How to Read Body Language: Detecting Lies

Although not infallible, learning some principles of body language can be helpful in determining if somebody is lying or not.

Much of human communication is non-verbal in nature. Kinesiology is the study of non-linguistic communication and is more commonly called body language. Body language is a type of communication consisting of many physiological elements ranging from body position to hand gestures to eye movements. Law enforcement and security professionals are often trained to employ techniques using the principles of body language in order to detect deception in a subject, however, just about anybody can easily learn the basic foundations of kinesiology. It is important to note that this science is based on principles and is not governed by hard and fast rules. Establishing a baseline of individual behavior is essential to being able to use these principles effectively. The study of body language assists people in making educated guesses about another person’s motives and/or behaviors and is not an exact science.

Common Signs of Deception

When an individual is practicing deception, inevitably they will manifest some signs of deceit in their physiology. In general, their physical expressions may be decreased or limited.

  • Arm and leg movements tend to be stifled and hand gestures are more subdued than normal. Gestures that are expressed will be directed more toward the liar’s own body.
  • A person who is lying may avoid extended eye contact with the person that they are being untruthful with and they may touch their face, mouth, ears, or neck more than usual.
  • Their timing may be noticeably “off” between their verbal delivery and emotional expression. For example, when receiving a gift a person may verbally express their feigned delight by saying, “I love it!” but their coinciding emotional response (a smile) will take place a split second after they said the words, whereas, if the words were genuinely true, the smile would have taken place simultaneously.
  • A more overt indication of deception is when the verbal and emotional expressions are obviously incongruent. For example, “I love it!” would be accompanied by a frown or grimace instead of a smile. Another more subtle example of incongruence would be a calm facial expression accompanied by fidgety feet or hands.
  • A liar will tend to be a bit uncomfortable in the presence of their accuser and may consequently position or turn their body or face away from the other person. They may also utilize physical barriers by unconsciously placing items like a coffee cup, a book or the deceiver’s own folded arms between them and the other person in a psychologically attempt to distance the deceiver from anyone who might question or accuse them.
  • A liar oftentimes will use the questioner’s own words in an exaggerated verbatim manner to answer questions. For example:

Questioner: “Were you at the scene of the crime last night.”

Liar: “No, I was not at the scene of the crime last night!”

  • A guilty person will most likely become highly distressed with prolonged pauses in the conversation and may speak more than normal, adding unnecessary details in order to avoid silence. They may also attempt to be humorous or sarcastic in an effort to try to avoid uncomfortable subjects.

Accuracy in assessing body language usually falls within the 50% range, however even good liars usually cannot consciously control all of the different aspects of body language that indicate deception. Often when we “instinctively” know that a person is lying to us, it is actually our subconscious mind ascertaining and assimilating subtle cues in a person’s body language that indicate a lie has taken place. Although we would all love to know when somebody is telling the truth or lying, the fact is that there are no infallible methods. Using the principles of kinetics in evaluating people can be helpful and insightful but use it in conjunction with common sense when drawing conclusions.

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Melissa Murphy
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