To Spot A Liar Trust Your Gut Not Your Eyes
Christopher Philip

When people become nervous or anxious blood rushes to their nose producing the Pinocchio-effect.  But is this enough to spot a liar?

When people become nervous or anxious blood rushes to their nose producing the Pinocchio-effect. But is this enough to spot a liar?

New research suggests that people may have a better intuitive sense in detecting lies than previously thought. This is according to new research to be published in the Journal Psychological Science.

It’s been widely researched that body language makes for bad lie detection. I wrote about the research here. However, for some reason, body language as a tool for detecting lies stuck into the psyche of the general population.

Even the Transportation Security Administration has spent some $1 billion training thousands of “behaviour detection officers.” While that money was likely not totally wasted, spending it specifically on detecting liars, is probably ill-advised, as there are no surefire single clue to lie detection. As we know, nonverbal communication is important in providing clues that tell us that more detective work should be done. A fine-tuned understanding of body language will give us clues as to what’s really going on, but it’s not going to provide solutions in flashing lights.

As it turns out, liars are not spotted by body language alone, though nonverbal signals will tell you how to spot someone who is nervous or anxious, and this in turn, can be a tip-off that he or she may be hiding something.

The research suggests that there may be something to simply trusting your gut instinct when detect lies. Turns out, according to the study, that for most people, signals simply muddy-the-waters when detecting lies. When people rely on cues such as averted gaze or fidgeting, people perform only at a rate of about 50% – the same odds as flipping a coin. As I describe, eye contact can often increase, rather than decrease during lying.

“What interested us about the unconscious mind is that it just might really be the seat of where accurate lie detection lives,” said Dr Leanne ten Brinke of the University of California, Berkeley.

“So if our ability to detect lies is not conscious – we simply can’t do this when we’re thinking hard about it – then maybe it lives somewhere else, and so we thought one possible explanation was the unconscious mind.”

What led researchers toward this intuitive detective device was the fact that some primates, such as chimps, are able to detect deceit. Naturally, evolution would strongly favour any skill at lie detection, but also, tend to favour those who are able to evade detection. It seems on the surface that lie detection and deceit evasion are quite evenly matched.

Turns out, that the key to detecting lies might come from a natural ability which we simply tap into when we strip away other pre-conceived notions.

In their study, the researchers found that when subjects watch “suspects” in a mock crime scenario, they performed at a rate of 43%. However, when they were primed to look at the suspects face and quickly chose words from two lists including words such as “untruthful” and “dishonest”, or “honest” and “valid” the subjects performed better.

A second experiment confirmed the findings.

“These results provide a new lens through which to examine social perception, and suggest that – at least in terms of detection of lies – unconscious measures may provide additional insight into interpersonal accuracy,” says ten Brinke.

She added, “It’s possible that we make decisions on a daily basis as to who we are going to continue to interact with, so we decide to become friends with some people and not others, to continue dating some people and not others, or to work closely with some and not others. Perhaps some of this decision is driven by our intuitive sense that some of these people we choose not to interact with are lying to us.”


Leanne ten Brinke; Dayna Stimson and Dana R. Carney. Some Evidence For Unconscious Lie Detection. Published online before print March 21, 2014, doi: 10.1177/0956797614524421.

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