The Truth About “Lying Eyes”

“Look me in the eye when you say that.”

“I never trusted him, he had shifty eyes.”

Many people believe that you can measure a person’s truthfulness by checking out his or her eyes. Truthful people, it is said, look others in the eye and don’t shift their eyes while talking. Other common beliefs about eye movement and lying include the idea that people shift their gaze to the left when being deceitful and that dilated pupils, which can be a sign of stress, might indicate that the speaker isn’t telling the truth.

A recent study at the University of Hertfordshire challenges these assumptions, however. Study participants, even those who had been trained in neuro-linguistic programming (a personal development and communication technique), were unable to spot liars merely by observing them. While this is just one study, it does raise questions about whether it is wise for people to assume that “the eyes have it” when it comes to detecting dishonesty.

Other factors that can inhibit a person’s ability to detect lies by observing a speaker’s eye movements include cultural standards for eye contact, neurological impediments to “normal” eye contact, as well as the fact that habitual liars often get better at lying over time, make spotting a liar difficult for most people.


Other Factors that Affect Eye Contact:


Cultural Differences

While looking someone in the eye while talking to them is a sign of respect in the United States, some cultures have different understandings of eye contact. In some places, men and women avoid making eye contact with the opposite sex as a way of preserving propriety. Individuals  may also be expected to avoid eye contact with their elders or superiors. Unfortunately, these cultural behaviors may be misinterpreted by outsiders as evidence of dishonesty.


Neurological Differences

People with certain neurological conditions, such as autistic spectrum disorders, may find eye contact uncomfortable. As with cultural differences, this failure to make eye contact may trigger negative reactions in others, but it is not an indicator that the autistic individual is being deceitful.


Reliable Ways of Detecting Lies

Being a good human lie detector is more difficult than many people think. Many psychologists and criminal justice professionals note that successful lying gets easier with practice, so criminals, con-men and those with severe personality disorders are often able to train themselves to feign the body language of a trustworthy person.  Still, there are a few things you can do to detect dishonesty:

  • Be honest with yourself: Many people overlook signs of lying if they really want to believe the lies that another person tells them.
  • Pay attention: Signs of lying often vary from person to person. If you know someone well, you can probably learn their typical mannerisms, facial expressions and vocal inflections. Deviation in any of these areas may be a sign of lying.
  • Don’t confuse stress with deceit: Stress can cause people to appear as if they are lying, even if they aren’t. Pupil dilation, fidgeting and sweating might indicate lying but they may also simply be evidence that a person is stressed and anxious.
  • Listen carefully:  Pay attention to what a person says, rather than how they appear or behave, when trying to catch him or her in a lie.  Lies can be hard to maintain and take up a fair amount of mental energy, which is why police officers often ask suspects to tell their stories numerous times. Liars often spin a great tale, but fudge on the details. They may also pause several times during the story while making things up or trying to keep their facts straight.