Shifty eyes have nothing to do with whether or not a person is lying

Illustration for article titled Shifty eyes have nothing to do with whether or not a person is lying

There's a good chance you've heard or read somewhere that a liar's eyes tend to look up and to the right. Turns out that's a lie. In three separate experiments, a team of international researchers has shown that the commonly held myth associating the direction of someone's gaze with whether or not they're telling the truth is totally bunk.

"Whenever I talk about lying publicly, this thing about eye movements always comes up," says psychologist Richard Wiseman, lead author of the study, in an interview with Surprising Science's Joseph Stromberg. "It doesn't at all match with the psychological literature, so I thought it'd be good to put it to the test."

Stromberg gives a tidy summary of the first two experiments:

In the first phase of the experiment, half of the participants were instructed to lie, saying that they had put a cell phone into a desk drawer when they had actually pocketed it in their bag. The other half were asked to put the phone in the drawer and then tell the truth. The interview was videotaped and the participants' eye directions analyzed-and both groups showed virtually the exact same amount of looking left and right.

The second half of the experiment examined real-life lying. "We looked at tapes of high-level non-sanctioned lies-people at press conferences who were appealing for a missing relative," says Wiseman. For half of the press conferences, the relatives speaking were later convicted for the crime, based on DNA, security camera footage or other evidence, indicating they were lying. Again, when compared to those telling the truth, they looked to the right or left no more frequently.


In the third experiment, Wiseman and his colleagues recruited 50 new test participants. Half of the new participants were told about the shifty-eyes hypothesis, while the other half was not. Each new test participant was then asked to watch the video footage taken of the interviewees from the first phase of the experiment. Following each clip, participants were asked to indicate whether they believed the interviewee was lying or telling the truth, and rate how confident they were about their decision.

"The results," write the researchers, "revealed no difference between the accuracy levels, and confidence ratings, of the two groups and so again provided no support for the claims relating to [eye movement] and lie detection."

So that's that with that — turns out you can hide your lying eyes. The only thing to do now is make sure everyone else knows this myth is busted, lest you be labeled a liar for your right-gazing tendencies.

[PLoS ONE via Surprising Science]

Top image via Shutterstock

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The problem I have with this is that they were instructed to give a specific false answer, not make one up on the fly. Remembering a specific answer, even if known to be a lie, will make the person access memory (eyes go left). Having them lie on the fly with their own made-up answer would make them access their creative center (eyes go right).

The same goes for the so-called "non-sanctioned" lies part of the experiment. The arranged press conferences would have been rehearsed ahead of time, therefore accessing memory of the scripted answers, not making up a lie on the spot.

If they were to change their methodology and run the experiment again, and can come up with the same results with "unscripted" lies (i.e. force respondents to make up answers), then it would carry more weight with me.