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The Truth About Body Language & Deception

by Stan B. Walters, CSP
“The Lie Guy®”

I’m am very grateful to all the subscribers of “The Interview Room.” I get the best ideas for sections of the e-zine such as “Humor in the Room” and my monthly articles from questions asked by our subscribers as well as students in the classroom.   One of your fellow subscribers passed along an article to me last month about nonverbal behavior and deception.  After reading the article I was amazed at the amount of gross misrepresentations and errors about body language behaviors identified as reliable signs of deception.  I would estimate that roughly about 50% of what the article claimed as deception were in fact common stress cues. Early in my career as an investigator I had bought into these same principles.  It wasn’t until I began to search in earnest for supporting documentation did I learn about the enormous amount of erroneous content in many such courses.

First let’s make a distinction here between stress and deception behaviors.  Anyone can be under stress,  show numerous profound signs of stress and not be deceptive.  Would anyone be surprised if a rape victim would show stress during her interview? What about witnesses to a homicide or perhaps a survivor a horrible vehicle crash?  Would any of member of the military demonstrate stress signs when discussing the firefight they have just survived?  Just the presence of stress symptoms alone is NOT indicative with someone who is lying.  Did you interview for your current job?  Where you a little stressed out?  Was it because you were lying?  The most common mistake involving the analysis of body language is identifying common signs of stress as cues to deceit.

One of the gross errors I found in the article involved the level or degree of eye contact a person maintains during an interview as being a reliable marker of deception.  Eye contact in and of itself is one of if not the least reliable signs of deception.   Numerous empirical studies have supported this conclusion yet there are still many training programs on interview and interrogation that still profess that poor eye contact is a positive sign of deception.  A decrease in eye contact can occur when people are embarrassed about a topic,  can be a sign of disgust, and can even be culturally motivated.  Research has shown that in general, introverted or emotional subjects do tend to decrease eye contact when being deceptive.  Conversely, extroverted or  non-emotional personalities which is frequently found about psychopaths as well as very ego dominant personalities show a increase in eye contact when being deceptive – these subjects literally have more eye contact with their interviewer when they are lying and less eye contact while being honest.

Finally, does crossing of the arms or legs mean a person is closed to communication or being deceptive?  The answer is yes sometimes however arm or leg  crossing also happens when people are embarrassed, cold, self conscious, emotionally withdrawn, boredom, or even in depression.  The famous defense attorney Gerry Spence tells of an incident he had involving a juror who sat in the jury box for the whole trial with his arms crossed. Spence related that he had attended a training seminar on body language and deception that taught all arm and leg crossing showed deception or closed attitude.  Spence questioned the male juror after the trial about his thoughts about the trial and his opinion about Spence and his case. The juror was quite open and receptive.  When Spence asked why he sat with his arms crossed in the obvious closed rejection posture, the juror purportedly answered that he was a big man with a fat belly and that was a comfortable posture for him.

It’s about time we started questioning some of the contents of some of our interview and interrogation courses and the empirical accuracy of the claims they make.  You should always be suspicious of such programs which claim that any behavior is an absolute sign of deception because no such cues exist.  There are also times when a behavior cue that is often associated as sign of deception can be a normal behavior for a truthful person.  As a student in these programs I challenge you to start asking for empirical proof.  Don’t settle for “it always works.”  Ask what clinical research has been conducted and is their other supporting research conducted by other behavioral scientists that have confirmed the same findings.  We miss 50% the lies that happen right in front of us because of the propagation of “urban legends” in interview and interrogation training programs.

YouTube: Body Language Signs of Deception

YouTube: Body Language Signs of Deception – Eye Contact

YouTube: Body Language Signs of Deception – Myths

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