It’s taken four decades, but somebody has finally gotten around to investigating the idea that you can tell whether a person is lying or not from his or her eye movements.
And the new study thoroughly debunks it.
Not that there weren’t skeptics all along. In fact, the entire 1970s personal development movement — Neuro-Linguistic Programming — that launched the notion of a link between eye movements and lying has itself been called (among other things) “nonsense” and a “pseudoscience.”
But now a team of British and Canadian psychologists, publishing earlier this month in the journal PLoS One, have clearly demonstrated that there is no connection between the direction of our gaze and whether or not we’re telling the truth.
People are not lying when their eyes dart up to the right. Nor are they necessarily telling the truth when their eyes dart up to the left.
The researchers conducted three experiments to come to this conclusion. The first involved 32 right-handed people, aged 18 to 56. (NLP literatures claims the eye movement/lying relationship is strongest in right-handed people). These volunteer participants were told to hide a cell phone, and half were also told to lie about it when asked during a subsequent videotaped interview. All of the participants’ eye movements were later coded by independent reviewers (with the audio turned off so the reviewers wouldn’t know who was telling the truth or not). The experiment found no difference in the patterns of eye movements between the participants who lied about hiding the cell phone and those who told the truth.
In the second experiment, the researchers decided to see if 50 people (aged 18 to 73) who were trained to look for eye patterns would succeed where the neutral reviewers had failed. They told the participants which eye movements were associated with lying and which with truth-telling and then asked them to watch the previously taped interviews and determine whether the person was lying or not. Their accuracy levels were no better than those in the first study.
For the third experiment, the researchers decided to see if “high-stake” lying — telling a lie that had serious personal consequences — would cause individuals to be more likely to look up to their right. Two independent reviewers coded the eye movements of 52 people who had been videotaped making public pleas for the return of missing relatives. Half of the people turned out to be lying in the tapes (based on police evidence). Half were not. Again, the reviewers could not tell which individuals were the liars.
‘Irresponsible” to continue such claims
“In short, all three studies provided no evidence to support the notion that the patterns of eye-movements promoted by many NLP practitioners aid lie detection,” conclude the study’s authors. “This is in line with findings from a considerable amount of previous work showing that facial clues (including eye movements) are poor indicators of deception.”
“This work is the first to experimentally test the claims made by NLP practitioners about lie detection,” the authors added. “The results provide considerable grounds to be skeptical of the notion that the proposed patterns of eye-movements provide a reliable indicator of lying. As such, it would seem irresponsible for such practitioners to continue to encourage people to make important decisions on the basis of such claims.”
You’ve got to wonder at all the mischief this never-scientifically-tested-but-widely-held-anyway belief has caused over the past four decades.
PLoS One is an open access journal, so you can read the study in full online.