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January 31, 2013
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John Bowden On Language, Communication, and Leadership
with John Bowden

The eyes have it: How to detect deception

If there is a #1 rule in the interpretation of non-verbal human behavior, it is to look for breaks in eye contact

The eyes are the most expressive area of a person’s entire body. In fact, according to Jose Ortega y Gasset, “The eyes are the windows to the soul.”

If there is a #1 rule in the interpretation of non-verbal human behavior, it is to look for breaks in eye contact.

Breaks in eye contact — at the point of the answer — are considered deceptive. Breaks in eye contact indicating deception are generally accompanied by additional deceptive body behavior.

Detecting Deception
A break in eye contact is when the interviewee is not — more or less — looking directly at the interviewer’s face and eyes. Truthful people generally look at the interviewer when they are answering a question. Deceptive people will generally break eye contact at the instance of the answer.

The process of detecting deception, by the use of breaks in eye contact, is used when the investigator is asking a series of questions directed at the subject. In a question-and-answer session, the subject will generally maintain eye contact with the investigator as the investigator is speaking.

You should start with questions that are not relevant to the investigation at hand. Observe the person’s eye contact as you are speaking and they are answering.

This will give you a norm for their behavior — what they normally do. For example:

Speaker Question/Answer Subject Behavior
Investigator What’s your name?  
Subject Mike. Good eye contact during answer.
Investigator How long have you lived here?  
Subject Five years. Good eye contact during the answer.

In this example, the subject maintains good eye contact during the answers.

Normally, a person will maintain eye contact during the question. You are looking for breaks in eye contact when the subject is answering the question. As in our example, the subject maintained eye contact during each answer.

However, a truthful subject will maintain good eye contact while listening and will break eye contact to think or to gather thoughts and reestablish eye contact during the answer.

For example, you ask a subject where they were two nights ago at ten o’clock. The subject will probably break eye contact while they are thinking and mentally gathering the information for the answer.

This should not be considered a deceptive break in eye contact — the person is merely getting the information for the answer. In a truthful response the person, will regain eye contact and deliver the answer.

The deceptive person will not maintain eye contact when they answer the question. They break eye contact, however briefly, while answering the question. After the question is answered, the subject will resume eye contact. 

Speaker Question/Answer Subject Behavior
Investigator: Mike, did you ask that 15-year-old girl to come to your bedroom? The subject looking at the investigator.
Subject: No, no, I would never do anything like that. The subject looks away at the moment of saying “No, no.” The subject’s eyes come back in contact with the investigator toward the end of the answer.

The deceptive break in eye contact occurs at the instance of the answer. These breaks may be subtle, (looking away, blinking, rolling eyes, covering their eyes or diverting their attention to another task as they answer) and coming back to eye contact after the answer.

The break in eye contact is where the subject is mentally running away from you.

In some cultures (and in some people), a subject will not make eye contact at all, constantly looking down or away from you. The above process will not work until the person makes eye contact during the conversation. The techniques to gain their eye contact are not addressed in this article.

Don’t challenge the subject to look you in the eye. This creates false eye contact and obscures your ability to read the true breaks in eye contact.

Another variation of breaking eye contact to gather and deliver information is where the subject is telling a story.

For instance, a subject was assaulted and robbed. While telling the story, the person may not look at the investigator as they are presenting the story. In this instance, the person is replaying the incident in their head and narrating the story as they recall.

During the story, the person may periodically make direct eye contact when a specific point is made. After the story has been delivered, the subject should regain eye contact, waiting for the investigator to respond.

Street Contacts
In street contacts with people, I have found it to be very easy to spot these breaks in eye contact and put them to good use. To start, you should chit-chat with the person, asking simple non-threatening questions, observing their normal behavior.

When you are ready to detect deception, I suggest short, simple questions.

For instance: you stop a subject on the street and began talking to him. You may have this conversation.

Speaker   Question/Answer Subject Behavior
You Do you drink?  
Subject Yes.  Good eye contact.
You  What do you drink?  
Subject  Mostly beer, sometimes shots. Good eye contact.
You  Do you have any beer on you now?  
Subject  No.   Good eye contact.
You  Do you ever smoke any recreational weed?  
Subject  Uh, yeah, sometimes.  Good eye contact.
You Do you have any on you now?  
Subject Uh, no, not now.  Breaks eye contact by looking away at the instant of the answer — regains eye contact after the answer.

In this case, you now know the subject has been deceptive and there is a high probability he has marijuana on his person. Where you proceed from here depends on your goals. Your advantage is, you know he has marijuana.

Breaking Eye Contact
The following are a few ways people break eye contact during interviews.

Close eyes
Rapid eye movements
Roll eyes up into head
Covering eyes with hands
Wave hands in front of eyes
Looking at a watch
Looking out the window
Looking at the floor
Pay inordinate attention to other objects in the room
Indian scout gesture, hand above the eyes as if shielding them from the sun, looking into the distance
Examine finger tips (why are they so interesting now?)
Adjust clothing or accessories
Dust or lint picking
Thread pulling
Winding of the watch
Jewelry adjustment


John Bowden’s book, “Interview to Confession, The Art of the Gentle interrogation,” highlights a number of meaningful behaviors during interviews. For more details, visit Amazon.com or APTACTraining.com.


About the author

John Bowden is the founder and director of Applied Police Training and Certification (APTAC). John retired from the Orlando Police Department as a Master Police Officer In 1994. His career spans a period of 21 years in law enforcement overlapping 25 years of law enforcement instruction. His total of more than 37 years of experience includes all aspects of law enforcement to include: uniform crime scene technician, patrol operations, investigations, undercover operations, planning and research for departmental development, academy coordinator, field training officer, and field training supervisor. As the director of APTAC, John is responsible for coordinating operations and conducting training for law enforcement organizations across the United States. APTAC clients include law enforcement agencies, state police academies, sheriff departments, correctional institutions, military law enforcement, as well as colleges and universities across the United States. John has written numerous books, including Report Writing for Law Enforcement & Corrections, Management Techniques for Criminal Justice, Today's Field Training Officer, and others. Contact John Bowden





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