“Look me in the eyes.” People often use phrases like this to determine if someone is lying. We may think this is an effective method, after all who could lie while looking straight into your eyes? It turns out that there are many people who are perfectly ok with lying while looking straight at you. Popular magazines, as well as TV shows, have perpetuated many myths about how to tell if someone is lying. There are also self-declared deception experts that claim to be able to detect deception based on behavior. They also claim that these lie-detecting skills can be taught, making you a human lie detector machine. How much truth is there behind these claims? And, what do the real experts have to say on this subject? Let’s explore some myths and truths about detecting lies.

Myth #1: Eye Movement

It is a common notion that when people talk, the direction of their eye movements reveals whether they’re lying or not. If the person glances up and to the left, that indicates they are telling the truth. Whereas if they look to the upper right, it signals deceit.

This myth comes from a 1970’s theory called Nero-Linguistic Programming (NLP), a set of techniques to help people master social interactions. However, new research thoroughly debunks these notions. NLP has long been discredited as there was no scientific backing to prove its theories. The University of Hertfordshire in the UK, conducted a study where volunteers were filmed as they told the truth or lied. Another group of volunteers then watched the film and tried to determine who was lying and who was telling the truth; simply by watching their eye movements. Professor Wiseman, a psychologist who ran the study said: “The results of the study revealed no relationship between lying and eye movements.” Thus, this suggests that no significant relationships exist between eye movements and lying.

Myth #2: Nervousness

Stuttering, fidgeting, looking away, touching your nose or mouth, are practices commonly thought to indicate deception. However, this is not always the case. Stress can result in increased heart rate and adrenaline which provides extra energy to the limbs resulting in fidgeting with hands or legs. Also, while under stress some people display self-pacifying behaviors such as touching their hair, playing with a ring or necklace, and rubbing their neck just to name a few. These behaviors are a sign of stress or just being uncomfortable, they do not necessarily point to deception.

During a recent Advanced Practical Social Engineering class (APSE), some students were asked to tell a true story about themselves. Another group of students were asked to tell a false story. Everyone else in the class had to try to determine who was lying and who was telling the truth. While telling her story, one of the female students was fidgeting, then put her hand behind her neck as she finished the story. Many viewed this as a sign of high discomfort and assumed she was telling a false story. The student was indeed uncomfortable; however, it was not because she was fabricating a story, rather she was sharing a traumatic experience that she went through some time ago. This exercise proved that just because we can see the signs of someone being nervous or uncomfortable, does not mean we know the cause behind the behavior.

Myth #3: Facial Expressions

The muscles in the face relax when we are comfortable. While relaxed we tend to smile or laugh. The lips are full, and the chin tends to be further out. The moment there’s psychological discomfort, it begins to manifest in certain areas. For some people, it can be furrowing of the forehead or squinting. With discomfort, there can also be tucking down of the chin, lip compression, and at times covering of the eyes. Our faces put our emotions on display without us realizing it. By analyzing facial expressions all we can determine is if the behavior is consistent with comfort or discomfort.

Dr. Paul Ekman is known around the world for his research on universal facial expressions that reveal concealed emotion. According to Dr. Ekman, “Fleeting facial expressions do reveal an emotion that is being concealed, and that is a kind of lie, but innocents under suspicion may conceal their fear, or anger about being suspected. You need to find out why they are concealing their emotions…” Facial expressions may indicate an internal emotional turmoil that is being suppressed, but that is it. Facial expressions alone do not reveal deceit.

Can Lies Be Detected?

Scientific studies, as well as experts in the field, agree that deception has no set of behaviors. Human lie detection is as accurate as tossing a coin in the air. Does that mean that FBI agents and other law enforcement agencies rely on the polygraph for lie detection? Though they may use the polygraph as one of their tools, on its own it is not a reliable method for lie detection. According to the American Psychological Association a polygraph is an instrument that recognizes physiological changes in reaction to a question, but it does not have the ability to detect lies. How then, do experts determine if someone is lying?

Professionals trained in human behavior establish a baseline of the person of interest. When asking a question, they look for a shift in behavior. They also look for incongruencies (verbal and physical), such as a slight shrug coinciding with a verbal statement of confidence. Also, a slight head shake indicating “no” while verbally saying “yes.” These incongruencies are a “hot spot” or cue that something is amiss. At which point the professional conducting the interview would ask further questions about the topic that brought on incongruent behavior.

In Conclusion

Detecting deceit is very complex. Like a puzzle, there are many pieces that need to be in place to form an accurate picture. You cannot rely on just one aspect of human behavior to tell if someone is lying. Rather, it’s a composite set of behaviors that lead to a hint of deceit. The ability to ask questions is a key component; this provides you with the opportunity of verifying if the information given was accurate. Former FBI agent and international body language expert Joe Navarro said it best: “no matter what technique is used to look for deception, the only way to really know the truth is to verify and corroborate every single last detail of what someone says. And that is the truth about lie detection.”



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