Is Your Partner Lying to You? How to Tell by Looking

Contrary to stereotype, heavy thinking makes liars appear calm and collected.

Posted Nov 06, 2017

“Who was that?” you ask as your partner seems unnerved after answering an incoming call from the already-suspicious “unknown caller.” “An old friend,” is the (equally unnerving) answer. “Really? Who?” you continue. Your partner does not answer, just sits there immobile, as if trying to decide what to say next. 

The ensuing awkward silence is deafening. What do you do? Keep asking questions? Assuming you are able to keep your suspicions in check and follow up while maintaining a neutral demeanor, can you see when your partner is lying?

The Look of a Liar

First of all, the above-described hypothetical is the worst-case scenario. Ideally, you will not be in a relationship laced with suspicion and mysterious phone calls. Yet skepticism is one of the practical realities of modern relationships—at least until we are able to build a healthy degree of trust. 

So accepting this reality, what does a liar look like? I tackle a similar question every time I start a trial. Some jurors ensure their dismissal by boldly declaring that without having heard a shred of evidence, the defendant “looks guilty.” Assuming they are not just trying to weasel out of jury duty, how can they tell by looking? They can´t. They also cannot spot a liar by looking. Yet they think they can do this too, discounting the testimony of witnesses who appear to be “nervous” as likely dishonest. 

Yet research indicates that a better indication of dishonesty stems from cognitive activity, which in terms of visually spotting lies, means that in many cases, observing less means more.

Lie Spotting Through Heavy Thinking

Misplaced juror confidence aside, research indicates that most of us cannot tell a liar just by looking. As explained in a study by Volbert and Banse (2014), decades of research demonstrate that lie detecting clues are unreliable, and there are no solid behavioral indicators signaling deception.[i] They explain that detecting deception through effective clues is difficult as well, because some liars do not experience shame, anxiety, or stress when telling lies, whereas some truth tellers do.

But cognition counts. Volbert and Banse note that approaches to detecting deception focus on indicators of cognitive activity, which other research explains can produce visible clues. One of those clues is the counterintuitive finding that contrary to common perception, liars often do not appear jittery and nervous; they often appear calm and composed. Here is why. 

Less Means More: The Calming Effect of Cognition

Vrij, in an article entitled “Interviewing to Detect Deception” (2014) explains that lying is cognitively more taxing than truth telling.[ii] He notes that reasons for this increased cognitive load include challenges in constructing the lie, concern about perceived credibility, attempts to monitor and control demeanor, and focus on the listener´s reactions. He cites one study where police officers, watching real suspect interviews, observed that suspects appear to be thinking harder when they were lying. In these interviews, lying suspects exhibited an increase in pauses and a decrease in hand and finger movements, as well as blinking—all indications of cognitive load.

Other studies have found similar results. Wright and Wheatcroft, in ”Police Officers´ Beliefs about, and Use of, Cues to Deception” (2017), note that deceivers make fewer hand, arm, or finger movements, and fewer leg and feet movements.[iii] A study by Sporer and Schwandt, entitled “Moderators of Nonverbal Indicators of Deception” (2007), reveals that although we expect liars to be shifty-eyed and fidgeting, nonverbal behaviors such as hand movements, nodding, and foot and leg movements actually decrease while lying, while others remain the same.[iv] 

Seeing is Believing

So back to your partner´s mysterious phone call. Silence and immobility in the face of pointed questions may be nerve-wracking and uncomfortable to observe, but its interpretation will depend on your level of familiarity and relational trust. As you build relational security as a couple, ideally you will arrive at a place where regardless of how your partner responds to your questions, you have built a foundation where you believe you can trust what you see.    


[i] Renate Volbert and Rainer Banse, ”Deception Detection: How Can Psychological Research Assist Legal Practice?” European Psychologist Vol. 19, No. 3 (2014): 159-161.

[ii] Aldert Vrij, ”Interviewing to Detect Deception,” European Psychologist Vol. 19, No. 3 (2014): 184-194.

[iii] Clea Wright and Jacqueline M. Wheatcroft, ”Police officers´ beliefs about, and use of, cues to deception,” J Investig Psychol Offender Profil (2017): 1-13.

[iv] Siegfried L. Sporer and Barbara Schwandt, ”Moderators of Nonverbal Indicators of Deception: A Meta-Analytic Synthesis,” Psychology, Public Policy, and Law Vol. 13, No. 1 (2007): 1-34.