Is Your CEO Lying? Watch Out For Use Of The Third Person

The next time you hear a CEO refer to him or herself in the third person, you may want to make sure you don't own any of their company's stock.

Using phrases like "the team" and "the company" over "I" and "we" is one of a number of linguistic cues that an executive could be lying, according to a new study by David F. Larcker, professor of accounting at Stanford University, and his team at the university's Rock Center for Corporate Governance. (hat tip Wall Street Journal)

The study, titled "Detecting Deceptive Discussions in Conference Calls," found that executives who later revised their firm's financial statements displayed distinct styles of speech in analyst calls, including language that "disassociates themselves from their subject matter." Less than truthful execs also tended to speak in generalities rather than specifics, and replaced common adjectives like "good" and "respectable" with effusive adjectives like "incredible."

Larcker told the HuffPost that he hadn't yet investigated which companies were found to display the most frequent signs of deceitful language -- though he added that deceit tended to occur most often in "high-litigation industries like tobacco and oil."

As a part of the study, Larcker's team loaded 30,000 transcripts of public conference calls from 2003 to 2007 onto an electronic document, which they then culled for verbal patterns psychologists and linguists usually associate with deception. Fourteen percent of executives, they found, said something that raised a red flag.

One such transcript Larcker's team looked at was a conference call with Erin Callan, the former Lehman Brothers CFO, just months before the firm's collapse. In it, she used the word "great" 14 times, "strong" 24 times and "incredibly" eight times to describe the bank's recent performance. She used the word "challenging" six times and "tough" only once.

To most linguists and psychologists, such an overtly positive tone as Callan's is a dead giveaway that a person is being less than candid.

"These ideas have been around for a long time," says Larcker. "What we're trying to do is put the linguistic model and the accounting model together."

READ the study, "Detecting Deceptive Discussions in Conference Calls," below:

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