There are some things you just can’t fake. Con artists or crooked salespeople may dupe some poor fools, but body language generally cannot be faked; there are almost always some signs or “micro-gestures” that can give a person away2.
According to research, there are certain verbal and non-verbal patterns that liars display that can reveal their deceit. As with everything related to reading other people, look for patterns or clusters of signs, and don’t jump to conclusions based on isolated indices. Keep in mind that when it comes to communication in general and body language in particular, there can be a variety of reasons other than lying for any of the telltale signs we list below. Here are some findings on linguistic patterns of liars (ten Brinke, MacDonald, Porter, & O’Connor, 2012; Porter & ten Brinke, 2010):
- The devil is in the detail:
- Timing of responses to questions is often off when someone is lying:
o Liars tend to be uncomfortable with silences and will be inclined to fill the silence with additional details, by repeating what they already said or by probing whether you have bought their story.
- Liars may use diversion tactics:
- Liars use fewer first person pronouns and references to other people. They also tend to avoid contractions (“I do not recall anything in particular” instead of the usual “I don’t recall”).
- Micro-expressions are short-lived facial expressions that can reveal our true emotion. In the case of lying, you should look for fear, panic, anxiety, shame, guilt, or another form of distress. Micro-expressions typically flash on a liar’s face before they arrange their features into an expression consistent with what they want to convey.
- Liars will blink more often, or their eyelids might remain closed a little longer than usual.
- Liars may display exaggerated or melodramatic emotions. They make frequent transitions between positive and negative emotions, and positive and negative facial expressions (e.g. going from sad to happy really quickly and easily).
- The left side of a liar’s smile can be more pronounced than the right side, like in a sneer.
- They’ll either cover their mouth with their hands or even put their fingers in their mouth (“Speak no evil.”).
- They’ll rub their eyes (“See no evil.”).
- They’ll fidget – touch or scratch their nose, scratch their neck, grab their ear, or pull at their collar. They might display grooming behaviors – adjusting a tie, playing (or pulling) hair, mustache or beard.
- Inexperienced liars will avoid eye contact. On the other hand, skilled liars who know that shifty eye contact is a give-away may go to the other extreme and make too much eye contact in order to appear more sincere.
- The creative thinking involved in fabricating a story to cover up a lie taxes our cognitive resources, resulting in a decrease in movement and lack of animation.
- Because lying is perceived as a stress-inducing activity by most people, you might be able to observe a number of signs of acute stress reaction: sweating, faster breathing or hyperventilating, dry mouth (causing them to repeatedly clear their throat) trembling, blushing, and difficulty swallowing (lump in the throat).
- Liars who don’t take pleasure in the challenge that lying presents (and there are some who actually do enjoy it) will want to get out of the situation as quickly as they possibly can. If they cannot run, they might at least lean away, backwards or to the side; in other words, they try to put some distance between themselves and the person they are trying to deceive. They might fold their arms, interlock legs, and limit hand gestures. They might grip their chair or other objects until their knuckles turn white.
- They may nod or shake their head in a way that is incongruent with what is being said. It’s an unconscious physical reaction to the truth, even as they are feeding you a lie.
- A liar’s tone might indicate deception as well. Liars may talk slower or faster than usual, and the tension may translate into higher-pitch, quiver, stammer or stutter.
What makes lying possible to detect is the fact that it takes a great deal of mental energy and focus. You have to remember the story that you created as a cover-up; you have to make sure not to reveal too many details so that you don’t end up getting caught in lie; and to top it all off, you have to be able to display a semblance of sadness, remorse, or whatever emotion is required for the situation. And that’s the problem: Ask any actor – it’s difficult to show genuine emotion on cue, and that’s how many people get caught.
A study by ten Brinke and Porter (2012) involved looking at footage of individuals offering what seemed like a heartfelt plea to help them find a missing person. Of the 78 people filmed (these were actual cases), half of them were convicted of killing the person whose life they were pleading for.
But why? Here’s how ten Brinke and Porter (2012) summed it up: “Failed attempts to simulate sadness and leakage of happiness revealed deceptive pleaders’ covert emotions. Liars used fewer words but more tentative words than truth-tellers, likely relating to cognitive load and psychological distancing.”
I don’t have much patience for televised court proceedings like Judge Judy, but there’s something important to point out here: What makes her quite effective at her job is her ability to read body language. Have you ever seen the way she conducts herself when someone is pleading their case? It’s almost as if her piercing gaze can see right into a person’s soul.
What she’s really doing, however, like police officers investigating a homicide, is paying close attention to a person’s body language. The defendant or plaintiff may be able to put together a rather convincing story, but their body language will almost always reveal more – much more than they want it to.
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1) Dolcos, S., Sung, K., Argo, J. J., Flor-Henry, S., & Dolcos, F. (2012) The Power of a Handshake: Neural Correlates of Evaluative Judgments in Observed Social Interactions. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 24 (12), 2292-2305.
2) Pease, A., & Pease, B. (2004). The Definitive Book of Body Language. Australia: Pease International. Retrieved January 27, 2014 from http://e-edu.nbu.bg/pluginfile.php/331752/mod_resource/content/0/Allan_and_Barbara_Pease_-_Body_Language_The_Definitive_Book.pdf
3) Porter, S. & ten Brinke, L. (2010). The truth about lies: What works in detecting high-stakes deception? Legal and Criminological Psychology, 15(1), 57-75.
4) ten Brinke, L. & Porter, S. (2012). Cry me a river: Identifying the behavioral consequences of extremely high-stakes interpersonal deception. Law and Human Behavior, 36(6), 469-477.
5) ten Brinke, L., MacDonald, S., Porter, S., & O’Connor, B. (2012). Crocodile tears: Facial, verbal and body language behavios associated with genuine and fabricated remorse. Law and Human Behavior, 36(1), 51-59.
6) Willis, M. L., & Palermo, R. (2011). Judging Approachability on the Face of It: The Influence of Face and Body Expressions on the Perception of Approachability. Emotion, 11(3), 514-523.