for mankind.
Andy Morgan: There are ten words but you have used 1 and 4 twice, so there’s only 8 unique words. As you are thinking harder about monitoring what you are saying it has the side effect of reducing the richness of what you have to say and shortens the thing that you have to say. All the computer is doing is counting those two variables and when we sort people based on those two variables--response length and word count the computer is right typically 80 to 85% of the time. Whereas our professional raters whether they come from Homeland Security or the FBI or the DEA, or other intelligence groups or law enforcement, or human raters are rarely better than 54% correct.
Phoebe Judge: It’s kind of a crazy idea – that someone with a transcript or a tally sheet could tell us whether or not what we are remembering is accurate, while someone with decades of FBI interrogation training could be flying blind. And this idea could have all sorts of huge implications. Think about a jury. A jury is just a bunch of people trying to figure out who to believe, but people, according to Andy Morgan, are terrible at figuring out who to believe. Isn’t it possible, that a juror with a transcript of the trial who has never laid eyes on the accused might actually do a better job of figuring out who is lying, who to trust?
For Andy Morgan’s part he is glad our bodies aren’t the end all be all.
Andy Morgan: It is reassuring to know that although there are so many books on nonverbal behavior and people say that 90% of communication is nonverbal, based on the science I think that the best way to sort out the truth is to listen to what people have to say.
Phoebe Judge: And to know that maybe our fate won’t hang on sweaty palms, or a pounding heart. That our words really do matter.
Thanks to Andy Morgan, who’s a forensic psychologist at Yale. Just in case you were curious – during his interview with us, he used more than 7,200 words, and enough unique words to make us trust that he wasn’t lying. The show is produced Eric Mennel, Lauren Spohrer and me. I’m Phoebe Judge and this is Criminal.
HZ: That was Pants on Fire by Criminal, and you can find all their episodes at thisiscriminal.com. I particularly liked the episode Gil From London, which involves a Catfish-style scenario that gets a bit too close to home. But I think my favourite is Triassic Park, about people stealing petrified wood from a national park. But all the episodes are great; as soon as I’ve finished this, I’m going listen to their latest, in which Phoebe gets set upon by attack dogs. That is devotion to podcasting. If you want to help finance more life-endangering stunts, become a donor at Radiotopia.fm. Else you risk the eyebrow!
Radiotopia is possible thanks to the support of Mailchimp, the Knight Foundation, and you generous listeners. Throughout fundraising month I’m randomly selecting Radiotopia donors to whom to dedicate the randomly selected word from the dictionary. This episode, I’m dedicating the word to two randomly selected donors who’ve forwarded me their donation receipts; today’s randomly selected Radiotopia donors are… Maddie and Priya.
Maddie and Priya’s randomly selected word from the dictionary is…
Welsh onion, noun, an Asian onion that forms clusters of slender bulbs which resemble spring onions. But why is it Welsh when it's Asian? From German ‘welsch’ meaning ‘foreign’.
Yeah, but you capitalised the 'W' in Welsh which strongly implies the onion’s from Wales, which is nowhere near Asia, so I don’t know why you would deliberately mislead me like that, dictionary. Proceed with caution, Maddie and Priya.