The truth about lies is that we are not very good at detecting them. Flipping a coin is a frequent illustration of the average lie-detecting ability, because despite the frequency with which people practice deception, our lie detection accuracy is barely above the level of chance.[i] Yet according to research, you might have better luck spotting dishonesty if you know where to look.
The Eyes Are Windows to the Truth
Deception research is filled with studies about the types of behaviors that indicate deceitfulness, with many researchers reaching different conclusions. Yet one consistent clue appears to be found in the eyes. Most people instinctively take eye movements and gaze aversion behaviors into account when judging credibility, and research corroborates the value of this practice.
A 2012 study by Cook et al. aptly entitled “Lyin' Eyes: Ocular-Motor Measures of Reading Reveal Deception” tested pupil reactions and reading behaviors of participants as they answered a questionnaire about a crime, having been randomly assigned to a "guilty" or "innocent" group. Participants showed increased pupil response when answering questions deceptively, although interestingly, they spent less time focused on those statements as compared to statements they answered truthfully.[ii]
Other research indicates that when we are attempting to gauge the truthfulness of another person, we pick up valuable clues by both looking and listening.
Sometimes Seeing Less Is More, as Long as You See the Eyes
In a 2016 study entitled “Less Is More?: Detecting Lies in Veiled Witnesses,” Leach et al. studied whether laypeople were better able to detect deception in female witnesses when the witnesses had their face covered with a hijab (head veil) or niqab (face veil).[iii] The study was undertaken as a response to judicial rulings in the UK, Canada, and United States that witnesses may not wear a niqab while giving testimony, due to its presumed interference with the ability to detect deception.
Surprisingly, laypersons were better at lie detecting when witnesses wore the veils, suggesting the face coverings may actually improve the ability of observers to detect deception. The researchers noted that face concealment caused laypersons to alter their decision-making strategies. Specifically, Leach et al. suggested the veiled faces might have caused laypersons to increase focus on the witnesses' eyes, although participants denied placing more weight on this cue in the veiled condition. This self-report was taken into consideration along with eye-tracking research showing that when forming social impressions, people focus on the eyes more than any other feature.
Consistent with research, 90 percent of study participants admitted using eye contact as a deception clue regardless of the presence of a veil. In this study, however, lying witnesses were more likely to employ gaze aversion, which might have been more pronounced with the presence of the veil.
In addition, Leach et al. noted that veiled witnesses revealed more verbal than nonverbal cues. This was important because some participants did not watch all of the videos, instead turning away from the screen and just listening to the testimony. Interestingly, this seemed to occur only when witnesses wore niqabs.
Yet the extent to which gaze aversion indicates dishonesty apparently depends on the importance of the lie.
All Lies Are Not Created Equal
Over the years, researchers have studied the differences between what type of behavior laypersons expect will indicate deception and what really does. One of these commonly cited behaviors is gaze aversion.
A 2006 study by Wright and Wheatcroft found that the top two behaviors people across 58 countries believed to be related to deception were gaze aversion and nervousness.[iv] The researchers stated that in reality, research indicates that deceivers do not employ gaze aversion more frequently than truth tellers.
Yet there appears to be an important exception: The researchers note that some studies have found gaze aversion to be linked with deception in high-stakes contexts.[v] This means that there might indeed be instances in which this type of visual behavior could be a good indicator of deception.
Gaze Avoidance or Stare Down: Visual Baseline Behavior
If you are using visual behavior to gauge the credibility of someone you know, you will also have the benefit of a baseline. Some people, for example, will never look you in the eye. Whether due to personality, cultural background, or other factors, some individuals are uncomfortable with direct eye contact.
For others, every interaction is a stare down. While it can be interpreted as everything from intense interest to attempted intimidation, strong, direct eye contact comes naturally to some individuals. Knowing how someone normally looks (or doesn't) during in-person interaction can assist in judging the significance of deviations from the norm.
Yet familiarity is a two-way street. While it provides a baseline against which to judge new behavior, relational familiarity can benefit deceivers. This is because while observers gauge the authenticity of information based upon the normal visual behavior of the speaker, they transmit their own behavioral clues indicating whether or not they are suspicious. Deceivers are thus able to improve their craft by practicing deception within familiar relationships, and monitoring reactions for signs of distrust.
Looking and Listening
Although you will not accurately detect all lies all of the time, by knowing what to look for, you stand a better chance of spotting honesty, one glance at a time. And yes, in most cases, there is value in having someone look you in the eye when they are speaking.
Yet as the veiled witness study demonstrates, words matter too. Given the difficulty in detecting dishonesty, the best approach appears to be both looking and listening, in order to consider all available information in forming conclusions.
Wendy Patrick, JD, PhD, is a career prosecutor, author, and behavioral expert, who often speaks on the topic of detecting deception. She is the author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller Reading People (Random House). She lectures around the world on sexual assault prevention, detecting deception, judging credibility, and threat assessment. She is an Association of Threat Assessment Professionals Certified Threat Manager. The opinions expressed in this column are her own.
Find her at wendypatrickphd.com or @WendyPatrickPhD
[i] Song Wu, Wei Cai, and Shenghua Jin, ”Motivation Enhances the Ability to Detect Truth from Deception in Audio-only Messages,” Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling 12 (2015): 119-126 (119) (citing Bond & DePaulo, 2006; Leach et al., 2009).
[ii] Anne E. Cook, Douglas J. Hacker, Andrea K. Webb, Dahvyn Osher, Sean D. Kristjansson, Dan J. Woltz, John C. Kircher, and Wendy A. Rogers, “Lyin' Eyes: Ocular-Motor Measures of Reading Reveal Deception,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 18, no. 3 (2012): 301-313.
[iii] Amy–May Leach, Nawal Ammar, D. Nicole England, Laura M. Remigio, Bennett Kleinberg, and Bruno J. Verschuere, ”Less is More? Detecting Lies in Veiled Witnesses,” Law and Human Behavior 40, no. 4 (2016): 401-410.
[iv] Clea Wright and Jacqueline M. Wheatcroft, ”Police officers´ beliefs about, and use of, cues to deception,” J Investig Psychol Offender Profil (2017): 1-13 (2).
[v] Wright and Wheatcroft, ”Police officers´ beliefs about, and use of, cues to deception,” 2 (citing Vrij & Mann, 2001; Wright Whelan, Wagstaff, & Wheatcroft, 2014).