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Face reading: The science of telling if someone is lying to you

Posted by mandyf on March 19, 2012

Spotting a person lying to you isn’t quite so easy as is often portrayed on television. In actuality, spotting a lie is often very difficult and takes practice as well as a knowledge of the person you think may be telling it. Over the years behaviorists have studied people at great length looking for telltale signs of a lie and the one thing they all agree on there is no sure fire method.

Although there is no absolute way to spot a lie, there are strong indicators that can point towards spotting a person that is telling one. To do this however a few things are necessary. According to Stever Robbins of MIT and Harvard who specializes in neuro-linguistic programming and criminal interrogation, the first thing you need to spot a lie is to know how someone looks and sounds when they tell the truth in order to set a baseline. Without this micro-expressions and assorted other cues are far from reliable.

The problem with micro-expressions as well as visual and auditory cues is that you may be seeing the signs of an emotion, but that emotion may not necessarily be indicative of a lie. Sexual arousal, fear, extreme stress unrelated to telling a lie all together may cause a person to appear to be fibbing. Because many people have gleaned information about spotting a lie from less than reliable sources – ie; movies and television, they are usually working with only about ¼ of what is really necessary to spot a lie.

With that said however, if you do know a person well enough to recognize their normal mannerisms and voice inflections when telling the truth, spotting them in a lie is exponentially easier. While most cues are visual, some are verbal and generally harder to pick up on without the use of specialized equipment in many cases. One must bear that in mind before considering the following indicators a person is telling a lie.

#1 – A finger placed over the lips is generally considered an indicator that a person has told a lie. This can be extended to a person covering their mouth after a fake cough or rubbing their lips with a couple of their fingers. It is an unconscious reversion to childhood according to some behaviorists that a person is to a degree cuing them self to be quiet and say no more because they know they have lied and lying is wrong.

#2 – Rubbing or pinching of the nose is a second indicator of lying. When people lie, in most all cases, their blood pressure slightly spikes which releases a chemical called catecholamine. When that is released, it causes the nasal tissue to swell causing the nerves to tingle. Unconsciously, when a person’s nose tingles or itches it is an automatic response to scratch or pinch it.

#3 – Covering the eyes may indicate a lie, and hearkens to the mantra of “see no evil.” When a person lies they will often rub or cover an eye as a way of trying to block out the face of the person being lied to. This is far from perfect however as studies indicate that only 30% of liars will actually break eye contact with the person they are lying to. Still, they have a subconscious desire to do so, and rubbing the eyes or an eye presents a seemingly legitimate reason for them to do so.

#4 – Similarly, tugging, rubbing, or itching the ear is considered a strong indication a lie is being told. This is considered to be a subconscious attempt to block out the lie that a person knows they are telling. This can also be an indicator of generalized anxiety so it is not the best indicator of a lie, but in conjunction with other micro-expressions or vocal irregularities it is a very strong indicator.

#5 – Scratching the neck. When a person scratches their neck, almost always with their writing hand, it is a signal of uncertainty or doubt. Usually this will be done if you tell someone something and they verbally tell you they agree but in actuality do not. Keep in mind environmental influences and the context of the situation however. This would not be a good indicator if for instance you were engaged in physical activity and sweating or straining when a person is more prone to rub or itch in general.

#6 – Watch for a prevalent oral fixation. When a person is lying or about to lie, on some level their mind tells them not to do it. In an attempt to stifle the lie, the brain cues the body to block the sound from coming out in a subtle way. This can be indicated by a person suddenly starting to bite their nails, act as though they are picking at something lodged between their teeth, chewing a pen cap, or placing gum or a cigarette in their mouth. Again, context is key, but when people want to say something, such impediments to speech are far less likely.

#7 – Being too eager to not break eye contact. When a person appears too intent to maintain eye contact it often indicates that they are subconsciously watching who they are lying to in order to determine if they have in fact accepted the lie as a truth.

#8 – A person answers a question affirmatively yet their head subtly shakes in the universal no motion. This is a strong indicator that a person is saying something they do not believe to be true.

#9 – A hand being placed on the forehead with eyes cast down is an indicator of shame. For pathological or very regular liars at the least this is often not a mannerism you will see as they feel little or no shame in telling a lie.

#10 – When a person answers a question but for no apparent reason backs away from you – even a half step – it is an indicator they may be telling a lie. The belief is that they are trying to distance them self from the person being lied to in order to help insulate them self from the negative impact the lie may carry.

#11 – When a person is asked a question they know the answer to, but know they are going to tell a lie, the eyebrows arch. This is hardly foolproof, but in conjunction with a supporting micro-expression can be quite damning.

#12 – A possible verbal clue of a lie is when a person asks you to repeat a question, but it is not due to the question being misunderstood or a person’s inability to hear it well. The belief behind this is that the mind is trying to buy time to formulate a lie. Again, this on it’s own can be quite unreliable, but is fairly common when a person that may be hiding their age or other issues of vanity are inquired about.

#13 – When a person is looking in one direction while pointing in another it is considered an indicator that the mind and body are out of synch. It is hypothesized that this means the mind is formulating an answer or a story rather than recalling one.

Common myths about spotting a lie:

#1 – Liars tend to try to maintain eye contact – not break it.

#2 – Watching the eyes to see if they look up to the right or down to left is more old wives tale than anything else now. At one time this was considered a sure sign of telling the truth or a lie, but more advanced research indicates it is really more indicative of what area of the brain a person is accessing. Once information is retrieved, it still has to be organized and disseminated, all tasks in which people tend to have shifts in the focus of their eyes.

#3 – Liars try to talk fast. In actuality it is harder to talk fast and keep a lie consistent than it is to speak slowly and tell one.

If you think a person has lied, but do not want to be overly confrontational, you should ask them to repeat what you suspect was a lie, but in a different order. For instance “What did you do after eating?”, or “What was it you did before going to the pool?” Anything to make them think out of order or repeat their entire story backwards can trip a liar up most times. Even rehearsed lies are rehearsed in a start to finish order – very rarely are they rehearsed backwards or out of order.

Again, while all of these signs may be indicative of a lie, none are 100% conclusive. There are countless reason a person may have a false positive and the context of the situation must always be considered.

Sources:
The Psychobiology of Mind Body Healing, Ernest Lawrence Rossi, 1986
Stan B. Walters and Associates, Inc.
Practical Kinesic Interview and Interrogation Guide

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One Response to “Face reading: The science of telling if someone is lying to you”

  1. sallykwitt said

    Very interesting Amanda!

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