Lying Eyes

Despite what you may have heard, you can’t tell if a person’s lying by watching their eyes. If you’re surprised, you’re not alone – I thought that theory made a lot of sense until I read this new study.

As it turns out, the eye idea just doesn’t line up with the evidence. As far as scientists can tell, there’s no correlation at all between eye direction and lying.

Eye movement and dishonesty do have one connection: Some studies back in the 1970s found links between lying and lack of eye contact. Then again, other studies found that eye contact got stronger as people lied. Anyway, Richard Bandler and John Grinder, two practitioners of a pseudo-science called Neuro-Lingustic Programming (NLP) decided to run with the idea, and began claiming that a look to the left implies fantasy or dishonesty, while a look to the right indicates honest recollection. Google it, and you’ll find loads of pages claiming this is scientific fact.

Scientific research also finds that bugs are icky and vegetables are not good to eat.

But the “scientific” support for this idea is absurdly thin – NLP practitioners claim that a look to the left signals usage of the “left, logical brain” while a look to the right signals usage of the “right, feeling brain.” For one thing, this makes no sense in light of the brain’s actual anatomy – we know that each eye actually sends half its signals to the left hemisphere and the other half to the right – but it also implies that the NLP folks have a wealth of data on the subject… data that simply doesn’t exist.

And now, the journal PloS ONE reports, a team led by Richard Wiseman at the University of Hartfordhsire have put this NLP theory to the test. They recorded the eye movements of dozens of volunteers as they lied or told the truth:

In Study 1 the eye movements of participants who were lying or telling the truth were coded, but did not match the NLP patterning. In Study 2 one group of participants were told about the NLP eye-movement hypothesis whilst a second control group were not… No significant differences emerged between the two groups. Study 3 involved coding the eye movements of both liars and truth tellers taking part in high profile press conferences. Once again, no significant differences were discovered.

In short, the researchers couldn’t find any correlation between lying, truth-relling and eye movement.

So why do so many people feel that they improve at lie detection when they watch a person’s eyes? The researchers have an idea:

One possibility is that people are more confident in their lie detection abilities when they believe that they are following a scientific theoretical framework, such as that seemingly provided by NLP.

And that’s a very good point – belief in your own abilities, whether it’s bolstered by religion, science or pseudo-science, seems to inspire confidence, courage and higher performance on all sorts of tasks. According to psychological evidence, what you place faith in isn’t anywhere near as important as the faith itself.

As some band once said, Don’t Stop Believing – just make sure you know what’s belief, and what’s real science.



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