July 7, 2021 | Barb Carr

Interpreting a Smile in an Investigative Interview

Investigative Interview

A recent attendee of our self-guided online training, TapRooT®  Evidence Collection & Investigative Interviewing Techniques, sent in a question: “If someone is smiling during the entire investigative interview, do you think the information that person is providing is reliable? Or could sustaining a smile that long just be a big cover-up?”

That’s an excellent question. It depends. There has been a lot of research about the truth behind the smile as well as the myths associated with why a person smiles. Let’s take a look at the reasons people smile first.

There are many reasons for a smile.

A smile can mean a lot of things but we tend to judge them on an emotional level. For example, we are likely to believe someone is kinder or more credible if they smile more. The research is surprising about how much a smile will influence us. I read one study that stated a judge was more likely to give a defendant a lighter sentence if he/she smiled more during the trial!

The truth is: a smile may represent a plethora of emotions both positive and negative. We smile because we are:

  • happy
  • sad
  • experiencing grief (forcing a smile can actually help you return to baseline cardiovascular levels)
  • content
  • frustrated
  • shocked
  • in disbelief
  • angry
  • being truthful
  • lying

So how can we use smile data as information during an investigation interview?

How to discern a smile in an investigative interview.

We can’t decide based on a smile or any other type of body language whether a person is lying or not, but we can gather information about whether the person feels comfortable or uncomfortable. This is important! It helps us know how to guide the interview (do we keep going or take a break?) as well as provides information about what moments in the interview a witness may seem uncomfortable. Discomfort does not prove a witness is lying but can be a reason to go over that part of the witness’s statement again to see if they display the same behaviors. If they seem consistently uncomfortable about a topic, it may be because they don’t remember the incident well, they are concerned about something (getting themselves or someone they know in trouble), or they are not telling the truth.

When you are trying to decide why someone is smiling, a good filter to put that information through will include:

  • Evaluating the context of the situation. Is the interviewee talking about something pleasant and genuinely smiling or something unpleasant and subconsciously trying to self-comfort or self-soothe? Body language that indicates self-comforting or self-soothing is something a savvy investigator will make note of for reasons discussed above.
  • Whether or not the smile is displaying with other positive non-verbal signals. I would judge a person who was smiling and exhibiting open body language to have a more genuine smile than a person who was smiling but closing him or herself off. Examples of how a person closes off are: turning away from you, crossing the arms *and* gripping the upper arms (some people just like crossing their arms for comfort but gripping fingers tell another story), rubbing the eyes, and putting hands in front of the face in any way.
  • Determining if smiling is this person’s baseline behavior. I tend to smile a lot no matter what is going on, that’s my baseline. I have a friend who is very kind who almost never smiles, that is her baseline so I have to figure out if she’s happy in other ways. Understanding a person’s baseline behavior with respect to smiling can inform you whether or not the person is deviating from that behavior or not. This is also valuable information to note.

In the end, the answer to how to interpret a smile depends upon many factors, but it provides something useful.

A smile provides more data.

I always caution the investigators I work with to pay attention to nonverbal cues during an investigative interview but don’t treat them as “facts” – nonverbal cues are data. It’s data to help you uncover the facts by using an interviewing method such as the TapRooT® 12-Step Interviewing Process.

Keep in mind while you can’t decide if someone is lying or not lying based on nonverbal cues, a smile can give you important information. It will help you decide how to successfully guide the interview, what to revisit in the sequence of events, and where to collect more evidence.

To learn more about collecting evidence to uncover the facts of your incident investigations, register for:

ONLINE TapRooT®  Evidence Collection & Investigative Interviewing Techniques

Self-Guided – Learn at Your Own Pace

3 – 4 Hours


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Interviewing & Evidence Collection
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