Eyes May Not Give Away Lies

Amanda Alvarez

Posted July 13, 2012

If you think you can tell if someone is lying from their eyes, think again. New research claims to refute the idea that particular eye movements are associated with deception.

This result may frustrate amateur lie detectors, but it also throws into question a lucrative training industry based on reading eye movements.

Neuro-linguistic programming is a broad family of techniques for psychotherapy and communication development. Widely considered discredited by the scientific community, NLP nonetheless enjoys great popularity on the Internet and is offered in life coaching and management training courses.

One of the tenets of NLP is that eye movements reflect what the brain is doing. Looking up and to the right, for example, indicates a constructed thought, a lie, whereas looking up and left means you are accessing a memory, in other words telling the truth.

"If you go online and search for NLP, people pay a lot of money to go on training courses to (learn to) detect lies," said Caroline Watt, a psychologist at the University of Edinburgh and one of the authors of the study. "(Our) evidence suggests that people are wasting their money."

Watt and a team of psychologists performed three experiments to test whether eye movement direction was associated with telling lies and failed to find evidence to support the NLP hypothesis. Their results were published Wednesday in the open access journal PLoS ONE.

In the first experiment, the researchers filmed their subjects either lying or telling the truth, and had independent raters count the eye movements. According to NLP, from the observer's view across from the subject, looking up and left is lying, and up and right is telling the truth . Not only did they not find a directional difference between the lie and truth conditions, there also was no difference in the amount of time it took for the subjects to lie or tell the truth.

Watt and colleagues took the experiment further by telling half the subjects about the NLP technique and what eye movements to look for. When this trained group rated the videos from the first experiment, they were no better at detecting lies than a naive group, and they weren't any more confident in their ratings, despite being trained in the NLP technique.

Since the first two experiments were done in a lab, the psychologists wanted to test a real-world situation, where lying is more public and more high stakes. For this, they used 52 videos of international news conferences, half of which were known to contain lies. The independent raters again counted the left and right eye movements and found no difference between the truth and lie videos.

"People would like to believe they have a way to detect when someone is trying to deceive them," Watt said. The NLP claim is that eye movements are "a big behavioral signal that anyone can learn to detect. Our study . . . has basically dispelled the myth that there is a relationship between particular eye movements and lying."

Louisiana Tech University psychologist Jeffrey Walczyk, who was not involved in this study, praised the study.

"This is a great mythbusting article. (It) serves the public good (to know) what is and what is not lying, and what the correlates of lying (are)."

Watt says there are still behaviors that can indicate lying.

"The way that people speak and answer, hesitating and taking a long time, holding themselves physically still because they are concentrating, all of these are giveaways."

Adds Walczyk, "There is a relationship between eye movements and deception, but not as specified by NLP. (There is this) idea that people are shifty-eyed when lying, but mostly (liars) keep (their) eyes fixed and focus on something boring. (This is) one of the most reliable (signs)."

©2012 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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