How to Interpret Body Language and Identify Deception


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.  It’s a way for me to experience her now.  A lot of times I can’t make it very far,” he said, 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 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.

Detecting Deception

As a species we are pitifully poor lie detectors. One would think, since we have been communicating for thousands of years, we would have devised ways to accurately distinguish between a falsehood and the truth. 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 of roughly 100 years of research on lie detection are meager at best. I can guess who will win the big game on Saturday afternoon about half of 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. As studies have shown, these professionals are no more accurate than stockbrokers, cab drivers or attorneys. There is one exception, Secret Service agents have scored quite well at reading dishonesty in body language and verbal clues. In law enforcement we call that a clue. Evidently their training prepares them for sniffing out deceivers. Law enforcement officers are continually asked to play Solomon. Unfortunately, some individuals are very talented at creating fantasy 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, 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. The pitiable, overburdened 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 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 circumstance). 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 test of honesty. 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, 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 by Ray Ban-wearing feds because the drugs proved to be unreliable. In addition, many barbiturates, such as sodium amytal have a high potential for dependence and addiction. 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, 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 of 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 (who is obviously a Sherlock Holmes fan) said after he stopped Jeffs. Unlike the patrolman, most of us are not skilled at spotting 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. Few individuals are accomplished in correctly interpreting deceptive motives or emotions. To complicate matters, facial expression is achieved using infinite combination of musculature, features, skin plasticity 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 snarl. By the way, notice if a smile uses all of the face 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. From basic training law enforcement officers are taught to keep a safe distance from suspects. If we perceive danger or dislike, even if we are not consciously aware 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 well be a sign of 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 Here are a few obvious facial signals:

  • nostril flare (arousal, 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, curious, slight surprise).
  • Big pupils (arousal, fight-or-flight, drugs). Small pupils (rest-and-digest,); direct gaze (affiliate, threaten, 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. 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. As a Dallas cop told me, the truth is consistent. When the spoken word is at cross purposes with body language, normally it is safer to believe the body because body language is more likely to be unconscious.

Body Language Quiz

Are you skilled at reading body language? We will see. Take the quiz

1. You have asked a suspect a question and he looks up and to the left. This might mean a. He is focusing on your body language b. He is looking inside himself for an imaginative answer. c. He has a headache d. He is trying to find the light at the end of the tunnel.

2. This body language tool, when used, will make you appear warm, friendly, open and confident. a. Arms unfolded b. Feet about ten inches apart c. Nodding your head d. Smile

3. If a suspect is making little eye contact, it might mean a. He is shy b. He doesn’t want anyone to read emotion in his eyes c. He is sleepy d. He does not like you

4. If a suspect is wringing her hands as you talk, it might mean a. She is nervous b. Her hands are dirty c. She is late for an appointment d. She is open and outgoing

5. You are talking to a suspect and you lean toward him and nod occasionally. It probably means a. You are near sighted b. You are self-centered c. You are paying close attention d. You are having trouble hearing

6. If a suspect has her arms folded and legs crossed, it might mean a. She is cold b. She is feeling romantic c. She wants to understand the person with whom she is speaking d. She is being defensive

7. An officers standing tall with chest out and head high, might mean a. Improper training b. Aggression c. Confidence d. A poorly fitted vest

8. One angles in toward a person if a. He is being aggressive b. He thinks the other person is sexy c. He is trying to read emotion d. He thinks she is lying and wants to see if she is blinking

9. You are talking to a suspect and she is filtering her answers through her hands. It might mean a. She is trying to hide bad breath b. She is lying c. She is self-conscious d. She is fearful

10. We have such a powerful brain circuitry for the facial expression that a. We see faces where there are non (i.e., moon) b. We often misread expressions c. We get tired of reading expression d. We smile and glare just to confuse suspects

11. You stop a man driving a new SUV in Nevada and his carotid artery is pumping. It might mean a. He is wanted by the FBI b. He has been exercising c. It is the end of your shift, so you really don’ care d. He is stressed because he anticipates a speeding ticket

12. You have asked a suspect a question and he looks up and to the right. This might mean a. He wants to appear helpful b. He does not understand your question and he is stalling c. He is trying to remember his attorney’s name d. He is recalling the truthful answer to your question 13. You ask a suspect if he killed his rich maiden aunt. He says, “No, I did not.” This may mean a. He is very precise in his use of English b. He is grief stricken about his poor Auntie c. He is lying d. It means nothing Good Job!

Correct answers 1)d, 2) d, 4) a, 5) c, 6) d, 7)a, 8)b, 9)b, 10) a, 11) a, 12) c and d,

13) c Here is more information for questions 12 and 13. 12. In both c and d he is looking inside for information stored there. 13. If a suspect uses a contraction, such as I didn’t do it, in answer to your question, “Did you kill your maiden aunt?” he is more likely to be telling the truth than if he were to say, “No, I did not.” Contractions seem to be more trustworthy. Scoring your test: Give yourself one point for every correct answer. You can give yourself more points, but it will make scoring confusing.

What does the score mean?

Score 1 – 4

I am afraid that you might find surviving on the mean streets more challenging than other officers. You are more likely to miss a body language signal that precedes an aggressive act. Also, you are more likely to misjudge a suspect ’s intention and truthfulness. You may want to learn more about body language by visiting the Non-Verbal Communication Web site; it is quite interesting. To be safe, stay close to someone who scored 10 or more on the test.

Score 5 – 8 – You are doing relatively well and can probably communicate and understand body language communication with little effort. You may want to visit the reference site listed above to increase your store of knowledge. What does it mean when someone looks up and to the right while taking your picture with his/her cell phone? See, I told you there was more to learn.

Score 9 – 13 – You should be working for the Secret Service. You are unusually knowledgeable about body language. This knowledge will give you a distinct advantage in understanding your fellow creatures. Let me warn you, some of the nice officers from the first scoring group are going to be looking for you. Conclusion Would you like to know how to consistently identify dishonesty? According to body language expert Robert Phipps, “Darting eyes, palms not visible, shifting from one foot to another, hand covering mouth or finger tugging at the ear are clues.” Regrettably, as you know these indicators are not always accurate. You should keep researching and learning about body language and lie detection. The more you know the safer you are, and in law enforcement that is your prime directive, stay safe.

Read Frogs into Princes: Neuro Linguistic Programming. Richard Bandler and John Grinder. I read it several years ago and though it is not an easy read it contains some fascinating information for understanding yourself and others. Also the site listed under the first scoring category above is a treasure trove of useful information. Begin your own research study. Watch your fellow beings and make note of their behavior under various circumstances.


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