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Body Language of Liars: How the Face and Feet Can Reveal a Fibber



A few short weeks ago, I wrote an article that leads up to this second part on lying. To have a more complete understanding of the things we do verbally to mask our inevitable lies, I would refer you to that previous article. This week I’ll talk to you about the ways in which we can tell when people are being deceptive through their facial morphology and body language.

Here are some tips on telling when others are lying to you — and if you use the information to better your own lies, well, I won’t stop you.

Faces! We all have one, and we shouldn’t be embarrassed about it. We use our faces to convey emotion (obviously), and for the non-creationists among us, we understand that at one point, all we had was a face. Well, I mean that there was a point before language developed into what it is today — when we communicated by expression instead of language. Most all other animals do this today, conveying much the same emotions we do with their faces, especially in those higher primates we are closest to. These emotions are innate, cross cultural, evolved and occur without effort in response to fear, disgust, sadness, happiness, etc. It’s important to note that the only time we consciously make an effort to display emotional expression in our face is when we are being deceitful. And although we have an enormous amount of practice lying to others, faking smiles for family portraits and so on, we still can’t fake our emotions accurately.

There are 43 different muscles in our faces, and many of them involved in displaying emotions are controlled unconsciously and automatically. This gives rise to two important facts. First even the best liars will display what are called “micro-expressions” that last for about .04 seconds until we can consciously revert to a neutral or false emotional expression. To those looking for it, it is easy to spot. Secondly, when lying, we can’t fully control our facial muscles and show a “true” emotion. For example, true sadness is shown in the muscles in the chin, and it can’t be controlled consciously. Another example is smiling, which involves not only the muscles around the mouth, but muscles around the “crow’s feet” next to the eyes, which also can’t be controlled consciously. Interesting, eh?

More interesting than that is how this relates to those who fake for a living — not thieves or con-men (although they do, too), but actors. If I’m positing that people can’t fake things consciously, then how is it that actors can produce seemingly real emotions, such that audiences across the world relate to their situations, and cry, laugh and love with them? If you talk to any successful actor or read about successful acting or character building/developing, you hear one thing over and over again: the period of transformation from actor to character. The best actors can play any role, and in doing so, they really do mentally become the characters they portray. Maybe this emotional and mental roller coaster that these actors go on can partly explain why actors are so unstable — the late and great Heath Ledger is a great example of this — the best acting takes the most out of people.

It’s incredibly difficult — and in most day-to-day cases impossible — to convey false emotional expressions, and knowing this should help you further recognize people who may be dirty, stinking, filthy liars. Further, though, is that facial expressions are mostly always linked simultaneously (when truthful) to coherent body language. If someone answers a question affirmatively but is shaking their head, or vice versa, it usually means deceit. Another thing is that, when uncomfortable (read: lying), we tend to increase those nervous habits we already have. So if you notice an unusual amount of nose-scratching or ear-tugging, something might be up.

Two more important things to be aware of. The first is symmetry. Just as symmetry is found attractive, as it is correlated with healthy genes in humans, it also indicates “true” emotions. When something is lopsided (other than disgust) it can be seen as questionable.

Lastly, one of the most important indicators of deception is found in the … feet! Our feet, as our getaway vehicles, often can say much more than our faces or even bodies. Next time you approach two people in a conversation, you’ll be able to tell if you’re truly accepted by the position of their feet. Even if their bodies are open to you, if their feet are pointing away, you can be pretty confident they want to leave; whether they’re late or you smell, you’ll have to figure it out.

For more information about lying and body language, I recommend the book What Every Body Says by Joe Navarro.

And we all thought Daily Nexus columnist Kevin Ferguson was just staring at our feet because he’s shy … Apparently he was looking into our souls.

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3 Responses to Body Language of Liars: How the Face and Feet Can Reveal a Fibber

  1. Beth Norris Reply

    February 6, 2014 at 3:30 am

    Another video with a very good way to detect lies – the eyes:

  2. Kevin Ferguson Reply

    April 10, 2012 at 11:55 am

    hey good call evan. Lemme fix that for you

  3. Evan Reply

    April 9, 2012 at 10:33 am

    Where’s the “like” button?

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