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Officers and lie detection: Take the body language quiz

Humans use many forms of deception. Facial expression is a very complex and easily manipulated form of communication. Facial expression can be quite subtle. Few individuals are accomplished in correctly interpreting deceptive motives or emotions. To complicate matters, facial expression is achieved using infinite combination of musculature, features, skin plasticity and complexion.  Even the skilled Secret Service Agent can be misled.

Body language test: Understanding body language

Understanding body language is critical for officer safety. There is more to body language than movement. Behavioral studies indicate that individuals establish a personal space circumference, which may change depending on the type of message they are sending and their goal.

We establish a comfortable distance for personal interaction and nonverbal (unconsciously) define this as our perimeter. Personal distance is just as much a part of non-verbal communication as a smile or a snarl. By the way, notice if a smile uses all of the face muscles or just a few around the mouth. More muscles equal a more natural, unforced smile.

If one is distrustful (e.g., paranoia), his or her space will probably be larger. From basic training law enforcement officers are taught to keep a safe distance from suspects. If we perceive danger or dislike, even if we are not consciously aware of that perception, we will probably increase our protected space. If you find yourself moving back from a suspect you have probably picked up a danger signal at a subconscious level. Pay attention!

Consider this: If a suspect moves into your personal space it may well be a sign of aggression or implied intimidation. There are four parts to tactical body language: facial expression, gestures, stance and personal space. Unfortunately, it is a two-way street — while you are watching a suspect’s body language, he or she is simultaneously watching yours. Study your body language in a mirror. What messages do you send? You might be surprised.

Facial Indicators

Here are a few obvious facial signals: 1) nostril flare (arousal, anger). 2) grin (happiness, affiliation, contentment); grimace (fear); lip compression (anger, high emotion, frustration);canine snarl (disgust); lip pout (sadness, submission, uncertainty, seduction). Sneer (contempt, intimidation. 3) Frown (anger, sadness, concentration); brow raise (intensity, curious, slight surprise). 4) Big pupils (arousal, fight-or-flight, drugs). Small pupils (rest-and-digest,); direct gaze (affiliate, threaten, deception); gaze-down (submission, deception, distraction). (Adapted from Givens, 1998-202, Center for Nonverbal Studies.)

Remember, you are not the only person who studies body language. Misleading body language can be used to do just that — mislead. Look at the individual’s entire presentation when in doubt. Incongruity may be an attempt to conceal or mislead. As a Dallas cop told me, the truth is consistent. When the spoken word is at cross purposes with body language, normally it is safer to believe the body because body language is more likely to be unconscious.

Body Language Quiz

Are you skilled at reading body language? We will see. Take the quiz.

1. You have asked a suspect a question and he looks up and to the left. This might mean:
a. He is focusing on your body language
b. He is looking inside himself for a remembered image.
c. He has a headache
d. He is trying to find the light at the end of the tunnel.

2. This body language tool, when used, will make you appear warm, friendly, open and confident:
a. Arms unfolded
b. Feet about ten inches apart
c. Nodding your head
d. Smile

3. If a suspect is making little eye contact, it might mean:
a. he is shy (or he is lying)
b. He doesn’t want anyone to read emotion in his eyes
c. He is sleepy
d. He does not like you

4. If a suspect is wringing her hands as you talk, it might mean:
a. She is nervous
b. Her hands are dirty
c. She is late for an appointment
d. She is open and outgoing

5. You are talking to a suspect and you lean toward him and nod occasionally. It probably means:
a. You are near sighted
b. You are self-centered
c. You are paying close attention
d. You are having trouble hearing

6. If a suspect has her arms folded and legs crossed, it might mean:
a. She is cold
b. She is feeling romantic
c. She wants to understand the person with whom she is speaking
d. She is being defensive

7. An officers standing tall with chest out and head high, might mean:
a. Improper training
b. Aggression
c. Confidence
d. A poorly fitted vest

  8. One angles in toward a person if:
a. He is being aggressive
b. He thinks the other person is sexy
c. He is trying to read emotion
d. He thinks she is lying and wants to see if she is blinking

9. You are talking to a suspect and she is filtering her answers through her hands. It might mean:
a. She is trying to hide bad breath
b. She is lying
c. She is self-conscious
d. She is fearful

10. We have such a powerful brain circuitry for the facial expression that:
a. We see faces where there are non (e.g., moon)
b. We often misread expressions
c. We get tired of reading expression
d. We smile and glare just to confuse suspects

11. You stop a man driving a new SUV in Nevada and his carotid artery is pumping. It might mean:
a. He is wanted by the FBI
b. He has been exercising
c. He is embarrassed
d. He is stressed because he anticipates a speeding ticket

12. You have asked a suspect a question and he looks up and to the right. This might mean:
a. He wants to appear helpful
b. He does not understand your question and he is stalling
c. He is trying to remember his attorney’s name
d. He is recalling the truthful answer to your question

13. You ask a suspect if he killed his rich maiden aunt. He says, “No, I did not.” This may mean:
a. He is very precise in his use of English
b. He is grief stricken about his poor Auntie
c. He is lying
d. It means nothing

Good Job!

Correct answers

1) b  2) d, 3)a, 4) a, 5) c, 6) d, 7) a, 8) b, 9) b, 10) a, 11) a, 12) c and d, 13) c

Here is more information for questions 12 and 13.

12. In both c and d he is looking inside for information stored there.

13. If a suspect uses a contraction, such as "I didn’t do it," in answer to your question, “Did you kill your aunt?” he is more likely to be telling the truth than if he were to say, “No, I did not.” Contractions seem to be more trustworthy.

When Nevada Highway Patrolman Eddie Dutchover pulled over a wanted polygamist, Warren Steed Jeffs, in August 2006, the officer noticed a furiously pumping carotid artery in Jeff’s neck. This clue was the cash pot: Jeffs was on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted Fugitives List.  Read story.

Scoring your test:

Give yourself one point for every correct answer. You can give yourself more points, but it will make scoring confusing.

What does my score mean?

Score 1 – 4

I am afraid that you might find surviving on the mean streets more challenging than other officers. You are more likely to miss a body language signal that precedes an aggressive act. Also, you are more likely to misjudge a suspect’s intention and truthfulness. You may want to learn more about body language by visiting the Non-Verbal Communication Web site; it is quite interesting. To be safe, stay close to someone who scored 10 or more on the test.

Score 5 – 8

You are doing relatively well and can probably communicate and understand body language communication with little effort. You may want to visit the reference site listed above to increase your store of knowledge. What does it mean when someone looks up and to the right while taking your picture with his/her cell phone? See, I told you there was more to learn.

Score 9 – 13

You should be working for the Secret Service. You are unusually knowledgeable about body language. This knowledge will give you a distinct advantage in understanding your fellow creatures. Let me warn you, some of the nice officers from the first scoring group are going to be looking for you.


Would you like to know how to consistently identify dishonesty? According to body language expert Robert Phipps, “Darting eyes, palms not visible, shifting from one foot to another, hand covering mouth or finger tugging at the ear are clues.” Regrettably, as you know these indicators are not always accurate. You should keep researching and learning about body language and lie detection. The more you know the safer you are, and in law enforcement that is your prime directive,  stay safe.

I suggest that you read Frogs into Princes: Neuro Linguistic Programming. Richard Bandler and John Grinder. I read it several years ago and through it is not an easy read it contains some fascinating information for understanding yourself and others. Also the site listed under the first scoring category above is a treasure trove of useful information. Begin your own research study. Watch your fellow beings and make note of their behavior under various circumstances. 

Also read: Deception detection: It's all in the attitude

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