You Can Hide Your Lying Eyes

Eye Movements Don't Betray Liars, Study Finds

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on July 12, 2012
From the WebMD Archives

July 12, 2012 -- You can hide your lying eyes after all.

A three-part study by U.K. and Canadian researchers finds no support for the popular notion that your eyes dart up and to the right when you tell a lie.

Truth-tellers' eyes are supposed to dart up and to the left. But there's no support for that urban legend, either, find University of Edinburgh psychologist Caroline Watt, PhD, and colleagues.

"A large percentage of the public believes that certain eye movements are a sign of lying, and this idea is even taught in organizational training courses," Watt notes. "Our research provides no support for the idea and so suggests that it is time to abandon this approach to detecting deceit."

Watt and colleagues did three studies. In the first, 32 people (mostly college students) were individually told to hide a cell phone in a certain office and to return to the briefing room. Half were told to lie and half were told to tell the truth about what they did. They were then videotaped during a brief interview, after which they did a second taped interview in which the liars told the truth and the truth-tellers lied.

The videos, minus sound, were viewed both in real time and in slow motion by raters who did not know whether the subjects were supposed to tell the truth or not. They specifically counted glances (short eye movements) and gazes (longer eye movements) up and to the left or right for each interview.

The results: No significant differences in eye movement between liars and truth-tellers.

But wait. Maybe lying eyes can't be detected just by counting glances and gazes. Maybe it takes a trained person who's on the lookout for subtle eye motions.

So in a second study, the researchers trained 50 people to look for patterns of eye movement. Then they showed them the videotapes from the first experiment and asked them to detect the liars.

That didn't work for lie detection, either. As far as these trained people could tell, the eyes didn't have it.

Maybe, though, the stakes weren't high enough for the liars. What did it matter to them if they were caught? Maybe the eyes only show important lies.

So the researchers assembled a collection of real-life videos in which people filmed appeals to find missing relatives. For half of the videos there was clear evidence the person had lied -- evidence such as possession of the murder weapon, security camera footage, or the person leading police to the body.

Using the same methods as in the first study, eye movements were closely counted and analyzed. And once again, eye movements did not differ between liars and truth-tellers.

"This is in line with findings from a considerable amount of previous work showing that facial clues (including eye movements) are poor indicators of deception," Watt and colleagues note. "The results provide considerable grounds to be skeptical of the notion that the proposed patterns of eye movements provide a reliable indicator of lying."

The Watt study appears in the online journal PLoS ONE.