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Deception Detection: How to Anticipate Deceit

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.

Joseph Heller, Catch-22

What a clever doublebind deception can be. As three-letter agency veteran Richards Heuer put it, deception is virtually undetectable if it’s done right. But once you’ve come to expect it, you tend to see evidence for it everywhere — even if it’s non-existent. Neither blind trust nor paranoia sounds like a sound basis for decision-making. Whenever you’re struggling to stay rational, consider the analytical technique of Deception Detection.

Deception Detection is a diagnostic checklist. It’s inspired by the practice of counterintelligence and designed for intelligence analysts evaluating their sources. The method we’ll discuss is the brainchild of former two-plus-one-letter agency employee Randy Pherson and outlined in his Handbook of Analytic Tools & Techniques [affiliate link].

The possibility of being deceived or betrayed is precisely the reason why trusting people takes courage.

To demonstrate the method, we’ll apply it to the cinematic universe of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) in a little thought experiment. The screenwriter and director is known for his mind-bending stories full of unexpected plot twists. There’s no need to have watched the film. But please be warned: Spoilers ahead. Before diving into the case study, let’s take a closer look at the nature of deception itself.

What Is Deception?

Deception is an action that intentionally distorts or misrepresents the truth. A deceiver’s goal is usually to influence perceptions, decisions, or behaviours to his or her own benefit. The underlying assumption being that the deceiver’s advantage is the disadvantage of the deceived. There’s plenty of ways to fool people. It’s surprisingly easy, too. So the mere possibility of being deceived or betrayed is precisely the reason why trusting people takes courage.

But how are we supposed to know if anyone has a hidden agenda? We could give them some perceived power to uncover their true character. Employing the art of negotiation is a more collaborative way to find out what really drives people. However, those approaches may not always be feasible. Deception Detection can provide a passive evaluation of all available information. It’s perfect for our interstellar thought experiment. Bear with me while we set the stage.

Is It Deception? The Premise of Interstellar

In the future, Earth has become almost uninhabitable. With blights and dust storms destroying all crops humanity is running out of food.

This is when astronaut-turned-farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) learns that NASA, led by his former supervisor Professor Brand (Michael Caine), has secretly been working on a plan to settle on a new planet. No less than twelve scientists were sent out through a wormhole years ago. They probed twelve different planets for their habitability. Three of the scientists, Miller, Edmund and Mann (Matt Damon) sent promising data.

Cooper is recruited to fly a team of even more scientists around Dr Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) through the wormhole. Plan A is to bring people on Earth to the hopefully habitable planet should the professor be able to solve an ominous gravity equation. Plan B is to settle on the new orb; somehow populating it with 5,000 frozen human embryos.

Unfortunately, Miller’s planet turns out to be a deadly trap with gigantic tidal waves killing a team member. That leaves them with two planets for humanity’s survival: Edmund’s and Mann’s. But there’s only enough fuel left to reach one. Where should they go? The future of the human race depends on this very decision.

Edmund’s data is promising, but he’s gone silent. Mann’s is positive, too, and he’s still transmitting. They decide to go with Dr Mann. Now, while the team focuses on Dr Brand’s bias due to the fact she’s in love with Edmund, they neglect to question one of their key assumptions.

Not taking any information you receive at face value is standard practice for any analyst or scientist. So it’s a bit surprising that nobody questions the validity of the data or the intent of their colleagues. They’ve just lost a team member because of blind trust in Miller’s findings. What if the data are wrong, or worse, what if humanity is being deceived by Dr Mann?

Clearly, they should’ve gotten themselves an intelligence analyst on the mission. Let’s join the interstellar meeting and play devil’s advocate by employing Deception Detection.

When to Use Deception Detection?

Remember, Deception Detection is a diagnostic tool. It’ll give us a better sense of what currently is. Not what should be, let alone what we want to be true. No doubt, even considering the possibility of being betrayed can be tantamount to opening Pandora’s box filled with paranoia. That’s why Pherson’s method begins with a list of red flags. Should we be worried about the possibility of being deceived by Dr Mann in the first place?

  1. Does the alleged trickster have a track record of deception? Mann is supposed to be “remarkable” and “the best of us”. He led the team of scientists on interstellar travel. There’s zero history of malign intent in his backstory. On the contrary, he’s Matt Damon.
  2. Is the timing uncanny and/or is a lot at stake? The human race relies on finding a new planet and this is what Mann provides at a critical time (for the plot). Admittedly, this is what he was supposed to do.
  3. Does the decision-making depend on a single piece of information? Mann tells us “to come to his planet” based on the dataset he sent. Effectively, the survival of humanity depends on his personal account being accurate. We’d have to divert all our resources and change our behaviour significantly based on his alleged findings.
  4. Are there feedback channels for the alleged deceiver to determine if the deception had the desired effect? As far as we know, there’s only one way for the astronaut to know if his potential deception worked. When he’s being rescued.

There’s at least one big red flag that should give us pause. The plan to save humanity rests on astonishingly little and unverifiable information. A single human intelligence source if you will. Now we realise there’s a big problem with how this mission has been designed. We might even be riding a dead horse.

Given that the future of the entire human race depends on this decision, I think we have reasonable grounds to spend a few minutes on our Deception Detection checklist. It’s time to consider the hypothesis that we’re being fed false information, that Matt Damon is a baddy.

Deception Detection Checklist

Alright, alright, alright. Let’s get to it then. The structured analytic technique consists of four acronyms, which unpack the criteria for Deception Detection.

1. Motive, Opportunity & Means (MOM)

MOM is the backbone of any investigative work. If a person has the motive, opportunity and means to deceive, the likelihood that we’re being hoodwinked is rather high. If we can reliably rule out means and/or opportunities, the opposite is true.

  • Motive: Dr. Mann’s goal is obviously for us to come to his planet. For all we know his motive is to carry out his mission and save humanity. But he will also die if we pick another planet, which makes his own survival a powerful motive for deceit.
  • Channels: There’s only one communication channel through which Dr. Mann can feed information to us. We’re unable to contact him or verify the data unless we travel there (and potentially fall for his deception).
  • Means: Mann certainly has the means to falsify data. He’s a bright scientist and has enough computing power (including a robot that goes by the name of KIPP) to conjure something up.
  • Risks: If his deception was revealed, the consequences would be severe. It would likely be seen as the most selfish and cowardly act ever committed against humanity. But…
  • Cost: Dr. Mann has nothing to lose. He does not have to sacrifice sensitive information to establish the credibility of his deception.
  • Feedback: Dr. Mann’s only feedback mechanism to monitor the impact of his deception operation is people coming to his planet and rescuing him.

2. Past Opposition Practices (POP)

POP is a deeper dive into the track record. The idea hinges on the axiom that past behaviour predicts future behaviour. It relates to the track record of the deceiver or the organisation.

  • Dr. Mann has zero known history of engaging in deception. He is a “remarkable” human being. (Besides, Matt Damon is not known for playing evil characters. If we discount Team America: World Police)
  • Since there are no past deceptions, the current circumstances do not fit an existing pattern.
  • There are, however, more than enough historical precedents of space betrayal. Sometimes, the most dutiful astronauts having secret agendas. What was William Fichtner up to in Armageddon?
  • There are in fact changed circumstances that would explain Mann using a form of deception despite his impeccable track record. The prospect of being trapped on an uninhabitable planet knowing he will die could have shaken his intergity to the core.

3. Manipulability of Sources (MOSES)

Deception is based on untruths, which can be traced back to sources. This is where MOSES comes in.

  • Given his credentials, Dr. Mann’s track record or reporting is without fault to the best of our knowledge.
  • But…the basis on which we judge the sources to be reliable mainly hinge on the character and integrity of Dr. Mann. Can we somehow confirm if the data he sent is plausible? I’m afraid not.
  • Dr. Mann has direct access to the information he provided. He produced them with KIPP’s help and is essentially the arbiter of the data.
  • The source is vulnerable to control or manipulation by Dr. Mann. We don’t know of any safety measures that would prevent him, or either of the twelve astronauts for that matter, from falsifying data.

4. Evaluation of Evidence (EVE)

Finally, we take a careful look at the evidence itself.

  • We don’t know how accurate Dr. Mann’s reporting about the habitability of his planet is. We are unable to check the whole chain of evidence from collection, to data evaluation, to transmission.
  • We’re also unable to confirm if the critical evidence checks out.
  • We have evidence from a single human source of reporting who would be able to falsify the data he sent. There are no other human sources or streams of reporting with which it might conflict.
  • No other sources of information provide corroborating evidence that Mann’s planet is a good choice.
  • To our knowledge no information we’d expect to see is noteworthy by its absence. Dr. Mann is working under exceptional circumstances. Every piece of information is more than everyone had hoped for.

Are We Being Deceived by Matt Damon?

Now you might say that going through the checklist doesn’t give us a definitive answer whether Dr Mann is telling the truth. True. Alas, much of the doubt about his testimony can be attributed to the unfortunate operational planning of the mission. It’s as if someone designed the saving of humanity to rely solely on blind trust. (I’m looking at you, Nolan.)

In reality, Dr Mann has the means and opportunity to mislead humanity as well as a powerful motive: saving his life. The sources are susceptible to manipulation and the evidence in Mann’s favour cannot be crosschecked. That’s a lot of question marks from a rational analyst’s perspective. Deception is at least plausible.

Obviously, we don’t have much choice but to pick a planet. What applies to Mann largely applies to Edmund as well. So to the very least we should take precautions and plan our trip around the hypothesis that Matt Damon is a baddy. Who knows what years of solitude in a galaxy far far away did to him?

Well then, what has been the benefit of the method? We have a much higher-resolution picture of the situation and a more realistic assessment of the probability that we’re being deceived. At a minimum, Deception Detection taught us some serious lessons for the next time humanity needs saving.

Closing Thoughts

I’m afraid Matt Damon’s character did in fact engage in deception. He blows up an unsuspecting team member and eventually gets himself killed. When Dr Mann found out that his planet was inhospitable, his survival instincts kicked in. So he falsified the data to lure NASA to his planet. He was a brilliant and courageous scientist, but he was Hugh Mann after all. Pun absolutely intended by Nolan.

I guess having the astronauts go through Pherson’s Deception Detection checklist instead of taking mental shortcuts and discussing the power of love would’ve made for a less compelling scene. But it might have saved them some trouble. Dr Mann’s deception was virtually undetectable. We could not find any direct evidence of it. But the circumstances revealed through the analytical technique did at least prompt us to proceed with caution.

Chances are you won’t have to make a decision to save humanity anytime soon. But whenever you face a choice between blind trust and paranoia, Deception Detection is an elegant way to stay level-headed in your decision-making.

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