Can reading body language help you spot a lie?
Yes and no. Several shows on television give the impression that it is easy to spot a lie. The truth is that even experts have a difficult time discovering a lie with certainty. Body language tells us one basic thing: comfort or the lack of comfort. The difficulty is finding the source of someone’s discomfort. It may or may not be from a lie.
For example, Dad asks little Johnny if he did his homework yesterday. Johnny licks his lips and then brings his right hand over his left arm. He looks directly at his dad and after a moment of hesitation says, “of course.” There are several obvious signs that little Johnny is uncomfortable with this line of questioning. Most parents don’t need to be experts in body language to tell you that. The problem is that body language alone cannot tell us what the source of that discomfort is. It could be that Johnny didn’t do his homework, but it could also be caused by a bad grade that he wanted to keep hidden.
That being said, there are a few tells that tend to accompany lying more than others.
- Covering the mouth & Scratching the upper lip or nose – Any action that covers the mouth may signal a discomfort with the words being said. Imagine that the person speaking is trying to block what is coming out of their mouth.
- Forced eye contact – This one is my favorite. Most people believe that liars will not look someone in the eye. As a result, most people will try to compensate when they lie–looking too much. Surprisingly, just the opposite is true. A comfortable person will break eye contact naturally (and frequently) during the course of a conversation. Not enough or too much eye contact should signal that something is wrong.
- Hesitation – When the brain has to devote resources to come up with a lie, it cant devote as much energy to natural communication. Our brain really isn’t good at multi-tasking. Give it another job–like being creative on the spot–and it can freeze. This can also be expressed as stutters or slurs.
- A controlled vocal tone or sudden giggling – Giggling is caused by nervous energy. Surprisingly its opposite–the controlled vocal tone–is also caused by trying to control the same nervous energy.