Quick post: Myths about liar’s body language debunked


Slowly but surely we’re finding out more about the symptoms of telling lies.

Researchers at Portsmouth University and universities in Italy asked 130 volunteers to make a series of honest and dishonest statements and then evaluated their movements.

Contrary to popular belief, liars fidget less than non-liars. This is because, says Dr Samantha Mann: “People who are lying have to think harder, and when we think harder we tend to be a lot stiller, with fewer movements, because we are concentrating harder.”

Then, studying the behaviour of suspects in police interviews, Mann found that, when lying, participants paused more in their speech and blinked less frequently. Eyes for lies who wrote a guest post here says that the finding of a lack of blinking by liars confirms her experience as a human lie detector.

Debunking another myth, Mann found that liars were just as likely as an honest person to look a questioner in the eye.

Just as some people like ‘Eyes’ are savants at picking lies, one wonders whether some people are liar-savants.

What do you make of this?

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For full summary see this article.

Photo of Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, the Iraqi information minister nicknamed Comical Ali: ‘Saddam’, originally uploaded by rasch2000

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16 thoughts on “Quick post: Myths about liar’s body language debunked

  1. Hi Dr. Steve,

    Remember the narcissist I mentioned in the other comment? She lied with every breath, as easily as you can imagine. But ask her a direct question, and just like you said, she’d look you in the eye but her speech would slow down, you could see her choosing her words carefully, she’d stiffen. It was as if you were all of a sudden talking to a robot.

    I liked Comical Ali: he was a hoot! The difference between him and the pathological though, was that I’m sure Ali didn’t believe his own bullshit. It’s just that if he were ever to speak the truth, he’d have been shot.

  2. Reminds me of when I was a teenager sitting at a diner with friends — bantering about nonsense one day. We were talking about lying and liars. People were trying to be smart and witty, and were trying to one-up the next guy. One guy would say, if I told you I did this, would you believe me? Then the guy would say I did it. Then he’d say no, I’m joking I didn’t, as he’d half-seriously laughed.

    People were playing mind games with each other. Some pretty scary stuff was said at the table that I think hinted at the truth. I was a bit unnerved and wanted to put something down on the table to instill some fear in the others, so I casually said with a smile, “You’ll never know a really good liar because you’ll never catch him.”

    I did myself a real disservice. The entire table got really wide-eyed and questioned me. At this stage in life, none of us had ever had that thought before. Then everyone wondered, if perhaps, I was a superb liar to come up with such a statement!!

    I gave everyone the chills — me included — because I saw people had their eyebrows raised at me for quite a long time after that!

    The point being, if there are great savant liars, we will never know. For me, I believe they are out there, but they are thankfully very few and far between!! I can think of a couple of people who I suspect may be masters of the craft, but of course, I can’t be for sure. They say and do the right things, but the odds surrounding them seem to be slightly off kilter time and time again.

  3. ian – That’s great: a way, perhaps, of telling when a pathological liar is actually lying as opposed to bullshitting (now there’s a fine philosophical distinction!)

    The ultimate nightmare job, Comical Ali’s – responsibility but no authority. It happens in all bureaucratic systems (generally without the death threat, though).

  4. I agree that it is very possible to look someone right in the eye and be dishonest. I have done it and it’s been done to me. I have also noticed that the person does have to take time to think about their answers and it slows them down, but on the flip side I have been accused of lying when I was telling the truth and I felt I was scrambling to convince the other person of this and that may also have slowed me down. It’s terrible to be in the position of telling the truth and still not be believed. How often does this happen?

  5. eyes – What a great story, you must have really freaked your friends out!

    You say: “I gave everyone the chills — me included.” This is beautifully put – it could be a line of a poem, or a stand-alone aphorism.

    It makes me think of the discussion dm-smith and I are having about how one shudders in the presence of certain things. Not that what you did was particularly wrong, but perhaps you all got a sense of what something truly wrong would be like.

    You say: “the odds surrounding them seem to be slightly off kilter time and time again.” A stimulating thought – perhaps the ‘lucky’ make their luck by loading the dice with perfect, untraceable lies. There’s a novel there!

  6. dontdatethatdude – You say: “It’s terrible to be in the position of telling the truth and still not be believed”. Phew, that can really make a person squirm. And add on to that they knowledge that most people associate squirming with lying and that’ll really make one uncomfortable.

    Hopefully this kind of research can help dispel those myths.

  7. Yes, I, too, often find myself doing all the things supposed liars do when questioned if I am honest (when I am honest). It drives me nuts, and I am conscious of it when I am doing it, but I seem unable to stop it.

    Yes, liars do hesitate more during their speech, and sometimes slow down their speech, but it is NOT a reliable clue by itself because as others noted, honest people when they are grilled will and can do the same thing.

    As I say, it is important to find multiple clues to deception. If you only see one, it doesn’t tell you anything conclusive. At least that is my take.

  8. eyes – What I like about your method – probably why it works – is that you don’t act as though there’s a set list of tics and tells that give the answer, lie or truth. Rather, you look at the behaviour and what’s being said the context.

  9. ian: I have the same experience with a man I knew who had Narcisstic Personality Disorder. Reality as well as bullshit would roll off his tongue with the ease of a slick politician. But he would stammer & backpeddle in any conversation where he was confronted with direct questions, or any type of direct & open communication.

    And though I wouldn’t call myself a human lie detector really, I am pretty good at it (seemingly much better than a lot of people). And I would say that a nearly awkward stillness while speaking has definitely been a subconscious clue for me to distrust what someone’s saying. Slowed speech is neither here nor there to me, it depends on the context I guess, and probably other subconscious cues. But stillness is definitely more suspicious to me than squirming!

    Never thought about it before, but I just leafed through some recent memories where I suspected someone of bullshitting, and yeah, there was almost a stiffness to them while they talked. BUT, in these occasions I was not dealing with sociopaths, just relatively regular folks who, I suspect, have a fear of looking like they don’t know about something, so they’ll bullshit.
    A practice that’s employed by more people than just those with personality disorders.

    Speaking of which, I have lied while looking someone in the eye and being quite natural about it, and I know I’m not a sociopath. I think what makes it “easier” and possibly more believable, is if one feels justified. On the occasions that I lie, I always feel it’s morally justifiable, non-harmful, and that it’s not a serious issue.
    I don’t know how this would translate to a sociopath lying though. Because they would not have the emotional concern I have about being justified and not causing harm.

  10. chloe – Do you recall George Costaza’s advice to Jerry Seinfeld: Just believe it’s true Jerry, and it’s no longer a lie. Something like that.

    So do you think that when a psychopath lies they justify it to themselves in the same way you do (i.e. morally) – or do they do something else?

  11. Yeah, that’s a classic Seinfeld thing. But I heard that LONG before it was ever said on Seinfeld. I remember joking about that back in the early 80s with friends. So it must’ve been said by someone before Constanza.

    “So do you think that when a psychopath lies they justify it to themselves in the same way you do (i.e. morally) – or do they do something else?”

    Absolutely not.

    From everything I’ve read about sociopaths/psychopaths, they don’t have the mental capacity in that area to think that way.
    I don’t think they have any need at all to justify anything to themselves.

    Myself, on the other hand, I couldn’t just lie, for no good reason, and feel comfortable about it. And I get the impression that’s the case for most people, even the ones who lie anyway, and just deal with the discomfort. ha.
    There’ve been times I’ve lied, maybe not about something serious, but for selfish reasons (avoid trouble, etc.), and I’ve felt that discomfort, and frankly, I don’t like it. But it tells me that depending on how much discomfort you’re willing to endure, it’s possible for ordinary people to lie quite a bit.

    But for the sociopath, it seems like it’s effortless, because they have no internal consequences, there’s no discomfort to endure.
    Isn’t that what it means by “absence of conscience”? Isn’t that what conscience is? Those feelings of discomfort, whichever emotions are involved, guilt, sadness, embarrassment, or shame, it’s just not comfortable.
    I read that it’s been shown that sociopaths aren’t capable of those emotions.

  12. chloe – You say: “depending on how much discomfort you’re willing to endure, it’s possible for ordinary people to lie quite a bit.” True. How about if the lie is going to get you our of even greater discomfort – then it becomes relatively easy to lie, right?

    That’s what conscience is and no they don’t have it. They can feel regret, but not remorse.

  13. Oh yeah, if the telling truth would be more uncomfortable, exactly.
    That exactly explains why I think I’m capable of killing someone in self-defense. I would probably feel awful beyond description about it, but if the alternative was me being killed, then the equation is a no-brainer.

  14. chloe – Maybe this is as far as the psychopath’s self-justifying can go – I trust no-one, everyone’s a threat, to harm someone else is probably taking away one more threat, so what the hell.

    After the fact thinking, probably. I’ve met ‘political activists’ who justified killing not just their opponent’s but also their opponents children because it’s just a matter of time… In Rwanda they’d say baby rats are still rats.

  15. Well my opinion probably isn’t popular. But I believe killing the kids is no worse than killing opponents. BUT… that’s because I think the killing of opponents is as bad as it gets.
    But then the only killing I think is even approaching justified, is if it’s in immediate self-defense, the threat of death imminent.
    And morally, I’m not even sure I think that’s okay.
    I think the ideally moral person would allow themselves to be killed before killing. (Though of course I wouldn’t expect that of anyone.)

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