The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues

Deception Cue

Carly returns to Sonny, who masks his relief over her return. --General Hospital (Soap Opera Digest, May 2, 2000, p. 104)

As a child, I never could understand how my mother knew every time I told her a lie. --Marjorie F. Vargas (1986:12)

Gesture. A nonverbal sign of verbal deceit, untruth, or lying.

Usage: A long-standing goal of nonverbal research has been to find reliable signs of deception. The quest is fueled by popular and scientific observations that deceit often is accompanied by unconscious signals revealing anxiety, stress, or shame while lying. Studies indicate that certain signs used when speaking (e.g., a. gaze-down and b. the rate of head and hand movements) do accompany lies. (N.B.: At the least, deception cues present probing points with which to guide inquiry regarding possible lies, much as galvanic skin resistance [see SWEATY PALMS] in tandem with physiological breathing and heart rates are used to measure autonomic stress in a polygraph test [see below, Thermal imaging].)

Caution. Nonverbal cues may be used as reliable indicators of anxiety and stress (see BASELINE DEMEANOR), but the nervousness itself does not necessarily indicate deception or lying (see below, Media).

Antigravity signs. FBI special agent Joe Navarro has observed that, from analysis of videotaped interrogations, deceivers are less likely than truth tellers to use "gravity defying" gestures--such as lifting the toes (while seated), raising upward on the toes (while standing, at the end of a sentence, e.g., to add emphasis), and raising the eyebrows--which demonstrate conviction and faith in one's own spoken words (personal communication, August 8, 2001; see below, O. J. Simpson's murder trial). 

Brain fingerprinting. An experimental technique called MERMER (Memory and Encoding Related Multifaceted Electroencephalographic Responses) for detecting information related to events subjects have experienced (despite efforts to conceal that knowledge) was detailed in the Journal of Forensic Sciences ("Using Brain MERMER Testing to Detect Knowledge Despite Efforts to Conceal," January, 2001, Vol. 46, No. 1, pp. 1-9). Also known as "brain fingerprinting," MERMER is claimed to be 90-99% accurate, with 0 false-positives or false negatives. Subjects need not utter a word in the MERMER test. They are shown photographs of a crime scene, e.g., and those familiar with the scene show different brain-wave patterns than those who are unfamiliar with the scene. 

Chimpanzee deception. In the broadest sense of the term, "deception" is rife in the animal kingdom. Nonpoisonous flies and snakes, e.g., may adopt the warning marks and coloration of poisonous species to seem, deceptively, more harmful than they are in fact (see also LOOM). The ability to deceive is highly evolved in primates (see below, Nonhuman primates). Our close animal relative, the chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes), e.g., is gifted in the art of deception: 1. A young male, Dandy, withheld nonverbal cues of excitement to deceive other chimpanzees as to the location of hidden grapefruit, which Dandy subsequently consumed all by himself (Waal 1982). 2. A 9-year old male, Figan, withheld nonverbal food calls to conceal a bunch of bananas, which Figan subsequently consumed all by himself (Goodall 1986). 3. An adult male, Luit, pressed his lips together with his hand in an apparent attempt to hide the submissive fear grin he had given his rival, Nikki (Waal 1982). 

Evolution. "If we speculate about the evolution of communication, it is evident that a very important stage in this evolution occurs when the organism gradually ceases to respond quite 'automatically' to the mood signs of another and becomes able to recognize the sign as a signal: that is, to recognize that the other individual's and its own signals are only signals, which can be trusted, distrusted, falsified, denied, amplified, corrected, and so forth" (Bateson 1955:40).

Literature. "If you had a hundred masks upon your face, your thoughts however slight would not be hidden from me." --Dante Alighieri (Purgatorio, Canto XV).

Media. "Another factor that makes it difficult to detect lies is that 'the fear of being disbelieved looks the same as the fear of being caught lying,' he [Dr. Paul Ekman] said" (Goleman,New York Times, C9, Sept. 17, 1991).

Nonhuman primates. In primates, "tactical deception" may include concealment, distraction, creating an image, manipulation, and deflection (Quiatt and Reynolds 1993:158-59).

Nonverbal changes. According to Mark Knapp, Judee Burgoon, and G. Miller, ". . . changes in nonverbal behavior during deception consistently occur in six behavioral categories: (a) cues indicating underlying anxiety or nervousness, (b) cues indicating underlying reticence or withdrawal (including nonimmediacy), (c) excessive behaviors that deviate from the liar's truthful response patterns, (d) cues showing underlying negative affect, (e) cues showing underlying vagueness or uncertainty, and (f) incongruous responses or mixed messages" (Burgoon et al. 1989:270).

O. J. Simpson's murder trial1. Listening to testimony about the location of his knit cap, Mr. Simpson visibly protested what he knew to be false. 2. Listening to testimony accusing him of the murder of his wife, Mr. Simpson showed no visible protest and remained completely motionless in his seat. 3. Why the stark contrast in his nonverbal demeanor? (N.B.: You be the judge.)

Palm-up. "Pilot studies had suggested that a particular emblem, the hand shrug [a palm-up cue] which has the meaning of helplessness or inability . . . would appear as a clue to the occurrence of deception. . . . . In this instance, we expected that the hand-shrug emblem was occurring as a nonverbal slip of the tongue, with little awareness on the part of the subject, and that it was a deception cue" (Ekman and Friesen 1972:367).

Self-touch. "We think the [hand-to-face] eyecover [of] shame expresses her main affective reaction to the two verbal themes, being hospitalized and having aggressive impulses" (Ekman and Friesen 1968:207; Author's Note: In the figure used to illustrate the eyecover cue, the subject is also gazing downward and touching her forehead with her hand).

Thermal imaging. A preliminary laboratory study by Mayo Clinic researchers (published in the journal Nature, January 3, 2002) used heat imaging to detect facial flushing around the eyes as a sign of deception. Study results showed the thermal-imaging technique to be about as reliable as the polygraph or "lie detector," which measures physiological arousal related to the fight-or-flight response. More research is planned, with an eye toward possible use in spotting terrorists at airports. 

RESEARCH REPORTS1. Deliberate control of body movement and the mental energy required to fabricate a lie have been suggested to explain the general research finding thatfewer body movements occur with deception (Vrij et al. 1966). 2. Lower rates of head nodding "are associated with deceitful communication" (Mehrabian 1972:102). 3. Three ". . . extensive reviews of the data . . . showed that several nonverbal cues are, in fact, consistently related to deception" (Burgoon et al. 1989:270). "Deceivers display increased pupil dilation [see EYES], blinking rates, and adaptors [i.e., self-touching], more segments of body behavior, and fewer segments of facial behavior" (Burgoon et al. 1989:271). 4. Paul Ekman suggests that one should ". . . never reach a final conclusion about whether a suspect is lying or truthful based solely on either the polygraph or behavioral clues to deceit" (Ekman 1992:238; italics are the author's). 5. People make "fewer hand movements during deception compared to truth-telling" (Vrij et al. 1997:97).

STUDY ABSTRACT: "Research on the detection of deception, via non-verbal cues, has shown that people's ability to successfully discriminate between truth and deception is only slightly better than chance level. One of the reasons for these disappointing findings possibly lies in people's inappropriate beliefs regarding lying behaviour. A 64-item questionnaire originally used in Germany, which targets participants beliefs regarding truthful and deceptive behaviour, was used. The present study differed from previous research in three ways: (i) instead of a student population, police officers and lay people were sampled, (ii) both people's beliefs regarding others deceptive behaviour and their beliefs regarding their own deceptive behaviour were examined, and (iii) both non-verbal cues to, and content characteristics of, deceptive statements were examined. Results were consistent with previous studies, which found significant differences between people's beliefs regarding deceptive behaviour and experimental observations of actual deceptive behaviour. Further, police officers held as many false beliefs as did lay people and finally, participants were more accurate in their beliefs regarding their own deceptive behaviour than they were in their beliefs regarding others behaviour" (Akehurst et al. 1996:461; John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.).

Cover of David Givens's book, Crime Signals (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2008; Ch. 1, "The Look of a Lie," examines nonverbal signs of deception)