How to Spot a Shameless Liar Using Body Language Cues

What are the nonverbal cues that can help you see through shameless lies?

Posted Jun 06, 2020

Learning to separate truth from deception is a constant challenge. Not only are there people you know who simply lie shamelessly, but public figures also present you with a challenge to your truth-sniffing abilities as they make appearances in the news. They give speeches, interact with audiences, and pose for photos in ways intended to convey themselves as honest upholders of certain values. Can you tell the difference between those who are fake and those who are sincere?

Many commentators were left wondering about the meaning of an appearance that flooded social media when, on June 1, 2020, a Bible-holding President Donald Trump posed for a photo in front of a Washington DC church. The widespread criticism the appearance sparked suggests that many people didn't believe in the sincerity of the gesture.

According to La Salle University’s Beth Bradford, writing in a June 3, 2020 Medium column, Trump's behavior was not motivated by religious fervor at all. Instead, he was engaging in a form of propaganda by “using a symbol or image that has a predefined understanding or sentiment with the message you want to sell.” This type of propaganda is based on the psychological principle known as “transfer.” The process of transfer involves a phenomenon explained by classical conditioning in which the meaning you attach to a symbol (in this case the Bible) becomes “transferred” by association to the person brandishing that symbol.

As Bradford writes, simple transfer can explain why advertisers show people having fun while drinking a particular brand of beer. Watching those commercials leads you to conclude that if you want to have fun, you’ll drink that beer. Because these images are both unconscious and strong, you don't question the validity of the connection between fun and that brand of beer. The advertisers are clearly trying to get you to believe their version of the truth.

Drilling deeper into the Bible episode, Bradford goes on to suggest that Trump may have been hoping that people would transfer their positive feelings toward the Bible onto him. At this point, however, another psychological process comes into play involving cognitive dissonance. The state of cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable one in which you try to reconcile competing beliefs or attitudes. If you are pro-Trump, Bradford explains, you’ll make that positive transfer without any dissonance. However, if you’re anti-Trump, and you have positive attitudes toward the Bible, you'll be left with cognitive dissonance. 

Anti- and pro-Trump sectors in American society are therefore left with differing degrees of dissonance, or imbalance. The Bible-holding image will only reinforce those divisions, further polarizing an already polarized population. In Bradford’s words, “if members within society continue to disagree and are resistant to compromise, this imbalance can cause the extremes in society to weaken.” The alternative is for these groups to “reconsider their current attitudes and paradigms,” leading to greater unity and balance.

Turning now to the sincerity of the appearance, psychology can also play a role in helping you decide whether this, and similar social media photo ops, reflect the figure's honest motivations and beliefs. Politicians rely heavily on the ability to persuade the voting public that you can trust them to tell the truth. Though they don’t need your vote, celebrities similarly would like you to believe that they’re sincere when they speak out about issues of importance to them or try to sell products. When politicians are found to have lied shamelessly, they significantly lower their chances of reelection. When celebrities are revealed to be massively deceiving the public, their sales go down of whatever products they’re trying to promote.

In your own everyday affairs, you may similarly be let down by someone you know who’s proven to tell outright lies. Perhaps you hired a local tradesperson to complete some jobs around the home. You were promised a start date that by now is several months in the past. Each time you contact this person, you’re given a different excuse for why the work has not yet begun. The only conclusion you can arrive at is that you were drawn in by a set of lies that are now becoming more and more evident. Wouldn’t it have been better for you to have sniffed out these shameless deceptions before hiring this person?

Separating out truth from deception falls well within the province of communications researchers who study nonverbal behavior. Although many recent studies provide important insights into the psychology of deception, researchers in the field may have overlooked the contributions of a 2012 article by Sławomir Wacewicz and Pprzemysław Żywiczyński of the Nicolaus Copernicus University, Toruń.

There is an entire signalling mechanism, the Polish authors write, that goes beyond simple verbal or even nonverbal communication. Called “nonvocal nonverbal paralinguistic features,” or “NNP’s” they “include the microecological arrangement of interaction scenes as well as clothing, jewellery, hairstyles, odours, and similar characteristics of interactants’ appearance” (p. 119).

Some of the NNP’s that accompany your speech are “volitional,” in the sense that you choose to emphasize or de-emphasize the signal you’re sending.  These volitional NNP’s can include emblems or symbols, deliberate facial expressions, or gestures. Psychologists have not typically included NNP’s in their analysis of lying. Furthermore, as Wacewicz and Żywiczyński liars reveal their deceptive intentions through “adaptors,” or actions that people use to manipulate their bodies or objects.

In a self-adaptor, you take an action that involves doing something to yourself, such as scratching your head or wiping away a tear. People who feel no sadness about a regretful incident will feign a tear in order to convince you to believe in their remorse.  In an object-adaptor, liars hold something in their vicinity meant to show their honesty (potentially through the transfer principle).  They shift around nervously, perhaps playing with an article of clothing.

Nonverbal indicators of lying can also include self-adaptors that unintentionally spill out into the person's actions. Thus, people who are lying engage in behaviors such as scratching, rubbing, and pinching which “serve to release the deceiver’s anxiety caused by the fear of being exposed” in what’s called “restless immobility” (p. 122). The behavior of deceivers, furthermore, becomes bolder when they realize how easily they can put one over on their audiences. They're the magicians, casting their spell over onlookers willing to suspend disbelief. 

Returning now to the question of how research on communication can inform your decisions about who to believe, it appears that your best bet is to look at the behaviors that “leak out” involuntarily to inadvertently reveal the speaker’s true motives. Watch the video carefully to see if you can spot any of those NNPA’s of restlessness described by the Polish authors. You can draw your own conclusions, based on this evidence, about the authenticity of the gesture.

To sum up, practicing your detection of deception skills on public figures can be an interesting exercise in its own right. You won't necessarily know whether they're lying or not, but the practice  can possibly help you read the people whose lies affect you directly. Human communication provides the basis for all relationships, and being able to trust those who communicate to you can be the basis for much of your long-term fulfillment.

Facebook image: Daniel M Ernst/Shutterstock

References

Wacewicz, S., & Żywiczyński, P. (2012). Human honest signalling and nonverbal communication. Psychology of Language and Communication, 16(2), 113–130. doi: 10.2478/v10057-012-0009-5