A behavior analyst’s take on dishonesty.


Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

bSci21Media, LLC

Brett DiNovi, M.A., BCBA

Brett DiNovi & Associates

As behavior analysts, we can work to increase and decrease the rate of any behavior. Despite this, some troubling behaviors have tended to go unaddressed even by behavior analysts, one of which is lying. Lying is a behavior like any other and, as such, it may be driven by multiple contingencies. To fully understand and influence lying behavior, we would always suggest doing a functional analysis; however, certain behavioral signs tend to arise when people engage in lying.

These behavioral signs tend to be cues of the lying individual experiencing perceived anxiety or conflicting emotional responses as a function of their lying. In a recent video, Brett DiNovi & Associates discussed fourteen common signs of lying. As Brett suggests, signs that may suggest lying might include: fidgeting, unusual pauses, and resistance to providing firm “yes” or “no” responses to questions.

Further in the video, Brett makes a few particularly interesting suggestions about lying behavior that are consistent with the functions of verbal behavior. Among these was Brett’s note that when people lie they often speak in the second or third person. From an Relational Frame Theory (RFT) perspective this is likely to be the result of verbal distancing of the ‘self’ from the behavior of lying. Deictic verbal behaviors are somewhat unique in that “I”, “you”, “they”, and other pronoun categories are shaped around perspective. Learning to use pronouns correctly includes a fairly consistent learning history.

Despite potentially high levels of variation in the content one’s environment provides about themselves – the unique process of receiving information about the ‘self’ and speaking about the ‘self’ using pronouns makes them function somewhat uniquely. Further, most individuals will have a consistent and positive ‘self’ narrative (a coherence network of verbal behavior) which organizes their experience and perspective of the world. When an individual with a positive ‘self’ story engages in behaviors that they experience as inconsistent with their ‘self’ they are likely to find it aversive and even painful. From an RFT perspective then, it would be expected that an individual who lies might attempt to distance themselves from the act by using different speaking perspectives.

Brett also suggested that individuals who are lying may become unusually formal in their speaking. This is again consistent with an RFT take of the functions of verbal behavior. Speaking more formally tends to distance the speaker from the content psychologically and may function to reduce contact with painful material evoked by speaking particular words or by the act of lying itself. For example, “lie” would likely have a more evocative conditioning history for most individuals than “mislead.” This slight up-tick in formality can allow an individual to distance themselves from the act they are committing and, as Brett noted in his video, is commonly observed in public statements made by politicians.

Be sure to check out the full video, and to subscribe to Brett DiNovi’s YouTube channel and let him know what you would like to see in future videos.  Also be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is the President and Founder of bSci21Media, LLC, which owns the top behavior analytic media outlet in the world, bSci21.org.  bSci21Media aims to disseminate behavior analysis to the world and to support ABA companies around the globe through the Behavioral Science in the 21st Century blog and its subsidiaries, bSciEntrepreneurialbSciWebDesignbSciWriting, and the ABA Outside the Box CEU series.  Dr. Ward received his PhD in behavior analysis from the University of Nevada, Reno under Dr. Ramona Houmanfar.  He has served as a Guest Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and as an Editorial Board member of Behavior and Social Issues.  Dr. Ward has also provided ABA services to children and adults with various developmental disabilities in day centers, in-home, residential, and school settings, and previously served as Faculty Director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Dr. Ward is passionate about disseminating behavior analysis to the world and growing the field through entrepreneurship. Todd can be reached at [email protected]

Brett DiNovi, M.A., BCBA has the unique and distinguished experience of studying the principles of applied behavior analysis under the rigorous scrutiny of both Dr. Julie S. Vargas (formerly Skinner) and Dr. E.A. Vargas at West Virginia University’s internationally recognized program. For the past 26 years, Brett has used behavior analytic principles to create large scale change across school districts, Fortune 500 companies using principles of Organizational Behavior Management (OBM), and across individual learners. Brett has been a OBM consultant in Morgantown WV, an instructor at West Virginia University, a guest lecturer at numerous universities, a speaker on multiple Comcast Newsmakers TV programs, an expert witness in due process hearings, has publications in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, and has been in in executive leadership positions across schools and residential programs nationwide. In addition to an award from South Jersey Biz Magazine for “Best Places to Work,” an award for “Best of Families” in Suburban Magazine, and the distinguished “Top Ranked U.S. Executives” award, Brett’s proudest accomplishment is being a role model and father for his daughter and two stepchildren (one of which has autism). Brett can be reached at [email protected]

*Paid content by Brett DiNovi & Associates.


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1 Comment on "A behavior analyst’s take on dishonesty."

  1. Todd, I love your contributions to this!

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