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How to Detect a Liar

There's a common clue. It's just not the one you think.

Parents teach their children to lie. The teaching process is subtle but just as effective as if they had sent their children to formal classes in deception. How many times have parents told their kids “Look me in the eye and then tell me what you did?” I don’t know about the other kids, but it didn’t take me long to figure out that when I wanted to lie to my parents I looked them square in the eyes. This is a lesson most kids take into their adult lives.

It comes as no surprise that most people think gaze aversion signals deception. Intuitively, this makes sense. People who feel embarrassed avoid eye contact. People who feel ashamed avoid eye contact. People who are under a heavy cognitive load tend to avoid direct eye contact. However, it does come as a surprise that research shows there is no connection between lying and the amount of eye contact between the liar and the target of the lie. In fact, research demonstrates that liars maintain more deliberate eye contact than do truthful people.

People tend to look at people or things that they like and avoid eye contact with people and things they don’t like. Liars must overcome the natural urge to avoid eye contact with their lie target to make themselves believable. Consequently, liars tend to overcompensate by maintaining longer eye contact. This behavior stems from the generally held belief that liars avoid eye contact, a lesson most people learned from their parents.

Commonly held beliefs about eye contact and deception convolute our ability to detect deception. Research shows that eye aversion is not a reliable indicator of deception, yet people rely on the commonly held but erroneous belief that liars avoid eye contact. In order to be believed, liars must make deliberate eye contact, which, ironically, is not a dependable cue to detect deception.

The next time someone looks you in the eyes and tells you something that is too good to be true, look at other, more reliable, verbal and nonverbal cues to determine if what they are saying is actually too good to be true.

Mann, S., Vrij, A., Leal, S., Granhag, P. A., Warmeling, L., & Forrester, D. (2012). Windows to the soul? Deliberate eye contact as a cue to deceit. Journal on Nonverbal Behavior, 36, 205-215

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