The truth about lie detection

By Joe Navarro, Posted Apr 09, 2011 in Psychology Today

The show “Lie to Me” has once more demonstrated the power of television and the media. I say that because I have seen this several times before. Let me explain. When the movie Silence of the Lambs came out and later several TV shows about “criminal profiling” followed, suddenly my university students all seemed to want to be “criminal profilers.” This in spite of the fact that most good investigators do their own “criminal analysis” (read profiling) without the need of a full time profiler. The emails I received also echoed interest in profiling from as far away as Australia and Turkey, to the tune of about several dozen per week.

Later when the CSI TV series came out, profiling was no longer in vogue and my students wanted to be Crime Scene Investigators. Once again they didn’t realize that in most police departments you don’t actually want to be the Crime Scene Investigator (trust me – it is dirty, smelly, gruesome, and not well compensated). Rather what you want to do is be the detective. Here too emails soon followed and still do, mirroring this media driven desire to become a criminalist.

So it was not surprising to me when the show “Lie to Me” gained popularity and the emails started to flow to me via my website asking me all sort of questions about the show; where you could get a job like that, the honesty of the claims they were making, and whether or not you really could tell if people were lying as they claim.

Having seen the first two shows, I can see why people are so interested and fascinated by the show and how nonverbals can be used to
detect deception.

After fielding many questions by email and via Twitter, it is time to set the record straight here in my Psychology Today Blog where I can reach the most people all at once.

Before I do so, I have to say, the questions are all fair and I understand where they come from, but television is not reality and reality is often much different than the hundreds of hours of fictional pulp we have been fed. So here are the questions I am most often asked and my answer to each:

Question: Is it true that you can detect deception as easily as they demonstrate on the show?

Answer: No! Nooo! Nooooo! It is not that easy. In fact detecting deception is very difficult. As Paul Ekman, the dean of deception research since the 1980s (and who is the consultant to the show) has demonstrated, over and over, along with other researchers: we humans are no better than chance, 50-50 at detecting deception. You might as well toss a coin and call heads or tails.

Question: What about the so called “Wizards” who are better than chance at detecting deception?

Answer: Studies on the so called “Wizards” (poor choice of name as it suggests a bit of black magic to what should be science based observation and skill) do point out that a very few of us (I have heard everything from less than 1% of the population to less than 30 out of 14,000 tested) rise well above chance (68%) at detecting deception.

That is all fine and good, but most of us don’t carry a Wizard with us to help us sort things out when we need them the most. While it is interesting that there are “Wizards” out there, in practical terms it is no more than a curiosity. There are over 17,000 individual police departments in the US and there are tens of thousands of interviews being conducted at any one moment; you can no more count on having one of these “Wizards” there to help you than you can count on a polygraph examination during a traffic stop wherever that may be. There aren’t that many and it’s not cost effective.

And so when I hear students who want to be tested to be a Wizard, or email me to take the “Wizard test” (something I don’t do) I have to wonder what for? To me that’s like taking an IQ test to see how you score. Now what?

I remind students and those that email me that while these so called “Wizards” have been tested in laboratory settings, police work is not so neat and clean. Over 95% of all police interviews are done on the street: car stops, in doorways (domestic situations), in the presence of others, in noisy dangerous environments under limited or poor lighting conditions. That is much different than in a quiet laboratory without distractions where you can concentrate fully.

Question: What about culture?

Answer: Good question, the show “Lie to Me” doesn’t appear to take into account culture or its significance in discerning deception, but then a lot of research into deception doesn’t either. For example, African Americans and many people from Latin America are taught to look down or away when confronted by authority figures (parents, elders, police) as a sign of respect or contrition. Invariably, I get several questions a week about looking down or away as a sign of deception. It is not indicative of deception even though many people believe that it is. In fact, in my experience and that of some researchers, pathological liars actually engage in more eye contact, not less.

And it is not just TV. I have talked to researchers in the area of nonverbals who are not familiar with cultural influences in detecting deception because they base their research in the laboratory. For instance, the nose crinkle is often performed as a sign of disgust. And yet, as I explained to one major researcher, you have to be careful because in the Caribbean, especially in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, even in Miami now, the nose crinkle is used to say, “How may I help you? Or What do you want?,” and it has nothing to do with disgust. The researcher had never heard of this behavior and yet when I asked Puerto Rican students in the class about it, they confirmed it for him to his astonishment.

Question: What about contempt, that seems to be a good indicator of deception, right?

Answer: Wrong. There is no single indicator of deception, and contempt is not, I repeat, not an indicator of deception. As I stated in What Every Body is Saying and reiterated in my latest book “Clues to Deceit,” quoting from my friend and nonverbal researcher Dr. Mark Frank, there is no “Pinocchio Effect,” no single behavior indicative of deception. “But on the show,” they say, “contempt is shown definitively as a sign of deception.” The answer is still no!

The truth about contempt is that criminals and guilty people often show signs of contempt when being interviewed. However, just walk through a neighborhood you don’t belong in as a police officer and you will see over and over again signs of contempt, even from the innocent. Contempt is displayed not because they have guilty knowledge or committed an offense but rather because that is how they feel about you as an officer or what you represent.

In Latin America you see contempt from the honest person who is of high status but is being questioned by someone deemed by them of lower status or of lesser education or social ranking. I have also seen contempt from the pathologically narcissistic as they react to questions from those they deem below them, which is just about everybody in their eyes. So I would caution anyone to claim or proclaim they can tell someone is lying just from displays of contempt, that is just absolute unsubstantiated rubbish.

Question: What about facial cues and micro-expressions, aren’t they reliable indicators of deception?

Answer: No, and they never have been! They are accurate indicators of sentiments and feelings and of psychological discomfort leaking out, but not necessarily of deception. Many times when we see these facial cues or fast (tachy-expressions is probably more accurate as they are not so much small: micro as they are fast: tachy) expressions they are indicative of some deep emotional distress or discomfort. The question is what is causing that. Obviously if they react to certain questions only with indicators of discomfort then the interviewer needs to explore why. But one can never assume to know that these behaviors are manifestations of deception. In one case, I have previously written about, a woman showed multiple micro-expressions during the interview, but it was because of her concern about her car getting a parking ticket because the parking meter was running out, not because she was lying. Here the expressions were as a result of psychological discomfort and not deception.

Question: You say there are no behaviors indicative of deception and yet you just wrote “Clues to Deceit,” Why?

Answer: I wrote it because over the years I have noticed that researchers seem to limit their area of interest to less than 20 or so behaviors which they associate with deception. There is also an over abundance of interest in the face, even among researchers, not just lay people, without consideration for the rest of the body.

One gets the impression that researchers seem to trumpet what other researchers have verified, but don’t go any further in exploring what’s out there in the real world and not in the lab. Having observed behaviors over a thirty year career and conducting over 10,000 interviews, I wanted to share with others the 200 plus behaviors that I had actually observed in criminal investigations that were useful in determining veracity or were useful in developing leads or evincing information.

I also wanted to show that much can be done with the comfort / discomfort model I have written about previously in Psychology Today. Specifically that signs of confidence and gravity defying behaviors, while novel or unknown to some researchers, are in fact quite useful in determining if information is being withheld or being altered or if there are hidden issues, concealed information, even guilty knowledge.

At the same time, I wanted to put together, in one location, as far as I know for the first time, all the places on the body, from the forehead all the way down to the toes (by area), what each communicates to us about deception as well as comfort/discomfort. From philtrum plucking, to finger strumming, to ventral denial, to toe elevation, I wanted a quick guide that can be used in a forensic interview written by someone who has used this everyday to develop information and put criminals in jail. My hope is also that by seeing the practical application of these behaviors and identifying new behaviors, researchers will go out and validate all 200 plus behaviors. Nothing would please me more.

Simultaneously, I wanted to share the information with law enforcement officers as well as judicial personnel, so that their eyes are opened to a greater amount of cues so that they can avoid a repetition of what we have learned from DNA exonerations. We now know that in over 268 DNA exoneration cases, the officers got it 100% wrong because they were looking for signs of deception when they were merely seeing signs of psychological discomfort (in many cases created by the officers themselves through aggressive techniques).

Question: Can I make a career of detecting deception?

Answer: No, however, the key to success in any field is the ability to observe what others miss and to do it with precision. Yes, criminal investigations benefit from this skill but so do any of the sciences; so rather than focus on deception, learn to focus on reading people in general. After all there are some things more important than detecting deception. Observation is the key to success in most businesses and certainly is to innovation. So concentrate on developing those skills and as Pasteur said, chance will favor the prepared mind.


All things come back to the beginning. Now that “Clues to Deceit” has been out for a while, some have emailed me that they use it as a sort of compendium to the show Lie to Me, in order to determine what is real or not. That was not the intention, but it doesn’t surprise me. It will be useful until the next “in” show comes about and some new area becomes in vogue. In the meantime, for those out there interested in deception, it is always wise to read from a variety of sources and to expand your knowledge base, but know this, there are clues to deceit, but there is no behavior conclusive of deception and I’ve spent 35 years looking.

For additional reading take a look at these:

Ekman P. (1991). Telling lies: clues to deceit in the marketplace, politics, and marriage. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Navarro, Joe. 2011. Clues to Deceit: A Practical List. Amazon Kindle.

Navarro, Joe. 2008. What Every Body Is Saying. New York: Harper Collins.

Vrij, Aldert. 2000. Detecting Lies and deceit: the psychology of lying and the implications for professional practice. Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Joe Navarro can be reached at and he can be followed on Twitter at @Navarrotells. Copyright © 2011, Joe Navarro.


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