Liar Liar Pants On Fire
by John Bowden
The old childhood saying, “Liar liar, pants on fire” is used to point out when a person is
lying.  In our investigations we speak to many people; victims, witness and suspects to
gather information to solve the case.  During this process we find that people lie to us;
not just the suspect but victims, and witnesses as well.  My first rape case is a good
example.  A young woman claimed to have been raped.  She was lying to cover her
infidelity with a man that was not her fiancée.  When speaking to her fiancée, she could
not keep her emotions in check.  He asked what was bothering her and she stated she
was raped.  It is lucky her deceit was detected and the young man, from the one night
affair, did not go to jail.  The point here is that everyone lies; including suspects,
victims and witnesses.  It is up to us to detect them.  The ultimate interpretation of a lie
is the person did it, they had a part in it or they know who did do it.

I and many others have written about the behavior we observe that indicates truth and
deception.  That is not the issue here.  The behavior is caused by the stress of telling
the lie.  The point I want to discuss is how to generate the stress that drives the
behavior.  We do this by bringing to the forefront of the subject’s mind that they are in
fact lying.  Everyone lies every day.  But, if you ask a person “are you a liar?” the
answer will usually be no.  People consider that some lies are allowable.  For example:
a child asks a question about an adult subject the adult is uncomfortable in answering.  
The adult gives a false answer, a lie, or as it is often described as a “white lie.”  From
this point we see how people rationalize their lies, transforming their belief that the lie is
not a lie.  With this perceptual change, the stress of telling a lie is not generated to
cause the deceptive behavior we look for.  We want the person to focus on the fact
they are lying when they tell a lie.  This is called a “Psychological Set” as defined by
James Allen Matte Ph.D.
To establish the psychological set, we begin by talking to the subject, telling them we wish to interview them about
the case.  At the onset of the interview we thank them for their cooperation and we expect them to be honest with
us.  As a part of the discussion, we want them to focus on “what is a lie?”  Many people think they do not lie or
consider some lies unimportant and therefore do not count as lies.  To begin with, ask the subject to give you their
definition of a lie.  After they describe their definition of a lie, ask the subject, “Are you a liar?”  The usual answer is
“no.” Ask them “how many lies do you have to tell to be a liar?”  They may give you a number.  However, you want
them to recognize that if you tell one lie, you are a liar.  You can tell them that everyone is a liar.  Ask the subject
“What is a lie?”  Tell them, “A lie is something that is not 100% truthful.”  Write on a pad the number “99.9%” for the
subject to see. Point to it and ask them, “If an answer is 99.9% truthful, it is still a lie?”  Get them to agree it is a lie.  
This focuses the subject on the act of lying, bringing it to the front of their mind.  It is like the game I used to play
with my daughter.  I would tell her not to think about an elephant.  She would agree; but, every time I asked her what
she was thinking about, she would say she was thinking about an elephant.  When she evaluated what she was
thinking about, it would bring the thought of an elephant to the forefront of her thoughts.  When I asked what she
was thinking about, it would remind her to not think about an elephant.  That thought would bring the the elephant
to mind, and now she was thinking about the elephant.  As she went around the house, she would consider what
she was thinking about.  Guess what, the elephant pops into her head.  Eventually she would come to me and ask
“Daddy, can I quit not thinking about an elephant now?”  I would tell her ok, she could stop not thinking about an
elephant. As she would start to turn, I would say, “but, don’t think about a giraffe.”  The point of this story is to bring
to the forefront of the subject’s mind that a lie is anything less than 100% truth.  It is the elephant in the room.  

Now that you have established the definition of a lie, ask the subject a question such as, “Have you ever lied to
anyone in authority? Or “Have you ever lied to supervisor about a policy violation?”  Generally, everyone has done
this in their past.  It is an old offense and currently is not of consequence.  The subject will usually lie and say they
have not lied in these cases.  After they say this, discuss the fact that they just lied.  You know they have done this
in the past, just like everyone else has, even you.  When they agree that they just lied, even though it is a minor lie,
they have now admitted lying to you.  This reinforces the psychological set that will generate the stress that drives
the behavior. This is also a big step in rapport building for the person to admit they have lied to you, the
investigator in the case.

 Additional questions you can use to help establish the psychological set are as follows:

     Have you ever lied to someone you love and trust?
     Have you ever lied to someone to make yourself look good?
     Have you ever lied on an application to make yourself look good?
     Have you ever lied on your taxes?
     Have you ever lied to the police?
     Have you ever lied to a teacher at school?
     Have you ever lied to a person to break off a relationship?
     Have you ever lied to your children to make them behave?
     Have you ever lied to your parents or siblings to avoid a family event?
     Have you ever lied to someone to get off the phone?

As we begin our discussion and they start to lie, the thought of lying comes to their mind creating anxiety.  The
anxiety creates the stress that generates the behavior we evaluate for that question.  A subject that is deceptive to
our questions was involved in the offense.  The person that tells the truth will exhibit truthful behavior that indicates
they were not involved in the offense.

This process and its application are discussed more fully in my book “Interview to Confession, The Art of the Gentle
Interrogation.” By John C. Bowden & Michael E. Lane.  It is available at,, Ebay