How to Read Body Language and Identify Deception


This article explains how to read body language to identify deception. Using these investigation techniques, anyone can learn how to determine who is telling the truth and who is lying.

What if you were investigating the disappearance of an attractive young woman and her husband said, “In the morning, I’ve been taking the dog down to the park where she walked. It was our time times. A lot of times I can’t make it very far,” he says, crying.

Do you believe him? Are his tears genuine or crocodile? Are you hearing the words of a man suffering an unspeakable loss? If you think he is grieving, you have been deceived. You are not the first person to be deceived by a convicted murderer, Scot Peterson.

According to the prosecution at his headlining trial, Peterson killed his wife, Laci, and their unborn son, Conner. Peterson, who exhibits various psychopathic tendencies, deceived Laci, his girlfriend Amber Freye, his parents and siblings, Laci’s family, and a sympathetic public.

Read Body Language to Detect Deception

As a species, we are pitifully poor lie detectors. Since we have been communicating for thousands of years, we would have devised ways to distinguish between falsehood and the truth accurately. Scientists are interested in knowing which professionals are the most consistent lie detectors. Researchers also want to define the elusive gestures, facial expressions, eye ticks, and/or body tension that correctly signal veracity (or the lack thereof).

The useful data from roughly 100 years of research on lie detection are meager. I can guess who will win the big game on Saturday afternoon about half the time. Our ability to detect deception is comparable. Are law enforcement officers, psychologists, and judges better at detecting lies than the average person? No, they are not. Studies have shown that these professionals are no more accurate than stockbrokers, cab drivers, or attorneys.

There is one exception, Secret Service agents have scored exceptionally well at reading dishonesty in body language and verbal clues. In law enforcement, we call that a clue. Their training prepares them to sniff out deceivers. Law enforcement officers are continually asked to play Solomon. Unfortunately, some individuals are talented at creating fantasies and inducing others to accept their fabrications. (Psychopaths are masters of the art.) Officers need tools to tackle these challenging situations. If we could accurately and consistently recognize truthfulness, our multi-billion dollar judicial system would be slashed dramatically.

We would not wonder if the O.J. Simpsons and Scott Peterson’s of the world were guilty. If suspects were innocent, they would never become suspects. The Peterson trial cost taxpayers an overwhelming $4 million. California taxpayers spent twice as much on the O.J. Simpson fiasco. This trial also divided Americans into two opposing camps: the “glove or no glove, he is guilty as sin” camp and the “he was framed” camp.

The Quest for Truth

Diogenes (the Cynic) is not the only misanthrope looking for an honest man. Finding a reliable instrument or system for analyzing the truth/lie continuum has been a priority since man began to gather together in communities. Each civilization has attempted to resolve this quandary. One of our modern attempts is the polygraph, which dates back to 1918. Polygraphs are becoming more common as a dimension of pre-employment assessments.

Though used in the legal system, polygraph results are not admissible in court as evidence (except under some very specific circumstances). This is primarily because results can vary according to the operator’s experience, training, skill, and sensitivity. According to legend, the polygraph is based on an ancient Chinese honesty test. The accused was given a hand full of rice to hold in his mouth. The theory was if the subject was guilty, his mouth would be dry, and he would have difficulty spitting the rice out. However, guilt is not the only emotion that can initiate an interruption of saliva production.

The autonomic system, which controls glands, can be affected by any stressor, including fear and anxiety. The National Polygraph Training Center for the US military is located at Ft. Jackson in South Carolina. I took a tour of the school and heard a presentation by one of their dedicated, highly trained staff members. The good news is that they are bringing lie detection into the 21st Century. Watch for new developments in that area. During the Cold War, the CIA and other secret squirrel organizations used so-called truth serums to gain information from reluctant spies. Many barbiturates fall in the truth serum category, including scopolamine, sodium amytal, and sodium pentothal.

The “truth serums” are no longer used because the drugs proved unreliable. In addition, many barbiturates, such as sodium amytal, have a high potential for dependence and addiction. Also, side effects and interactions with other medicines are not uncommon. A clay tablet inscribed in ancient Babylon warned, “When a man lies, he looks down at the ground and moves his big toe in circles.” If this were true, every shy boy who grew up in the Midwest would be labeled a prevaricator. Each of us has his or her favored method for detecting veracity. People who stutter, avoid eye contact, protest too much, deny lying, and the perennial move favorite have shifty eyes and are likely to be under suspicion.

Regrettably, for seekers of truth, there are many perfectly reasonable explanations, other than lying, for these behaviors and for shifty eyes—whatever that means. In August 2006, Nevada Highway Patrolman Eddie Dutchover used a more idiosyncratic lie detector when he pulled over a wanted polygamist, Warren Steed Jeffs. The officer noticed a furiously pumping carotid artery in Jeff’s neck. Dutchover said he knew he had found some big. Dutchover was correct; Jeffs was on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted Fugitives List. “I knew some type of criminal activity was possibly afoot,” Dutchover (obviously a Sherlock Holmes fan) said after he stopped Jeffs. Unlike police officers, most of us are not skilled at spotting and pumping carotid arteries. Conversely, many humans are exceptionally talented at perverting the truth.

Body Language as a Lie Detector

Humans use many forms of deception. Facial expression is a very complex and easily manipulated form of communication. Facial expression can be quite subtle. Very few individuals are accomplished incorrectly interpreting deceptive motives or emotions. To complicate matters, the facial expression is achieved using an infinite combination of musculature, features, skin elasticity, and complexion.

Even the skilled Secret Service Agent can be misled. Understanding body language is critical for officer safety. There is more to body language than movement. Behavioral studies indicate that individuals establish a personal space circumference, which may change depending on the type of message they are sending and their goal. We establish a comfortable distance for personal interaction and nonverbal (unconsciously) define this as our perimeter. Personal distance is just as much a part of non-verbal communication as a smile or a frown.

Notice if a smile uses all the facial muscles or just a few around the mouth. More muscles equal a more natural, unforced smile. If one is distrustful (i.e., paranoia), his or her space will probably be larger. Basic training teaches law enforcement officers to keep a safe distance from suspects. If we perceive danger or dislike, even if we are unaware of that perception, we will probably increase our protected space. If you find yourself moving back from a suspect, you have probably picked up a danger signal at a subconscious level. Pay attention! Consider this: If a suspect moves into your personal space, it may indicate aggression or implied intimidation. There are four parts to tactical body language: facial expression, gestures, stance, and personal space. Unfortunately, it is a two-way street—while you are watching a suspect’s body language, he or she is simultaneously watching yours. Study your body language in a mirror. What messages do you send? You might be surprised.

Facial Indicators to help you read body language. Here are a few obvious facial signals:

  • nostril flare (may signal arousal or anger)
  • grin (happiness, affiliation, contentment)
  • grimace (fear)
  • lip compression (anger, high emotion, frustration)
  • canine snarl (disgust)
  • lip pout (sadness, submission, uncertainty, seduction)
  • Sneer (contempt, intimidation)
  • Frown (anger, sadness, concentration)
  • brow raise (intensity, curiosity, slight surprise).
  • Big pupils (arousal, fight-or-flight, drugs)
  • Small pupils (rest-and-digest)
  • direct gaze (affiliate, threat, deception)
  • gaze-down (submission, deception, distraction)

(Adapted from Givens, 1998-202, Center for Nonverbal Studies)

Remember, you are not the only person who studies body language. Don’t forget misleading body language can be used to do just that—mislead. Look at the individual’s entire presentation when in doubt. Incongruity may be an attempt to conceal or mislead. The truth is consistent. When the spoken word is at cross purposes with body language, it usually is safer to believe the body because body language is more likely to be unconscious.

Read the book Frogs into Princes: Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Richard Bandler and John Grinder. I read it several years ago. However, it is not an easy read. But it does contain fascinating information to help you better understand yourself and others. Also, the site listed under the first scoring category above is a treasure trove of helpful information. Begin your research study. Watch your fellow beings and note their behavior under various circumstances.

If you have any questions about how to read body language, please post a message below.


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