Can You Spot The Eyes Of A Liar?

Updated: Sep 27, 2018

In a 2016 article for Business Insider, former FBI agent Mark Bouton, outlines how to tell if someone is lying to you by watching their eye movements. One of the ‘tells’, he claims, which helped in the identification of Timothy McVeigh as the Oklahoma bomber.

eye accessing cues in NLP

The idea that the eyes can betray a falsehood is commonly quoted online, including in the Wikihow of spotting a liar. But how true is it? Is it really possible with a little knowledge and training to become like The Mentalist and catch out friends, family, criminals and co-workers?

The connection between eye-movements and what is going on with our thoughts was first identified in the 1970s by the founders of NLP (Neuro-linguistic programming), John Grinder and Richard Bandler. They noted that in response to questions, the eyes move in a certain direction depending on the types of thoughts a person is trying to access. When facing the individual answering the question, their eyes went to the left for constructing images, and to the right for remembering images - at least for right handed people. The reverse was true for lefties. They also found that the eyes move from side-to-side when someone is hearing sounds, and down when they are aware of feelings, movements and physical sensations.

Over time, these curious observations started to morph into a practical application and interpretation of eye movements.

The logic followed that if someone was looking to their right in response to a question then they were ‘constructing’ rather than ‘recalling’ thoughts and therefore more likely to be lying. Many believed the magic code of telling a liar had been discovered.

eye accessing cues
Eye accessing cues of a right-handed person. These are reversed for left-handed people.

However, despite the technique becoming widely taught and adopted, it was never very rigorously tested. This is probably because it largely proved itself correct through simple confirmation bias. If you believed the person to be lying then you would watch the eyes for any rightwards eye movements to reinforce your suspicion. Very few people are usually interested in proving a suspected liar is more likely to be telling the truth.

It wasn’t until 2011 that the relationship between eye movements and lying was firmly tested and the results were categorical.

Professor Richard Wiseman led a team which filmed volunteers and their eye movements while both lying and telling the truth. Other volunteers watching the videos could not detect the liars, even when they were given specific guidance about which eye movements are supposed to indicate an untruth.

Wiseman’s team also studied clips of press conferences where those speaking were later proven to be lying or definitely telling the truth. Even under close scrutiny of the clips - no relationship could be found between eye movements and lying. Read Prof. Richard Wiseman’s study.

Other popular eye ‘indicators’ of a liar have also been disproven by scientific study. Despite it being a widely held belief across many different countries, liars do not avert their gaze. They also do not slow their blink rate when lying.

The simple fact is that there is no credible evidence that the eyes can betray a liar. And why should you believe me? Would it help if I said I have a honest face?

Have you tried reading someone through their eye movements? How accurate do you think this technique is, and can it be used for more purposes than detecting if someone is lying? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.


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