You can’t hide your lyin’ eyes

I’ve been a big fan of the Eagles since I was a wee lad and Lyin’ Eyes is actually one of my favourite songs of theirs, so it seemed a good title for a piece on the science behind telling untruths. Ironically the song was written in my year of birth- 1975 but you can trust me, honest.

Back in the early days of the world wide web I was a student studying for a multi-disciplinary degree that included stuff like social anthropology and psychology. When we dealt with the psychology of lying, there weren’t 45,000,000 search results in Google for “how to tell if someone is lying“. In fact, there was no Google.

It is handy to know a few tells that are common in lying, although obviously none of them are foolproof- either against the fool lying or the fool trying to spot them. It does work well with kids though, which can give you almost super-human powers in their eyes.

There is a good article on Forbes about it, which also includes some useful illustrative slides. The slides deal with the most common tells- fidgeting, pupil dilation, sweaty palms, lots of protestations that the person is “honest” and so on. One of the key indicators of untruth is held to be failure to maintain eye contact whilst lying and this one is particularly useful when asking kids to tell you the truth. I was always amazed at my Dad’s CIA levels of truth detection. He was Robert De Niro in Meet the Parents 20 years before they made Meet the Parents. He also didn’t need lie detectors or sodium pentothal. I’ll never forget the sheer terror when he once told me, “I know what you’ve done; own up”. I was caught between a rock and hard place, knowing that I’d done plenty that was naughty as most ten year olds have but not knowing how serious a crime to admit to in case it was more serious than he’d spotted.

Of course with 45,000,000 search results for “how to tell if someone is lying“, you’ve effectively got 45,000,000 search results for how to avoid being caught telling a porkie. Sure, there are somethings like pupil dilation or a rise in voice pitch that are very difficult to hide but they could also be attributed to nervousness too.

Eye direction was commonly regarded to be an indicator of truth- it was said when people were recalling a genuine memory they tended to look to the left, and they looked to the right if it was a made up “memory” they were trying to “recall”. This has been disputed in recent research though and it’s only really useful if the individual is making up the lie on the spot. If it’s pre-thought out and committed to memory, the recall method is the same as a proper memory.

Fortunately having the intelligence to find out these indicators and actually using them in an effective manner are two entirely different things. Recently I’ve been told some enormous whoppers by someone. I know they’re falsehoods, they know they’re falsehoods and the several people who witnessed the events know they’re fibbing. But I don’t need to know the truth, because the only time this person has looked me directly in the eye is when they’re lying to me. It’s exactly like they’ve read, “people who lie fail to maintain eye contact when they lie”, so think that hitting me with a 1,000 yard stare when and only when they’re lying will make it less obvious. it’s so transparent, it’s almost funny.

Unfortunately knowing someone is lying and being able to do anything about it are also two entirely different things. But it is nice to know where you stand isn’t it? Whether both your children are adamant it was the other one who spilt the Ribena on the carpet, or someone making stuff up for no apparent reason, knowing the truth is half the battle.