Lying and Avoiding Eye Contact

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Does avoiding eye contact and lying have anything to do with each other?

In the general opinion, the answer is a resounding “yes”: avoiding eye contact is one of the first non verbal cues people will interpret as being dishonest.

But is there really a truth in the saying “look me in the eyes and tell me the truth”?

Well, detecting lies in nonverbal communication is not a magic formula… especially when it comes to the eyes. We can identify some signs of stress and anxiety, but it would be unwise to call somebody a liar based only on the fact that he won’t meet our gaze.

Furthermore, good liars also aware of that notion that “eyes cannot lie”, that avoiding eye contact is a sign of deception and lying. So instead of shifting their eyes, they train themselves to look you square in the eyes and lie through their teeth…

So what can we do? Are there any other signs to rely on?

I thought you wouldn’t ask…

The Problem with ‘Lying Eyes’

First, let’s acknowledge the fact that there isn’t any single gesture or expression that yells “I’m lying right now”. It’s not like we’re programmed with a self exposing sign. We do, however, feel uncomfortable lying and little ‘glitches’ in our body language appear.

These glitches are nonverbal cues that suggest stress and deception. In these posts I will focus mainly on the signs that can be revealed through the eyes, but there are many signals in other parts of the body.

If you spot 2 or more of these signals you can start to suspect that something is wrong…

Trust your gut feeling and look for inconsistency between what you see and what you hear. Like a good bloodhound you will find the right tracks.

When it comes to avoiding eye contact – look for deviation from the normal behavior. If, for example, a shy person who usually avoids your eyes will speak to you suddenly with an intense glare – it’s a major change in his usual behavior that can suggest some sort of deception or stress.

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Darting Eyes

Darting eyes can be a stronger signal of stress than simply avoiding eye contact. The eyes will rush around in different angles as if to look anywhere but in your eyes.

This behavior usually appears when the emotional state of a person is escalating with tension. The eyes ‘dart’ back and away to quickly find some solution or escape route from the current encounter.

Take note, however, that there are some people with medical condition that makes their eyes ‘jump’ to the side sometimes, other people have “shifty eyes” when they think: it helps them to look away for one moment and organize their thoughts. These behaviors are very different from the stressful eye shift – in their intensity and intention. Hence, keep your eyes open and don’t jump to conclusions.

Avoiding eye contact in darting glances may also derive from other sort of uneasiness, or a general disliking towards the other party. If, for example, you notice the eyes of your listener dart around the room, while he\she hardly makes any conversation, besides “ok” and “ah-ha” once in a while – it’s a good chance that this person is not welcoming your company and searching for some escape route out of it.

The Gaze Down

It’s a classic gesture of defeat and shame. Often, it can also hint at deception, especially in children: head down, hands behind the back and “I didn’t do it” or some mumble commentary will follow.

Kids are bad liars because they don’t know how to mask their emotions in their body language. That’s why they bow their head and avoid eye contact – they understand they did something wrong and in the same time feel uncomfortable about the lie.

Adults can be caught doing that too, but in a much subtler way – pretending to search something in their bag, for example.

This type of deception is connected with guilt – the speaker is not really proud of his actions. When accused of something, it’s the nonverbal way of admitting defeat, it’s just too hard to look in the eyes and say it.

A gesture that typically accompanies the gaze down is rubbing the neck – it helps dissolve the tension (even if it’s a psychological one) gathered in the neck area.

Why do people Avoid Eye Contact?

As you can see, detecting lies through the eyes is not so simple, because avoiding eye contact can also indicate nervousness, indecisiveness or just allow us a moment of thought. Sometimes it’s even desirable to avert the gaze.

While these signs don’t always point to being deceptive or lying, most people think they do. It means that avoiding eye contact will be generally treated with distrust and suspicion.

So Keep that in mind when interacting with other – look them in the eyes. It’s better to be smart than just in this case. Besides, maintaining eye contact has many other benefits.

Is there such a thing as lying eyes?

I’ve started to answer this question in the previous post about avoiding eye contact. In this post I want to continue explore other “deceptive” signals of the eyes, let’s see if the eyes really have it.

Blinking

The purpose of blinking in the human body functionality is to lubricate the surface of the eyes and clean them from dust and other irritants. This means that you need to blink often when:

A. You’re in a middle of a sand storm.

B. Your eyes are fatigued and dry – like after couple of hours of sitting in front of the TV.

But blinking also has a lot to do with your mental processing.

Think about your blinks as heart pulses for a moment. When you feel completely relaxed, like when meditating, the heart rate is slow and peaceful. When you’re in a middle of a taxing physical activity, like during a sprint – your heart races.

It goes the same with blinking; only in this case the brain is the regulator. An unpleasant stressful mental activity can lead to higher blink rate.

When you’re bored or very relaxed your blink rate can be less than 8 times per minute. In a normal rate it’s between 10-20 blinks per minute. When nervous, your mind works in turbo mode – it can go up even to the hundred.

So what this has to do with lying eyes?

Simple, a lie usually requires more resources than the usual thinking process because you need to:

A. Make up the story

B. Make sure the details arrange logically and

C. Control your body language so the lie won’t slip away.

All these calculations will result in higher blinking rate than the normal.

Needless to say, people don’t like to see nervous blinking and mistrust it. There is apparently even some connection between the amounts of eye blinks to the success in political elections.

NLP and Eyes

There’s a theory in NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) practice that the direction of your gaze during a thought process can indicate to what part of your brain you’re getting access at that moment.

For example, if I would’ve asked what did you eat last night and you would look up and left, it’s a signal that you accessed the visual memory of your brain trying to remember what you ate.

In detective films, the detective can suddenly jump to the conclusion that the suspect is lying because his eyes darted to the “wrong” side and he’s actually making things up rather than trying to remember actual details.

In reality, as you may have guessed, it has no solid base.

First, this theory is not reliable one – there have been several researches that found no connection between lying and darting movement of the eyes. 

It’s not helpful as a lie detector and we’re still not completely sure about the purpose of these eyes movements.Secondly, let’s suppose this theory has some truth in it – you still need to be extremely observant to spot and remember to where others were looking.

Also, not every person has the same rate of these eye movements: some can make 3 in a second others have them 1 in 5 sec. Bottom line – it’s not practical even if it was true.

The only occasion this behavior might hint at deception is when it’s used to delay a straight answer. Sometimes a little hesitation or “trying to remember” gesture is inappropriate because a genuine answer doesn’t require a “long” process of thought. For example, a simple question like: “is this is your suitcase?” is really no brainer – the answer is either “yes” or “‘no”.

The Truth About Lying Eyes

OK then, let’s wrap it up…

We’ve have covered some popular “lying eyes” signals and the meaning of avoiding eye contact. All these signs can point to deceit, because they usually associated with nervousness and unpleasant emotions, but they don’t prove it. If you have suspicion it’s better to look for more clues to support your gut feeling rather than accuse someone based on his blinking rate.

Remember that good liars are aware of these suspected eye behaviors and can lie while giving you an “honest” direct look. Because our face, especially around the eyes, is the most scrutinized part of our body – it’s also the part liars tend to keep under control.

We also talked about deviation from the norm. If it’s someone close to you, you know how they usually behave and keep eye contact; a change in this behavior can indicate something is amiss.

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