Actions lie louder than words

An examination of the psychological and physiological reasons for deceit signals

Editor's Note: For more than a decade and a half, Lt. Jim Glennon has taught a class called Arresting Communications. The following article — in an admittedly shameless plug — is culled from the pages of Glennon's book entitled Arresting Communication: Essential Skills for Law Enforcement published by PoliceOne Books.

By Lt. Jim Glennon, Lombard, IL (ret.)

I’ve been to some of the best interviewing and interrogation classes in the country, I’ve read tons of research, and I’ve interviewed hundreds and hundreds of criminals. Oh, and I have seven kids, which alone makes me a freakin’ expert at dealing with people who lie. This is what I believe: There are definite indicators of deceit, and there are reasons these indicators exist. And the primary reason is — stress. Let me explain by highlighting a common behavior.

Anyone schooled in reading behavioral indicators learns that increased face touching is often an indication of lying. But why? Why is the face touched more just before, during, and/or immediately after a lie is told than at other times? There is a psychological and a physiological reason, and both are related to stress.

The Psychological Reason
When a person tells a lie and is afraid of being caught, he or she often unconsciously attempts to literally hide the lie by covering the mouth. This is particularly evident in young children as they often actually cover their mouths while they try to tell a falsehood. However, as we get older, we unconsciously modify this all-too-obvious gesture. So instead of covering the mouth, we simply touch or scratch a part of the face or nose instead. Sometimes we use something called a prayer emblem, where the palms and fingers are together (as though the person is saying a prayer) and the tips of the forefingers are touching the lips.

President Clinton used this behavioral cue while being questioned about his friend Monica (and their deeply spiritual and intellectual bond).

The Physiological Reason
A neurosurgeon in one of my classes explained it best: When the body goes into stress mode (and lying — or rather, the fear of getting caught — causes stress) one of the first things that happens is a change in blood pressure. The face is one of our most sensitive areas, especially around the mouth and nose — a reason some believe the human animal enjoys kissing — and as the blood flow adjusts, it creates a tingling sensation, particularly around the mouth and nose.

In other words, we get an itch that just has to be scratched, so the hands move toward the face. Pretty simple explanation, huh?

It doesn’t really matter that you know that certain behaviors associated with pre-attack or deception are actually a reaction to stress. What does matter is that you be able to recognize the telling behaviors when you have to. So let’s examine some indicators of deception — both verbal and nonverbal — while again keeping in mind that many others exist, particularly micro-gestures and facial indicators.

Eye Contact and Grooming
Some experts believe that someone who is lying actually makes more eye contact than someone telling the truth. The explanation is that most people are aware that gaze avoidance is recognized as a sign of deceit.

“Look me in the eye and tell me you weren’t with your old girlfriend last night!”

So they make sure — on a very conscious level — that they maintain eye contact with the person they’re attempting to deceive. And that’s my experience: The eye contact displayed by someone trying to “sell” a lie often appears unnatural too long, too intense, too obvious.

Natural, or normal, eye contact is something we all recognize — though, again, not consciously. Whenever you get the feeling that “there’s just something about this guy that makes me uneasy,” it’s often because your unconscious detected eye contact that deviated from the norm.

In a conversation, we generally have mutual-gaze eye contact for about two to three seconds, but there are many variables that affect that rule: how well we know the other person, the intensity of the interaction, purpose, intent, personality, culture, etc. I recommend establishing a baseline, just as polygraph examiners do, except without electrodes attached to the subject. What I did in most — though not all — cases was to ask three or four benign questions that I was fairly sure the suspect wouldn’t lie about. They could involve his past, his family, his schooling, his parentage — nothing accusatory, just matter-of-fact questions. And I would observe closely what the person looked like while telling the truth. So, during hot questions, if that baseline changed (conversational cadence change discussed in earlier chapters), I knew there was a reason. Often, that reason was a lie being told, stress being experienced.

Excuses to break eye contact are what intrigue me. Just flat-out looking away when telling a lie feels too obvious to the liar, so unconsciously, the person often finds an excuse that allows for the break. This excuse is the “tell” and often, that “tell” is grooming.

Three degenerates murdered another degenerate in our town in a dispute over drugs. The first guy I talked to broke eye contact when I asked if he’d done the stabbing. His excuse to break the eye contact was the picking of imaginary lint off his pants.

But the lying party might groom anything (head hair, arm hair, pants, shirt, even the nose). Or he/she might engage in other behaviors that permit a break in eye contact: shuffling of the feet, stretching (felony/stress stretch), scratching, hearing imaginary noises, eye rubbing, ear rubbing, hand rubbing, ring and/or watch adjustment, cuff realignment, etc. Watch for these and other behaviors as you develop into an expert reader of the body.

Locking Down
People move naturally as they converse. Their heads move, their gaze wanders over the other person’s face, their hands gesticulate, their feet reposition, their bodies are in motion. Unless, of course, they are locked down.

When I was a working detective — as opposed to being the do-nothing-commander-of-detectives — we arrested a guy for kiting checks. Helping us with this complicated case was a civilian bank employee I’ll call Phil — a nice, unassuming, timid guy who explained the complicated financial scam to the bewildered detectives working the case.

Phil had never actually seen the suspect, and asked if he could see him in the interview room, where we’d left him for a few minutes. So I took Phil into the adjoining interview room and let him look through the two-way mirror. After a minute, he asked, “Do you think that’s him? Do you think he did it?”  

I said, “Yep. Just look at him.”

Phil looked for a few seconds, then turned toward me again and said, “What do you mean? He’s just sitting there.”

Just look at him,” I said, “and tell me what doesn’t make sense.” He looked a little longer this time and then said, “Yeah, there is something about him, but ... what is it?

Phil’s unconscious picked something up, but his civilian “I trust people” mentality had a hard time figuring it out. So I asked him to describe exactly what the suspect was doing.

Nothing,” was Phil’s initial response.

People are never doing nothing, Phil. Describe exactly what you see.”

And he did, just as an accountant would, down to the very last detail. “Well, he is sitting in the chair, staring downward at the blank wall or floor, he is grasping the arms of the chair, he has his feet looped around the legs of the chair, and he’s kind of biting his lower lip.” Phil then looked at me and added, “He looks like he’s ready to go on a roller-coaster ride.”

What Phil described was exactly what was happening. There was no movement from this guy sitting alone in a room waiting to be interviewed about a serious felony. Phil’s conscious described every detail, and his unconscious added something at the end: “He looks like he’s ready to go on a roller-coaster ride.” The suspect was in fact about to go for a ride, albeit a metaphorical one. He knew he was in for the ride of his life as soon as a detective walked in and started the interrogation that would determine his future.

So the suspect had locked down, exhibiting no movement at all. And that’s not natural behavior for most innocent people. Innocent people left alone in a room can’t sit still. They want to tell their story and get out. They move around, look at the door, and often open it after a short while, looking for the person who will help them get out. By contrast, guilty people don’t open the door. They’re not in a hurry for the upcoming conversation; they are in preparation mode. They are defensive. They lock down.

But remember, nothing is 100 per cent. While many do in fact lock down, the hardened criminals, ones who are used to jail and incarceration, often simply..........fall asleep.

Conclusion (Sort Of...)
As we’ve seen, gestures are always in use during interactions, accompanying and enhancing points, feelings, and intent. They are natural, made without thought. Unless, of course, you’re thinking about them...

That’s it for now. In a couple weeks I’ll be back with another column drawn from the pages of my book. Oh, wait, we managed to get through 1,400 words on communications, human interaction, and deception without me making even one mention of my book. It’s all about on communications, human interaction, and deception. Buy my book. Or don’t. But at least now you know it exists.

Anyway, next time I’ll heap praise on an unlikely group — oddball Hollywood actors — so that should be fun.

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