A Shifty Look – Is He Truly Lying Or Has He A Wandering Eye?

Buying a used car? Making a political donation? Does the guy taking your money have a shifty look? If so, you’ll probably think twice before believing those silver-tongued blandishments.

The received wisdom is that if the person’s eyes keep looking up to the right, they are lying so steer clear. If the eyes keep wandering up to the left, you can go ahead, the guy is trustworthy. Well, Wiseman et al are too wise to go along with that and have put it to the test with some experiments (1).

32 canny Scots undergraduates were set up to pretend to put a cell phone in an office but in fact stuff it in their pocket and then lie about what they saw in the drawer that they put the phone into. They ran through the procedure again, but this time they actually put the phone in the drawer after rifling through so the could report out what they saw truthfully. Their eye movements were carefully logged. Coding was done both by the experimenters and another group of undergrads.

Results? No agreement with the eyes right or eyes left theories, so they got serious with videos of ‘real’ people pleading on TV for the return of abducted children. Half of the 52 videos showed people who later had compelling evidence against them that they had been responsible for the disappearance and hence were lying.

Everybody looked at the camera. No flicking eyes up to the right or left. Looks like we’re back to the polygraph, but maybe not. We pickup on a plethora of non-verbal signals and have long, long ago learned to put these together to decide if we think a guy is straight up or crooked as a corkscrew. The trouble starts when we listen to the blandishments.

  1. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0040259

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