"Lying eyes" may be a myth

Through my early (and brief) curiosity about neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) techniques, I learned that when a person looks up and to their right, it's a good sign that they may be lying. Turns out, that probably isn't true. From the BBC:

The idea was tested by filming volunteers and recording their eye movements as they told the truth or lied.

A second group of volunteers was then asked to watch the films and try to detect the lies by watching the eye movements.

Co-author Dr Caroline Watt, from Edinburgh University, said: "A large percentage of the public believes that certain eye movements are a sign of lying, and this idea is even taught in organizational training courses.

"Our research provides no support for the idea and so suggests that it is time to abandon this approach to detecting deceit."

"Academics say 'no truth' to lying eyes theory"

And if you really do want to be able to read people's facial expressions, you might start with legendary psychologist Paul Ekman's amazing books about the secrets revealed by microexpressions, such as "Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage" and "Emotions Revealed."


  1. The debunker study seems kind of half-assed to me.

    I wonder if the testing results would have been MUCH different if being caught in the lie had some sort of unfavorable consequence for the participant?

    For example, if the test subject was informed that if they were detected in their lie they wouldn’t receive a cash reward of significant value.

    If I was in a study and simply told to lie, I’m fairly sure my lizard brain would react differently than it would within a real truth and consequences situation.

  2. Who are you going to believe, me or your “who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?”

  3. Even if it works two times in three, trying to judge people’s honesty and/or trustworthiness by their facial expressions is going to continue screwing over autistic people and other people who find eye contact painful, and is going to continue enabling con artists and charlatans who can lie with just the right expressions.

    1. I’ve had people say to me, with some alarm, that my eyes dart all over the place and that it freaks them out. I’m hyper-alert. Doesn’t mean that I’m lying. And you really want me as a companion if you go on a quest.

  4. I think anyone that promises to reveal “human truth” so easily can’t be real. Our inner worlds are so complex and we are so different from one another that only sensibility and compassion can help us understanding each other. Truth or lie is just irrelevant in face of such complexity.

  5. A lot of body language and “eye communication” theories have stigmatizing undertones towards people who have mental disorders or deviate from the “norm” even for socio-economic reasons.

    I’ve read a few books on this and have always had an interest in what prosecutors and lawyers, and police officers say in court and interrogation are the ways to catch people who “lie” or want to “hide” something.
    If you look at the particular subculture from which one emerges, or take into account the mannerisms and psychomotor agitations, etc. that can result from autism, bipolar, schizoaffective, schizophrenia, etc. you often find that these rules or general rules of thumb are a good way to “spot” and “discredit” people who may not have any malicious intent at all.

    If people know that and still follow the “rules,” they’re the ones being malicious.

  6. So for the sake of discussion, let’s assume the study is correct and that the researchers could find no evidence of “lying eyes” in the people they studied. 

    With that in mind, doesn’t being a convincing liar constitute a pretty strong reproductive advantage? If that’s the case, doesn’t that mean that any genetic component to the ability to lie convincingly would spread fairly quickly?

    In other words, is it possible that “lying eyes” did at one time exist, but have become rarer than the popular knowledge of their existence?

    1. “With that in mind, doesn’t being a convincing liar constitute a pretty strong reproductive advantage?”
      That sounds perhaps a bit overreaching.  Reproductive advantage matters more in times and places where mortality is high, longevity is low, and there aren’t very large political structures or a developed enough economy to just abandon anyone.

      “Early man” of 10,000+ generations ago may not have had the same advantages that come with lying as he would from actually being able to demonstrate to his tribe or kin that he can help them or lead them places where they won’t die.  Also, sneaking around to sleep with lots of women is not something you should expect in smaller tribal life just because you see it in “civilization.”

      You might be applying a modern “civilized” conception of human behavior to a time and place where reproductive advantage might have come from more demonstrable forms of social reciprocation, or plainly demonstrated power as opposed to cuckoldry or political or court intrigue.

      1. “Also, sneaking around to sleep with lots of women is not something you should expect in smaller tribal life just because you see it in “civilization.””

        Polygamy was more common in “small tribal life” than it is now. You have to remember that a reproductive advantage is not “something that will make you a more acceptable mate” as much as it’s “something that will make more babies.” 

        So early man had a problem with “lying eyes,” and it became common knowledge that was passed down from generation to generation. Meanwhile, people who are capable of lying convincingly are liable to be more successful–at least temporarily.

        You’ve also got to take into account the possibility that the genes that give someone the capacity to be a better liar, might also grant them some other, more benign trait. Perhaps the “good liar” gene also makes you better at empathizing with people, or picking up on subtle non-verbal cues. Perhaps it makes you better at being tactful or peaceful conflict resolution–we really can’t know.

        My point is basically this: dishonesty has been considered A Bad Thing for far longer than recorded history, and it is very likely that the concept of “lying eyes” or other visual cues that indicate dishonesty were conceived in pre-agrarian times. With dishonesty being a recurring primate strategy that is often times more successful than honesty (at least in the short term) does it not seem possible that a trait which gives someone an advantage when being dishonest would eventually become quite common? One might say, “if the meme wasn’t effective then we’d have forgotten about it by now,” but don’t underestimate the power of cultural momentum. There are still people who honestly believe that women are inferior to men, and that white people are superior to everyone else. Bad and false ideas can persist for millennia, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

        I’m not saying it’s not possible that *some* people will show facial tics or other such gestures while lying, but there is a reason why things like lie detectors are not permissible in court: they’re simply not consistent. If it were as simple as watching someone’s eyes to tell they were lying, then we wouldn’t be futzing about with fMRI to try to tell if people are being truthful.

        1. Polygamy is generally common the further back in time one goes.  *You didn’t need to hide it.*  Nothing sneaky necessary.

          People read others’ faces more when language is less developed or non-existent.  If all in your tribe are good at faking, your tribe is doomed, unless inaccurate exchange of social information is somehow more valuable to group survival…? Eh…

          I grant that manipulation of the listener or observer’s emotions or beliefs make one more skilled at getting what one wants – lying is one way of manipulating others, among many.  *Detecting the manipulation is equally advantageous then as well.*  It’s an arms race…

          Do you just mean that people with deficient social skills died off over time?  That may be true, but it wouldn’t have many implications for bodily detection of lying today.  The people with deficient social skills would have been deficient at lot more than lying.

        2. Oh, on the evolutionary thing.  Yes, I know what natural selection is.  I mean to say that lying, in all the ways and benign attendant traits which you describe, can make one more easily find a mate.

          Subtlety is less necessary to make babies in tribal life or in worlds where political intrigue means less.  Your belief that subtlety had an evolutionary advantage over all the other forces in a high mortality world is what smacks me in the face as an imposition of the modern world onto the world where reproductive advantage mattered more.

  7. Through my early (and brief) curiosity about neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) techniques, I learned that when a person looks up and to their right, it’s a good sign that they may be lying.

    I can only surmise that your exposure was indeed ‘brief’, since Bandler and Grinder never said any such thing, AFAIK.

    What they said (IIRC) is that many people (not all, but many) consistently look in one direction when they’re accessing visual memory, and in a different direction when they’re accessing visual imagination.

    But to use this with even limited accuracy, you must *first* establish the habitual directions that the person you’re talking to uses – different people go in different directions – some one way, some the opposite.

    Up left = memory/up right = imagination is the most *common* pattern, but it’s nowhere near universal.

    And you must establish that such reactions are consistent in each particular subject. Some people just aren’t consistent.

    So you need to ask a long series of questions whose answers you can be reliably certain will distinguish between answers from memory and and answers from imagination, and to observe your subject’s reactions closely.

    And even then, you need to understand that “memory vs. imagination”
    is not at all the same as “being honest vs. lying.” Some truth-tellers use visual imagination to compose perfectly true replies, and some liars are pulling their rehearsed lies from memory.

    As a ‘lie detector’, even long, close and careful observation can be misleading – and observing only a single response or even several responses) to a question you *don’t* know the answer to is utterly fricking useless.

    “When a person looks up and to their right, it’s a good sign that they may be lying” is nonsense, and AFAIK was never part of B&G’s formulation of NLP.

    (Though I cannot vouch for any of the legions of “NLP practitioners” who subsequently used Bandler and Grinder’s work to create what seems to be an Amway-style MLM ‘mind control’ scam.)

    NLP is a semi-jokey catch-all term for a collection of pragmatic techniques for psycholgical investigation and reframing based on experiment and observation, and not united by any cohesive underlying theory.

    Using those techniques effectively requires considerable experiment and observation – there are no ‘one size fits all’ formulas.

    So it’s no real surprise that the utterly bogus claim that you can detect lies by watching for stereotyped patterns of eye movement has been ‘debunked.’

    But it has nothing to do with real NLP.

    1.  This response, right here. There’s never been confirmed validity to the eye direction deception test, only that different directions indicated attempts to access different cognitive storage capabilities. All of that comes second, however, to each individual’s base line behaviors.

  8. I suspect liars.

    I suspect liars quickly learn how people respond to their body language and facial cues; especially the ones who lie for any consequence for (bankers?), and that evolution is cleverer in liars who don’t want to be caught (politicians?).

    They rapidly develop, and continuously evolve, techniques either for suppressing the cues – and the smart ones learn how to hide the suppression too, by fooling the audiences senses or eliminating outward signs of lying.

    The best liars simply work themselves into believing anything they say or communicate.  That way there is no cue delivered whatsoever, as there is no internal conflict or emotion to drive the unbidden tell.  There’s no lie.

    In fact, they create misdirecting tells for innocent civilians, and more advanced techniques for professionals who might have lie-detecting antennae.

    NLP is good for a basic understanding of it all, but the key to it is the introduction of the modes of behaviour.  Follow through on that and you enter the liar’s world.  But remember, they’ve probably been doing it their entire lives.

    Remember when the Goldmans execs were hauled in front of (congress?)?  They didn’t flinch, wobble or give – because they lie all the time, their culture and community supports and drives that behaviour, so they feel both comfortable and backed-up.

    The best way to pick up on the extraordinarily subtle clues professional liars give is simply to keep asking yourself if they’re lying, what benefits they might accrue from lying, and are you comfortable with what they’re communicating (all modalities), and are you being a dope?

    One key, subtle trick is to attune to smell – weird, I know – but professional liars get excited when they’re getting one over on someone, and that makes them sweat, or get a red flash at the base of the neck.  So you notice that and ask – why would that occur right now?  It’s very subtle, and you need to be open to what your brain is telling you from its reptilian centre, rather than the urbane sophisticate region.

    Lying is a wonderful field.

    A lovely example of liars is people suffering from OCPD.  In some moods, anything and everything they say is totally justified and justifiable, right and accurate, so they don’t get the lying reflexes.

    NLP has some lovely tricks, like teaching you that people will only do the things they want to do.  Moving on, you have to learn how to create that desire, and the desire for that desire.

    Eventually, you’ll get to the bathroom salesman I walked away from earlier today.  He was SUCH a liar.

    1. People who are under stress smell. People who are triggered smell. People who have endocrine problems smell. I take it you don’t have the problem where every dog starts barking and jumping or lunging at you whenever you walk anywhere?

      1.  er, no I don’t.  Not exactly sure how your comment relates to mine, but let me parse it like this:  the change in scent is an indication of a change in state, and if that change is synchronised with some smart questions you feel are designed to elicit no response, then you might be onto something.

        I can see how being chased by dogs would be very irritating.  It also would not be a fantastic scenario for deciding if someone is telling the truth.

    2. Is communication possible if we are unable to lie? Is there any objectively definable sharp distintion between truth and lies or only subjective impressions?

      1. That’s a wonderful question.  I’d say that given that we do communicate, then we all learn to accept through experience that a certain amount of mutual distrust is a healthy thing – we just bang along with it.

        We need to be wise enough to layer onto that day to day humdrum mistrust an additional defence shield – like when dealing with a used car salesman, a banker selling a high margin product, or someone promising to give your cash back double.

        Purity is for the birds.

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