Body Language Myths
Prevailing myths about nonverbal communication
Posted October 25, 2009
The first myth claims that because we know so much about body language now, it is easy to spot a liar. The second myth, and it is exactly that, a myth, is that eye aversion is indicative of deception.
Beginning in the 1970's so called body language experts began to prattle that body language was the key to determining if someone was lying. Both law enforcement officers and the general public bought into this, and even today, with shows such as Fox Television's "Lie to Me" the myth continues.
In 1985, Paul Ekman and other researchers looked at this myth and found that most of us are no better than chance (50/50) at detecting deception, and very few of us rise above chance. What are often mistaken for signs of deception (nose touching, mouth covering, eye closing, high pitched voice, et. al.) are really pacifiers that help us to relieve stress. These pacifying behaviors are employed both by the guilty and innocent to relieve the stress of an interview. Ekman's work has been replicated many times over and it remains axiomatic, we humans are not very good at detecting deception, even experienced FBI agents such as myself.
The danger of this myth for society arises when poorly trained law enforcement officers perceive pacifying behavior or behaviors of discomfort, as I describe in "What Every Body is Saying," as lying. This often leads to more assertions that the interviewee is lying or more aggressive techniques which will surely increase pacifying behaviors and thus a vicious cycle ensues.
We now have enough DNA exonerations to show us that people under police questioning will confess and sign confessions to end the stress of the interview process, even when they did not commit the crime. In a majority of DNA exonerations, police officers relentlessly kept after the interviewee for hours at a time, contributing to stress and limbic arousal, which were perceived erroneously by those same officers as nonverbals associated with lying. The case of the Central Park Jogger is an example of what happens when police officers mistake nonverbals for signs of deception and relentlessly pursue a confession rather than the truth. In this case 5 young boys served up to 13 years. They were later released when it was determined conclusively someone else had committed the crime (corroborated by DNA and a verifiable confession).
There is a second concern associate with this and that is that juries believing the common myths about lying and deception, often associate (neck touching, hand wringing, facial touching) with deception. I have heard jurors, post trial, mention seeing various pacifying behaviors and equating them with lying. It has always made me wonder how many people in history have gone to prison, or worse were executed, because their bodies were simply transmitting, "I am nervous, I am stressed," but the jury or judge perceive it as deception.
The second nonverbal myth that still permeates has to do with eye avoidance. During conversations or during interviews, eye avoidance is erroneously associated by the general public with deception. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Noted researcher Aldert Vrij found and others have also verified; people who habitually lie, this includes your borderlines, histrionics, anti-socials, Machiavellian personalities, and your psychopaths, actually engage in greater eye contact. Why? Because they know that we look for this behavior and they want to make sure that you are buying their lie. A truthful person can wonder off with their eyes because there is no need to convince, only to convey.
Eye aversion is both personal and cultural. For instance, you may derive great personal comfort in recalling facts or an emotional experience by looking away from someone and focusing on something distant or looking down. The cultural aspect has to do with what we are often taught. For instance, in Latin America and among African Americans, it is instilled in children that when they are being castigated or dressed down by an authority figure they are to avoid looking at the higher authority in the eyes. This is how you show that you are contrite and humble.
This myth about eye avoidance persists and again has social as well legal implications. In social settings it is perceived as someone who is easily distracted or who has a lack of interest. In a legal setting I have seen police officers say to young African Americans, "look at me," when the young men were being contrite and humble. This lack of understanding and ignorance can have mild social effects but it can also escalate into uglier permutations where individuals are shunned or accused of something merely because they were exercising eye aversion.
For additional information please see the bibliography below or write to me through www.jnforensics.com for a more comprehensive bibliography on body language and nonverbal communications. Additional Psychology Today posts on the subject are located under Spycatcher or you can follow me on Twitter: @navarrotells. Joe Navarro is a former FBI agent, author, and lecturer.
Navarro, Joe. 2010. Louder Than Words. New York: Harper Collins.
Navarro, Joe. 2008. What Every Body Is Saying. New York: Harper Collins.
Copyright © 2009-2010, Joe Navarro