One of the Most Famous Techniques for Spotting Lies Is Also a Big, Fat Lie
Here’s a tip for telling if someone’s lying (spoiler: the tip is total B.S., actually). Watch which way their eyes move. If they look to the left, that unconscious response means they’re being evasive. Someone who knows about this tip might choose to control their eyes and avoid being found out this way, but anyone who doesn’t stands a good chance at betraying themselves through their eyes.
That’s the tip, according to popular knowledge. You’ll see it shared online a lot, and you’ll even find training courses marketed toward professional interrogators offering this info as a sample of what they can teach you. Then a group of scientists at British and Canadian universities said, “What is this nonsense? There’s no logic to that at all.” And they decided to put it to the test.
They performed a study, analyzing footage of statements whose veracity they could evaluate. These statements came from press conferences of people asking for help finding missing loves ones, and some of these people (we now know, thanks to later events) were actually the culprits in these disappearances. No trend linked eye movements to lies. The scientists next performed an experiment, asking volunteers to lie or tell the truth. Again, eye movements revealed nothing.
Now, you might notice that this research (like most psychological research) was small in scale and proved nothing definitively. The scientists merely aimed to find no connection between two variables, and that’s not hard. We have to weigh these results against all the evidence proving that eye movements really do indicate lies. This is the more interesting part of the debunking, though. It turns out no such evidence exists.
The belief comes from a trend dating to the 1970s, neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), a term sometimes used interchangeably with hypnosis. NLP could induce false memories, supposedly. And practitioners said you could distinguish actual memories from induced ones by watching eye movements. People heard this idea — that people look to the left when relating induced memories — and took it to mean that people do the same thing when they lie.
That makes no sense. Let’s say NLP is legit. Induced memories, while false, still aren’t lies. The speaker believes they’re real. NLP claims these memories are stored in a different part of the brain from real memories, and that logic doesn’t translate at all into revealing whether or not the speaker believes what they’re saying.
The best way for telling if someone’s lying, say experts, has remained unchanged for thousands of years: Just see if their story changes after you get them really drunk.
For more on the science of lies, check out: