Liars and Lying: An Updated Analytical Activity

1 0 692

IWith the presidential election coming to a close today, I want to update a post from November 2010 that offers some great discussion opportunities for the week after Americans cast their votes.

The original post was based on the Psychology Today article “Clues to When CEOs and Politicians Are Lying to You” by Todd B. Kashdan, which summarizes a working paper that analyzes the language use of CEOs and CFOs during quarterly earnings conference calls. The researchers found three ways that language betrayed the truth of the speakers on the calls:

  1. They avoid personal references, using “we” rather than “I,” for instance.
  2. They overuse “over-the-top glowing positive statements.”
  3. They never hesitate. Their language shows “absolute certainty.”

These findings can easily be applied to texts that students read in the classroom or as part of a research project. In the aftermath of the election and the political maneuverings that are sure to follow, students can also apply these findings to the various statements by candidates, their supporters, political action groups, journalists, and pundits.

To try the activity in the classroom, I’d follow these steps:

  • Spend some time discussing each of the clues that Kashdan identifies and brainstorming examples of the kind of language that each refers to.

  • Talk about the audience and purpose of the phone calls in Kashdan's article. While these strategies may point out liars and lying in some rhetorical situations, they wouldn’t be markers for every text. Students could brainstorm rhetorical situations where a healthy amount of plural personal pronouns (e.g., we, our, us) would not necessarily denote lying.

  • Analyze a specific political document for rhetorical indications that the author may be stretching the truth. Students can look at recent political speeches, campaign ads, and media coverage.

  • Ask students, given this context, to consider the practice of live fact-checking, which has emerged as a media strategy this election cycle.

  • To extend the conversation, students might explore any of these articles:

No matter how the election turns out, I’m sure there will be lots to talk about in the classroom. Please use the comments below to tell me about your ideas for talking about liars and lying this political season.


Credit: I'm not a liar, by Tristan Schmurr, on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license

About the Author
Traci Gardner, known as "tengrrl" on most networks, writes lesson plans, classroom resources, and professional development materials for English language arts and college composition teachers. She is the author of Designing Writing Assignments, a contributing editor to the NCTE INBOX Blog, and the editor of Engaging Media-Savvy Students Topical Resource Kit.