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Lie detectors: Facial clues to sniff out a liar

We all encounter deceptions and half-truths in ordinary life, and body language can help us better identify when people aren’t being honest, says litigation attorney Christopher Meyers of Wilenchik & Bartness, noting research that shows up to 90 percent of human communication is nonverbal.

Over the past decade Meyers has mastered an understanding of the nonverbal cues that people unconsciously reveal about their true thoughts and feelings—and offers many of those lessons learned in a recently published podcast for the ABA Section of Litigation’s Sound Advice series. 

In “Examining a Witness’s Non-Verbal Communication,” Meyer says that many of the indicators that help determine when a person is lying come from a person’s face.

We all know that a person’s eyes tell us a lot, acknowledges Meyers, who notes the classic sign that someone is lying: refusal to make eye contact and looking away.

However, Meyers cautions that compulsive liars are aware of this sign and “will hold your gaze for far too long to make you want to believe them.”

Since a person’s eyes alone won’t tell you the whole story, look for multiple clues – such as some of the lesser known ones provided by a liar’s nose.

When a person lies, chemicals are released in the body that cause the blood vessels in the nose to swell. “So, the nose will physically expand during deception,” Meyers says.

Look for nose touches. When a liar’s nose swells, a histamine is released, causing itching.

President Bill Clinton provides a good – yet extreme – example of this.

Neurologists who have studied video of Clinton’s 1998 grand jury testimony in the Monica Lewinsky case found that when the former president “was truthful, he never touched his nose,” Meyers says. “But when he lied, he gave a split-second frown and touched his nose once every four minutes afterward.”  On average, the scientists counted 26 nose touches.

A person’s smile may tell you a lot, too.

Meyers says that a tight-lipped smile can indicate that an individual is perhaps holding a secret or at least holding something back. “If you are examining a witness that is indicating this behavior, you should explore the situation further.”

Facial gestures are among other clues of deceit.  Take note of neck scratching and unusual head movements. “Liars will use their heads in odd ways,” Meyer says. For example, “they may try to sell you their lie by shaking their head excessively when they speak.”

“If they remain silent and tilt their head down to the side, attempting to avoid eye contact and thinking very carefully, something is afoot,” Meyer says.

On the flip side, people being honest will speak with open palms. “When witnesses want to convey honesty and openness on a subject, they will instinctively show you one or both of their open palms,” Meyer says.

For more useful tips on body language, listen to “Examining a Witness’s Non-Verbal Communication.”

The Sound Advice podcast series is a member benefit of the ABA Section of Litigation. Explore membership with the litigation section. 

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