Updated: May 26
A Challenging Proposition
In a police interrogation room, somewhere in North America, a detective is interviewing a suspect in several house invasions. As the detective asks a series of questions that are designed to dismantle the suspect’s defence, he also observes his [the suspect] eyes, which are moving straight to the left as he provides the answers. This case of “shifty eyes” immediately alerts the interviewer of a lie, and he proceeds to conclude that the suspect is guilty – and of course, in this case, he is more than likely wrong.
It is a popularly held belief, and a myth that gaze aversion is a sure sign of deception. I’m certain many of us have heard to some variation the request to look at someone in the eyes and tell them something; invariably, the individual making the request is looking for an honest answer to a particular question or an explanation to a scenario. The misconception that eye contact ensures truthfulness is likely born out of cultural expectations, at least in the west. In the east, however, and mostly in Asian cultures, gaze aversion is the socially demanded (and therefore expected) manner of addressing high-ranking individuals, or at times a simple sign of respect. It may be an [mis]interpretation of the emotion of guilt and how it is represented in the face and the body. A guilty person, and in particular children, tend to look away and even bow their heads in response to the emotional load caused by the feelings of guilt and shame. Consider, however, that under specific religious frameworks, direct eye contact is explicitly forbidden, especially when addressing the opposite sex. If the detective in the introductory paragraph had been female, and the suspect an Islamic male, little to no eye contact would have been established. In this case (as in many others) cultural expectations have overridden our natural psychological predispositions.
There has been much responsible research into deception. Dr. Paul Ekman, one of the most prominent contributors to this field, has worked tirelessly to understand emotion and the role it plays in communication. His work led to the substantiation of Darwin’s hypothesis on the universality, and biological determination of expressions. From their extensive research, Dr. Ekman and his team have developed and refined several tools for the study of expressions and how they can be an indication of deception. He is responsible for the systematic collection of Facial Action Units – a sort of atlas of expressions and their corresponding emotions known as F.A.C.S or Facial Action Coding System.
From all the work undertaken by other scientists in these matters, it can be concluded that there is no “magic formula” to determine when someone is deceitful. A twitch of the eye, a shoulder shrug, or some asymmetry in movement can indicate lying insofar as the context is concerned, and never on their own. Take for example, once again the first paragraph: if the interviewer asks a question about a particular detail of the crime being investigated, and the suspect’s reply displays a subtle, one-side shoulder shrug (asymmetry), does this mean that the suspect is lying, and thus guilty? Not necessarily. It is, however, an indication that more investigation is required into the particular area of inquiry. Let’s remember that expressions are signs of emotions, and they tell us that the person displaying them is feeling something, but not the reason for why they feel it. This understanding has rendered the polygraph machine almost inadmissible in courts of law. It is true, at least statistically, that those individuals with adequate training in F.A.C.S or similar tools can accurately detect deception about 80% of the time.
Though some expressions are very revealing of deception, it is essential to remember the role that context plays in human experience. An investigation is a complex process, and more so, when the stakes of finding the truth are high. Professional investigators recommend that critical attention is paid to the actual story to be able to detect possible inconsistencies in it. It is also important to remain emotionally detached from the events under scrutiny to prevent misapprehensions from contaminating conclusions. Gut feelings, beliefs, and conjectures have no place in the investigative process. A real sleuth should always remain open-minded and only willing to rely on the observation of evidence – this attitude and reliable training in recognising human emotions and their respective expressions can help us all get closer to the truth. Furthermore, it can enrich our overall life experiences substantially by enhancing our ability to send, receive, and decode communication properly.