Eye Contact and Lying: Dispelling a Myth

eye contact lying Avoiding eye contact is not a reliable sign of lying. It’s important to dispel this and other myths about detecting lies because mistaking the truth for a lie can lead to tragic consequences.

Why is this popular belief not true? From feeling shy to simply thinking about an answer, there are many reasons we avoid eye contact. Eyes can give clues to a person’s feelings, such as fear or pleasure, but they don’t tell us what caused those feelings.1 Alone, they cannot tell us that a person is lying. To determine the cause of a person’s feelings requires multiple clues that come from other body language, context, situational information, etc.  This is especially true for detecting lies.

Knowing this can prevent the mistake of thinking a person is lying simply because they don’t “look you in the eye”. It’s also useful to know that because most of people believe liars avoid eye contact, a liar might look you in the eye to appear more truthful.2

The evidence supporting this has been public for years. I learned about it in 1984. More than twenty-five years later, it isn’t surprising that lack of eye contact is still one of the most popular beliefs about lying.3 It’s perpetuated in erroneous magazine articles and blogs about how to catch liars and cheating spouses.

I mentioned that mistaking the truth for a lie can lead to tragic consequences. Consider how it can damage relationships with colleagues, friends and family.  How does it effect jurors when deliberating a person’s guilt? See Wrongfully Convicted (humintell.com) for the disturbing answer. 4

“Does blinking excessively, avoiding eye contact, or looking in a particular direction show a person is lying?

Not necessarily, said David Livingstone Smith, associate professor of philosophy at the University of New England and author of 2007’s “Why We Lie.””
– See Leanor Vivanco, What Your Eyes are Really Saying, Website: redeye, 7/20/10, 8/26/2010.

For more information on this topic, see body-language expert and former FBI agent Joe Navarro‘s article, Body Language Myths, in Psychology Today.

 

References:

1. Ekman, P. 2007. Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life. 2nd ed. New York: Holt Paperbacks.  See page 222.

2. Ekman, P. 2001. Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics and Marriage. 3rd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. See page 141.

3. Bond, C.F., Jr. Detecting Deception: Research to Secure the Homeland (cossa.org)
Bond, C. F., Jr., & DePaulo, B. M. A World of Lies (antropo.uni.wroc.pl)

4. Wrongfully Convicted (humintell.com)

There are many reasons we avoid eye contact, making it difficult to know if a person is lying, feeling shy or trying to remember facts so they can give an honest answer.
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© 2010 – 2019, Tracy McBroom. All rights reserved.

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