Ever been unsure if someone is lying directly to your face? Sure, we’ve all questioned it at some point, but what if we could actually manipulate someones actions – like potentially, lying to our face, with something as simple as making eye contact? For years studies have come out that link the fact that people from all cultures across the globe associate the lack of eye contact with their belief the person is lying. Is this true? How can we tell?
According to a Finnish study that was recently published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, researchers have tested the impact of eye contact on lying with the use of a two-player computer game. The study involved 51 participants between the ages of 19 and 37 who took part in the game, and were directly instructed that they were permitted to lie when playing. The participants sat opposite a staged opponent they believed to be a fellow participant, separated by a smart glass window that could change in opacity when desired.
The smart glass window turned transparent before the participant made a move, allowing them to see their opponent. In half of the trials, the opponent looked directly at the participant’s eyes; in the other half, they looked down at their computer screen. The results exactly? The participants who made direct eye contact with their opponents were less likely to lie in their subsequent moves throughout the study.
“This was the first study to demonstrate the effect by using actual eye contact with another person and by measuring not just any form of dishonesty, but lying,” said study author Jonne Hietanen, a PhD student at the University of Tampere. Hietanen cautioned against extrapolating too wildly from the results, however, explaining, “Because the results were obtained in an experimental situation, one must be careful not to draw too far-reaching conclusions.”
While it is a pretty popular and generic assumption that making direct eye contact with someone would potentially enable you to determine whether they’re lying to you or not, Psychology Today explains that “most people think gaze aversion signals deception” — after all, embarrassment and shame can lead people to dodge eye contact. Although in saying that, it’s been proven to show that people who lie, which is ultimately all of us, at some point in our life, are also aware of the association between eye contact and telling the truth. Meaning that as a result, liars tend to make more eye contact with the target of their lie, in order to appear more believable, making it harder to generally determine without other factors.
Additionally, another key (and sometimes more effective) way to determine whether someone is lying or not is to simply assess their micro-expressions, fraud examiner Pamela Meyer explained in a 2011 TED Talk. These expressions can include fidgeting, making too much eye contact, freezing their upper body, or displaying a fake smile.
While some of this sounds awfully complicated to play out in an everyday discussion, it is a good idea to first get a read on the person you are speaking to overall. Do they look at you during normal speech or do they look away? Are they nervous talkers or confident? Knowing how they talk in normal speech will help you to see if that pattern changes when you get into “uncomfortable territory.” If a person’s pattern changes when you start asking them questions that might be hard to answer, that may be an indication that they are lying.
In saying that, the University of Tampere study has gone beyond just simply detecting a liar, and has even gone on to suggest that the intended target of a lie can actually influence whether someone tells the truth or not, which would in turn remove the need to thoroughly assess your an individuals micro-expressions while in a discussion with someone. According to the study, simply making a little intense eye contact before engaging with them should do the trick.