5 body language cues to know if someone is lying, according to psychology

Nobody likes a liar or lying, but the truth is we’re all guilty of it. 

Lying is a learned part of human behavior, say mental health experts. 

Jim Wick, a psychologist with Sanford Behavioral Health, says that we all lie. It could be to avoid trouble, to make us feel better, or to influence how we look to other people. 

Here’s some more science to back it up: a 2002 study conducted by  University of Massachusetts Amherst psychologist Robert S. Feldman found that 60% of people lied during a 10-minute conversation—and that they told an average of two to three lies in that time!

That’s a lot of lying going on. 

So how can you tell if someone is lying?

There are a bunch of body language cues that can clue us in on whether or not someone is lying. 

Here are five such indicators. 

1) Their eyes might be saying something very different to their mouth…

The face is typically the most expressive part of the body, yet it’s changed can also be the most subtle, 

says the mental health team at BetterHelp

“Watching for micro-expressions can be very important. These may include flaring the nostrils, biting the lip, or blinking more than usual.”

The eyes might also shift around, says the staff. 

“According to one theory,  this can be because the eyes move subtly toward the side of the brain that is being utilized. When someone is lying, they normally need to manage both the truth and the things they are making up. This could cause the person’s eyes to dart around the room. They may also be hesitant to make eye contact or look at you for too long.” 

A study of people across 58 countries found that gaze aversion was the behavior that most people associated with deception. 

But science shows that liars don’t avoid eye contact any more frequently than those telling the truth, the experts say. Experts say the key thing to look for in eye movement is deviation from their baseline.

“We are always looking from deviation from baseline analysis, whatever the interviewee exhibits with respect to eye contact, focus and even dilation or constriction of pupils are assessed,” says Roger Strecker, Sr., a trained behavioral analysis interviewer-interrogator with over 30 years of law enforcement experience. 

“If eye contact was constant at onset of conversation then changed when a stressor or trigger question was inserted, this should be noted as an attribute that could be a deceptive response.”

Strecker also says that how or so someone blinks—and how that changes from their baseline when they say something that sounds suspicious—is especially important to observe. 

2) They can’t fight the fidgeting 

As a child, whenever I told a white lie, I couldn’t help fidgeting a little, or even a lot. My hand would  fly up to my ear or my hair and I wouldn’t be able to stay still. 

What’s happening is that an anxiety response has kicked in, causing blood to be withdrawn from the extremities, says Rachel Drummond, MEd. from Forensic Colleges

“They may unconsciously try to calm that anxiety response or at least get the blood flowing back to their extremities which could point to nervousness about telling the lie.”

3) Take a good look at their lips

People often have a psychological response to the stress of lying.

The face is the most expressive part of the body, says the mental health team at Better Help. “Its changes can also be the most subtle. However, watching for these micro-expressions can be very important. These may include…biting the lip.”

If someone folds in their lips before speaking is definitely a red flag, adds Traci Brown, who is a global body language and persuasion expert. 

“When people’s lips disappear, they are holding back information,” she says. “The next thing that comes out of their mouth is either a half-truth or a lie.”

People who are lying tend to also get a dry mouth and will swallow often or lick their lips, says at Psychology Today. 

“If the person is compressing their lips or has a noticeably negative reaction to the question, your radar should be on.”

Behavioral expert and body language expert Vanessa Van Edwards says that lip pursuing can also be a “lie detector”. 

“People sometimes press their lips together when they are trying to withhold information,” she says. “This is a red flag that should make you pause and dig deeper by asking ‘All good?’ or ‘Anything else I should know?’”

4) Something about their skin might show that something is amiss   

ways to instantly tell if someone is lying to you 1 5 body language cues to know if someone is lying, according to psychology

People might not always give away that they’re lying, but they might give away when they’re nervous, says the staff at Better Help. 

Sweating is one of those things that might give someone away when it comes to not telling the truth

Autonomic nervous system changes can trigger liars to swear in the T-area of the face like the upper lip, forehead, chin, and around the mouth, says Dr. Lillian Glass, who is the author of The Body Language of Liars

But they might go the other way and be prone to dryness in the mouth or eyes: “the person might excessively blink or squint, lick or bite their lips or swallow hard,” says Glass. 

This is all the result of what psychologists call a “stress response”. 

“During the stress response, breathing often becomes faster and shallower, and a person’s heart rate can skyrocket,” explains the team at Better Help. 

“While these things may not [always] be visible on the surface, small signs, like a tug on a shirt collar, can give them away. If these changes aren’t noticeable enough, you look at a person’s skin. Another part of the stress response can involve redirecting blood away from internal organs towards the muscles, which can lead to the skin turning pinker or redder than it was before.”

5) They make themselves look unnaturally large

If someone seems to be standing or sitting in a way that makes them look unnaturally large, they could be trying to look a whole lot more confident than they actually are, says the team at Better Help. 

They could also be trying to use their body to intimidate you into “buying” their story. For example, if you’re both sitting down and then they stand up and tower over you.

They may also try to take up more space by their animated gestures.

People who are lying also tend to wave both hands around far more than those who are being honest, according to a study by researchers at the University of Michigan

The researchers studied 118 video clips to establish the language and gestures used by people being dishonest, including testimonies from the Innocence Project, a non-profit that handles legal cases of innocent people falsely imprisoned. 

Around half the clips came from trial footage, while the other half focused on YouTube videos asking interviewees their opinions on films. 

Researchers established who was lying by the trial verdict (with the exception of the Innocence Project Clips), and when interviewees were asked their opinions on films that didn’t exist. 

“Those who were lying were found more likely to have animated hand movements, make strong eye contact, nod their heads, and scowl.”

Do a little psychoanalysis of your own and a little deeper if you detect deception 

The next time you are trying to figure out the authenticity of someone’s story, stop looking at the clichéd signs and learn how to spot the more subtle behaviors that might be linked to deception, advises Kendra Cherry, MSEd, from VeryWellMind

“Take a more active approach by adding pressure, and make telling the lie more mentally taxing by asking the speaker to relate the story in reverse order.”

That will throw them for a loop. 

At the end of the day, you also have to trust your instincts. 

“You might have a great intuitive sense of honesty versus dishonesty,” says Cherry. “Learn to heed those feelings.”

Picture of Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur is a Toronto-based journalist whose work has been published by The Globe & Mail, ELLE USA, ELLE Canada, British Vogue, Town & Country, and others.

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