Criteria-Based Content Analysis Or How To Tell Good Lies

At some point along my writing journey, I realized that I didn’t care all that much about being a “good” writer. There are so many good writers whose work is tedious to me. I was an English major. Many good, even great, writers bore me silly. James Joyce, yes, I am looking at you. Melville, ditto. Charles Dickens–could you possibly take longer to get to the point? (I excuse him, though, he was paid by the word.)

I decided that what I wanted to be was a good storyteller. And I realized that good storytellers were basically just good liars. Lots of stuff goes into a good lie in person–body language, eye movements, voice stress. But in writing, what makes a good lie?

Criteria-based Content Analysis is a technique used by law enforcement worldwide to determine whether an interview subject is telling the truth. It was developed in the 1950’s by a psychologist named Udo Undeutsch who hypothesized that “an account derived from memory of a self-experienced event will differ in content and quality from an account based on fabrication or imagination.”

The technique takes a statement from an interview subject and analyses it, looking for specific markers (aka criteria) that indicate whether the statement is true or false. No single marker is sufficient to determine truth (although there’s one that’s better than all the rest) but the more of the markers or criteria that a story includes the more likely it is to be true.

You know how polygraphs aren’t acceptable evidence in a court of law, because they’re really not very accurate? Criteria-Based Content Analysis has been accepted as evidence in the German court system (which is where it was developed) since 1954. Worldwide, CBCA is reported to be the most widely used “veracity assessment instrument.” So what better way to learn how to tell a good lie than to look at the markers that indicate whether someone is telling the truth? Once we know what those markers are, we can incorporate them into our work and tada, more believable stories.

Tomorrow, the first marker.

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