Can you really detect a liar using body language?

Can you really detect a liar using body language?

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Deception and Nonverbal Communication

The study of communications has led many academics and researchers to attempt to recognize deception through nonverbal communication. Proponents of this research believe that lying and deception can be detected through the study of kinesis, and oculesics. This form of research uses the code approach to identifying cues, gesticulations, eye movements and facial expressions to determine deceit.

Studies vary in accuracy as to whether or not deception can accurately be detected. A review of scholarly articles explaining how to detect deception through nonverbal communication showed an approximate 50% chance of error. The 50% correct identification of deception only worked when 3 separate methods of nonverbal cues were implemented including: kinesis (hand and facial movements), oculesics (averting eye contact) and paralanguage (talking too much stuttering) (Vrij, A., Edward, K., Roberts, K., & Bull, R.2000).

As well as using multiple methods of cue identification, these methods worked best when employed by individuals who had studied communication. In contrast, these methods when used by law enforcement were found to create exaggerated and unrealistic beliefs about cues for deception. The study showed that law enforcement officers concentrated too hard on nonverbal cues and they mistook normal nervous reactions for deceptive behavior. The results from these tests show that deception can neither be detected effectively nor consistently via nonverbal communication.

The article “Detecting Deceit via Analysis of Verbal and Nonverbal Behavior” shows that the use of nonverbal behavior cues to detect deception was unreliable and inconsistent (Vrij et al pp4–5). After testing 73 nurses using NVB (Nonverbal Behavior) technique, the percentage of correct answers generally varied between forty-five and sixty percent (Vrij et al., pp 4).

In the testing process NVB or Nonverbal Behavior Technique was used to process the cues from the nurse subjects. This same technique is used by law enforcement when trying to determine the honesty of potential suspects or witnesses. The overall conclusion that can be drawn when viewing this data is that there is really no better chance of detecting deceit from a subject through nonverbal means than by simply tossing a coin, approximately 50/50 was the statistic found to be true.

For a science that seems to have a very poor rate of success forensic scientists, law enforcement and national security agencies keep using these techniques. Understandably, there is a need to decipher lies from truth when searching for guilty parties, but the use of nonverbal techniques could produce wrongful convictions and a waste of valuable investigation time. Yet law enforcement keeps using these techniques in spite of obvious failure.

In a 2002 study, 30 individuals were interviewed by police investigators. The individuals were a good cross-section of the population ages ranging between 18 and 55 composed of people from all different socioeconomic brackets. The results from the study showed that there was no discernable method for detecting which group was lying.

“In this study we set out to examine nonverbal differences between truth tellers and liars in a quite realistic setting, involving long interrogations, motivated suspects with time to prepare, and experienced police officers with time to prepare interrogating as if it was a real crime investigation. The results showed no differences at all between the truth tellers and liars_/ despite the fact that the liars were significantly more nervous and found the task more strenuous than the truth tellers.” (Strömwall, L., Hartwig, M., & Granhag, P. 2006, April)

These studies show that law enforcement and many researchers operate on the assumption that deceptive people act nervously and this nervousness translates into nonverbal cues. This assumption has really been forwarded by the observation of studies. For instance, observations of mock interrogations show that the deceptive parties typically show more eye movements and less body language (Strömwall et al., 2006). The problem with these observations is that their consistency and infallibility has been greatly exaggerated. In fact under highly motivated or what is referred to as ‘high stakes’ communication; nonverbal communication has been observed as being almost as fallible as ‘low stakes’ communication.

“Thus, visual cues, at least when they are viewed apart from other kinds of cues, are faking cues, in that they tend to mislead rather than inform onlookers about the senders’ true opinions or feelings” (Strömwall et al., 2006).

Essentially, liars who are highly motivated, such as murderers, tend to be aware of their movements and can control their nonverbal cues to such an extent that they can knowingly misdirect observers and interrogators. This controlled behavior supersedes the notion that nonverbal communication is completely subconscious or involuntary. These findings as well may show that nonverbal communication is more like language in the sense that it is used with conscious control. If this is the case, then using strictly nonverbal communication as a means for determining deceit would be unreliable at best (Strömwall et al., 2006).

Although there seems to be a low rate of success in determining deception via nonverbal communication; there is however, a greater degree of accuracy when this method is combined with other communication techniques (Lakhani & Taylor, 2003).

Can you really detect a liar using body language?2

(Lakhani & Taylor, 2003)

As opposed to a 40% to 60% rate of success using only nonverbal communication observations, when combined with speech cues and speech encoding, the rate of success increased to 70% (Vrij et al., 2000).

But when nonverbal communication observations were removed from the test and researchers only employed the use of speech cues for determining deception, the subjects still performed at 70% efficiency. This study suggests that nonverbal communication specifically kinesis and oculesics were ineffective at determining deception.

70% is hardly infallible and was only obtained by trained personnel. Lay persons to the study of communications scored no better than professional law enforcement, except in the case of Secret Service Agents. Secret Service Agents scored in the 70% range. Lay persons and different professional law enforcement scored in the 40% to 60% range.

The FBI has incorporated the use of nonverbal observation in its interrogation process, but this technique is used in conjunction with verbal communication. Although this is not a fool proof method of determining deception; law enforcement views this method of lie detection as just one of many tools that they use to determine the veracity of a witness or a suspect.

The problem with using tools of this nature is that vast resources can be wasted while investigating the wrong person. A terrible example of this type of mistake can be seen in the case of the Jon Benet Ramsey case. The six year old was murdered in her parent’s house during the night. The police felt that the parents were guilty and lying because of the way that they acted. The Ramsey’s behavior ignited suspicion in police. Although there was no forensic evidence to suggest that the parents had any involvement, the mistaken interpretation of the Ramsey’s nonverbal and verbal behavior had police and media convinced that the Ramsey’s were to blame. Years of blame and wasted resource would later reveal that another person’s DNA was found at the crime scene(Emery, 2008).

There is more myth than fact to support nonverbal communication as an effective means of communication. As mentioned earlier, there is an underlying supposition that nonverbal communication is involuntary and that stress from lying causes twitches, eye aversion and other behaviors. Although this behavior may happen involuntarily, studies show that under what researchers deem to be high stakes situations, subjects seem to take control of this behavior. A strong correlation to this idea of controlling involuntary communication is seen clearly in the study of men and women and nonverbal communication when pertaining to sexual attraction (Zuckerman, M., DeFrank, R., Spiegel, N., & Larrance, D. 1982).

In “Masculinity-femininity and encoding of nonverbal cues,” researchers studied the involuntary facial expressions between men and women and found that the lack of connection between facial leakage and posing may be caused by a greater than known control of facial expressions (Zuckerman et al., 1982) Essentially, the researchers found that individuals had far more control of their facial expressions than previously thought. This finding is in direct correlation with the idea that nonverbal communication is a controllable behavior especially in situations where subjects are highly motivated to control this behavior.

To further expand this correlation, in a study of nonverbal cues and speech cues in daily conversation and dating, researchers found people who are mentally busy forming verbal messages are likely to distracted to pay attention to other people’s speech and thus prone to lying because they make assumptions based on nonverbal cues (Fichten, C., Tagalakis, V., Judd, D., Wright, J., & Amsel, R., 1992). The researchers admit that the nonverbal communication is based on personal belief and misconceptions held concerning view about cues (Fichten et al, 1992) This finding coincides with the idea that nonverbal behavior is a controlled behavior and that its reliability is based on exaggerated beliefs.


There is an abundance of evidence to support the thesis that nonverbal communication is ineffective when trying to detect deception. In “Moderators of nonverbal indicators of deception: A meta-analytic synthesis.” (Sporer, S., & Schwandt, B. pp13, 2007) Researchers found that when observing legal proceedings that law enforcement and specialists made many of the same mistakes that lay persons make when trying to detect deception such as assuming people are lying based on things like avoiding eye contact which has no scientific merit (Sporer, S., & Schwandt, 2007).

As well, professionals such as police and polygraphers are no more skilled at detecting deception than the average person (Aamodt & Custer, 2006; Bond & DePaulo, 2006; Ekman & O’Sullivan, 1991). The review of scholarly research is concise and accurate. As well, the research is consistent with different researchers and across all demographics. Across most research a consistent conclusion of 40% to 60% chance of being able to detect deception exists which is no better than flipping a coin.

It is possible however, that there exists individual differences in nonverbal communication which causes an inconsistency with interpretation. For example, a person who walks quickly might also walk fast (Gallaher, P. E. (1992). This suggests a deeper relationship between nonverbal communication and other kinesthetic behaviors. Further studies could unveil a connection and better method of reading nonverbal cues. (Gallaher, P. 1992, July) Until such findings have been discovered nonverbal communication is still based on faulty assumption. It is unknown where these assumptions of deception originate, but these assumptions seem to infiltrate individual perceptions in a basic belief pattern. Such common colloquialisms would include “look me in the eye when you speak,” and show an underlying belief one cannot hide their deception in their eyes.

As long as individuals and law enforcement believe that liars avert other people’s gaze or that fidgeting and twitching are signs of deception; studies of nonverbal communication will persist.


Vrij, A., Edward, K., Roberts, K., & Bull, R. (2000, Winter2000). Detecting Deceit via Analysis of Verbal and Nonverbal Behavior. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 24(4), 239–263. Retrieved March 23, 2009, from Communication & Mass Media Complete database.

Strömwall, L., Hartwig, M., & Granhag, P. (2006, April). To act truthfully: Nonverbal behaviour and strategies during a police interrogation. Psychology, Crime & Law, 12(2), 207–219. Retrieved April 6, 2009, doi:10.1080/10683160512331331328

Lakhani, M., & Taylor, R. (2003, December). BELIEFS ABOUT THE CUES TO DECEPTION IN HIGH- AND LOW-STAKE SITUATIONS. Psychology, Crime & Law, 9(4), 357. Retrieved March 23, 2009, from SocINDEX with Full Text database.

Emery, Erin (07/14/2008) Long before others, Lou Smit concluded that an intruder killed JonBenet. The Denver Post

Zuckerman, M., DeFrank, R., Spiegel, N., & Larrance, D. (1982, March). Masculinity-femininity and encoding of nonverbal cues. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42(3), 548–556. Retrieved April 10, 2009, doi:10.1037/0022–3514.42.3.548

Sporer, S., & Schwandt, B. (2007, February). Moderators of nonverbal indicators of deception: A meta-analytic synthesis. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 13(1), 1–34. Retrieved April 10, 2009, doi:10.1037/1076–8971.13.1.1

Bond, C., & DePaulo, B. (2008, July). Individual differences in judging deception: Reply to O’Sullivan (2008) and Pigott and Wu (2008). Psychological Bulletin, 134(4), 501–503. Retrieved April 10, 2009, doi:10.1037/0033–2909.134.4.501

Fichten, C., Tagalakis, V., Judd, D., Wright, J., & Amsel, R. (1992, December). Verbal and nonverbal communication cues in daily conversations and dating. Journal of Social Psychology, 132(6), 751. Retrieved April 11, 2009, from MasterFILE Premier database.

Gallaher, P. (1992, July). Individual Differences in Nonverbal Behavior: Dimensions of Style. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 63(1), 133–145. Retrieved April 11, 2009, from Business Source Complete database.

Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash


Vincent Triola. Tue, Feb 02, 2021. Can you really detect a liar using body language? Retrieved from

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