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Conventional wisdom about indicators of dishonesty/lying

  1. Aug 14, 2013 #1

    Over the years, people have told me that various actions are indicators that someone is being dishonest. Some of these are:

    1. Lack of eye contact
    2. Shifty eyes
    3. Increased body movement (e.g., scratching one’s head)
    4. Sniffing
    5. Clearing one’s throat
    6. Different rhythms/speeds in response time to questions being asked
    7. Becoming very defensive

    These are interesting pieces of conventional wisdom, but I doubt that many of them are at all accurate.

    It would surprise me very much if no research had been done into such a significant topic. Does anyone know of research that has been done that shows how much the above actions (or other common ones that I did not think of) are actually correlated with lying, and if so, could you please point me to the sources if you know them?

    Opinions and links to less formal articles about this question are very welcome - however, I am mainly interested in finding original research papers regarding these subjects, perhaps in psychology or sociology journals.

    Thank you very much for your time, and for any help that you can give.

    -HJ Farnsworth
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 14, 2013 #2


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    It comes down to intrinsic differences. Some people always shift eyes and lack eye contact. Some people are just nervous when being confronted even when they have nothing to hide.

    The polygraph has been questioned as far back as the 60's and 70's.

    http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/amp/29/10/725/ [Broken]

    Even today, modern attempts drawing on neuroscience are criticized


    A typical strategy in law enforcement is actually to lie to the potential criminals and get them to admit their crime. In that regard, polygraphs do actually go a long way. Somebody who is guilty, might be more likely to confess if they think they've been caught. So polygraphs do serve a useful purpose in that regard, but in the end, people can nervous and anxious even when they are (or at least believe they are) telling the truth.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  4. Aug 15, 2013 #3
    Thanks for the response, Pythagorean!

    Those papers are precisely the type of thing that I am looking for. Also, having never looked at psychology or sociology literature before, I did not know about PsycNET, so you have given me a source that I can use to look further into this topic when I have the time. So, once again, thank you.

    To follow up, do you, or does anyone, know of any experiments specifically regarding, and that attempt to quantify correlation between, lying and actions stereotypically associated with lying (especially the ones in my first post)?

    Ideally (what follows is just me thinking aloud), I think the experiments that I am looking for would have to be done without reference to polygraphs. Somehow, the experimenter would have to know if the subjects are lying or not, and the situations would have to be something that more closely resembles a normal conversation than does the environment of a polygraph test.

    Of course, I could just draw upon my own life experience to decide which "stereotypical indicators" I believe and to what degree. If I understand you corrrectly, Pythagorean, I think that my instinct is the same as yours, in that it just depends on the person (I myself am not the best about making eye contact, yet I am certainly a very honest person). However, ultimately I am interested in quantitative information, which I sadly have not kept regarding my own life experiences.

    For instance, somewhere in the Results section of what I am looking for there might be something like "it was found that w% of participants preferred not to make eye contact when responding to a prompt, regardless to the veracity of their response to that prompt. x% made eye contact at all times, regardless to the veracity of their response to a prompt. y% made eye contact, but looked away when being dishonest, and z% preferred not to make eye contact, but made eye contact when being dishonest."


    By the way, it occurred to me that these posts might sound a little bit like I am working for Big Brother or something like that, so I just wanted to mention that the only motivating factor behind me starting this thread is curiosity, which developed as follows:

    A friend of mine told me a couple of weeks ago that she didn't trust someone, and one of her reasons was that he had shifty eyes. This was not the first time in my life that I had heard something like this, and I started thinking about whether it and similar pieces of conventional wisdom were true. Then I decided that I probably wasn't the first person to think about this, and that maybe some psychologist had tried to answer the question, so I started this thread to find out.

    Often, I hear a piece of conventional wisdom, and become curious as to whether or not there is any truth behind it. This is an example of that.


    Thanks very much again.

    -HJ Farnsworth
  5. Aug 16, 2013 #4
    Derren Brown has a persuasive (to me) discussion on the tell tales of lying in his book, "Tricks of the Mind" in which he addresses the conventional wisdom about lying:

    "Perhaps more than any other area of body language, it is the identification of deception that attracts most interest, and with it the largest number of daft theories and misconceptions. The most common misconception is that people break eye-contact when they lie. Nonesense: people break eye-contact all the time. Our eyes move all over the place to help us retrieve information. In fact, a person who unnaturally holds eye-contact is far more likely to be lying, and probably operating under the same misconception, thinking that if he breaks it he'll appear deceptive."

    Later he says: "The truth is that different people lie in different ways, and there are simply no single behaviours which all people share when deceiving."

    He advises that for any given individual you have to learn how their truth-telling manifests, and watch for changes from that.

    He does believe that an individual will manifest some observable change when they switch to lying. To catch the lie you have to know how they tell the truth. He does a bit where he'll ask a volunteer to tell him three things, but one of the three must be a lie. He then picks the answer which least resembles the other two in expression and body language as the lie. He relates a performance where the lie was revealed because it was the one answer where the volunteer did not break eye contact.

    That said, he does have a discussion, too, of about 7 more universal indicators that a person is very likely to be lying, which are different than the ones in your list. After that, he goes at length into indicators that people are telling the truth.

    That's not "Science", of course. It's more an expertise akin to the observational skills of poker players; how they try to learn each other's "tells". A subject you can google. I think it holds water because both Derren Brown and poker players stake a lot on their ability to read "tells". If nothing else his assertion that all people lie differently, if true, would go a long way to explaining why you haven't found much solid science on the subject.
  6. Aug 19, 2013 #5
    Thanks for the post, zoobyshoe!

    I had not heard of Derren Brown before your post, so I just Wikipedia'd him. As you mentioned, it's not science, but it's clear that his professions would require some insight into the topic of this thread.

    I will give the book you mentioned a read some time, especially the universal indicator section you mentioned. Although it's not a numbers-based research paper like I was originally looking for, it should be interesting and insightful to read his thoughts on the subject.

    Thanks again!

    -HJ Farnsworth
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