People often ask psychologists if they can read what people are thinking just by observing their body language and, in particular, whether they can tell if someone is lying.
We are usually brought up to think that lying is bad. Most of us are encouraged to develop a keen sense of right and wrong and to feel guilty if we avoid telling the truth. As a result, as with any strong emotion, conflicts that occur inside us tend to leak out, showing themselves in our non-verbal behavior. The extent to which this leakage shows itself when we lie is often related to the consequence of discovery, or to the seriousness of deception.
Western culture has this thing called a 'white lie', white implying good or at least forgivable, whereby we evade guilt on the grounds that the lie is for the best. Our body language rarely gives us away if our mind has let us off the 'guilt' hook. As adults we may even employ the childish Pseudo-magical trick of crossing our fingers as we tell a lie, hiding them behind our backs as we do so in order to avoid detection.
Here are the body language facts about lying. However, it is important to remember that none of the following non-verbal signals are in themselves actual proof of deception. All of them can be caused by other psychological states or physical pressures, but they do tend to be associated with deception and if two or more of them occur simultaneously you should take it into consideration that a person may be lying to you.
Assuming that people are scared as they lie (which is a big assumption), their automatic nervous system will cause them to sweat more, particularly in the palms, which may become itchy. Breathing becomes uneven, throat and lips become dry, and swallowing may increase in frequency. The frightened liar generally talks less, speaking more slowly than usual, choosing words with care yet making more speech errors such as slips of the tongue, malapropisms, etc. There might be blushing, twiddling of pens or other objects, doodling, and an avoidance of physical contact as if in anticipation that the person being lied to might be able to feel the dishonesty emanating from the liar's body.
The inner conflict that takes place when we lie prompts a series of subtle but perceivable twitches, micro gestures, and facial movements that flash across the face in under a second. We notice these gestures, though we are often not consciously aware that we have done so. People who are lying often exhibit minute nervous ticks in the muscles of their mouths, usually only on one side, and in their cheeks or eyelids. They may also blink faster too, their eyebrows may twitch -- again usually on one side -- and their shoulders may move slightly.
Of course, a still photograph does not give the whole picture, as it is movement that betrays a lie. Someone who is lying will often fidget, drum the fingertips, or entwine the fingers together. Toes will flex inside shoes, and the feet, especially if they are hidden from view, may tap agitatedly.
Most importantly, we almost always seem to revert to the childhood habit of taking our hands to our mouths as soon as a lie is spoken. The response is similar to that of a child revealing a big secret, realizing that he has blundered, then grasping at the invisible words as if they were still floating on the air, capable of being stuffed back into the offending orifice from which they have so recently sprung.
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As we develop a more sophisticated control over the tell-tale body language that landed us in trouble when we were children we still respond to lying with the automatic mouth clamp, but the action is slowed. This slowing allows our brain to interrupt the natural process, overriding it by diverting our hands to a site nearby -- most often the edge of the mouth, the nose (especially the underside), the cheek or the chin. This delay may range from a couple of seconds to as much as a minute. People sometimes wipe the mouth with a downward open palm gesture, as if to clean away guilt induced by their conscience.
Is honesty therefore always a better option? Well, yes, in that you will probably be caught out by the person you are lying to anyway -- although they may choose not to let on or even to acknowledge this insight to themselves -- but on the other hand maybe no, as the social conventions of politeness, flirtation, and flattery sometimes oblige us to compliment or deceive in order to boost confidence or avoid obvious insult. If your date asks you if you like his suit you would do better to not tell him you think it stinks, especially if you know that he has gone to a lot of trouble to look nice for you. (However, if he asks you if he has bad breath you will be doing both of you a favor if you tell him the truth!)
If you do need to tell a lie, make it a convincing one: keep your hands animated and your body flexible, but not squirming or fidgety. Position both feet firmly on the ground and keep your voice as alive in expression as always. Otherwise you'll be giving yourself away, no matter how credible your words might be!
Finally, always bear in mind that the significance of eye contact differs from culture to culture. You cannot assume that because someone is not looking you in the eye they are therefore withholding the whole truth or being downright dishonest.
This article was excerpted from
Secrets of Sexual Body Language
by Martin Lloyd-Elliott.
About The Author
Martin Lloyd-Elliott studied at the University of London and the London Institute for the Study of Human Sexuality. He is a board-certified psychologist working as a counseling psychologist and psychotherapist with a focus on body language. He is the author of Secrets of Sexual Body Language and City Ablaze.