The Eye Contact Myth

Originally Posted on Humintell’s Blog Section

According to social psychologist and microexpressions expert Dr. Mark Frank, eye contact (or lack of) is “one of the most misunderstood aspects of deception”.

Many videos, articles, and newscasts suggest that a person’s eye contact and/or eye gaze often times has a hidden meaning: Looking up to the right means someone is making up something. Looking up to the left means they’re remembering something. If someone isn’t looking at you, they’re lying. The list goes on and on.

But how accurate are these claims?

There have been over 30 studies that examined eye contact as a variable when lying and most of them have shown that there is no tell-tale sign when someone is being deceptive.

According to Dr. Frank, 6 of these 30 studies observed gaze aversion- the act of looking away from an object which had been previously focused on. All 6 of the studies concluded that eye contact does not significantly change as a function of lying or telling the truth.

Recent studies have come to the same conclusion. In 2008, Dr. Stephen Porter’s of Dalhousie University published a study called “Lying? The Face Betrays Deceiver’s True Emotions, But In Unexpected Ways”.

Porter concluded that it is indeed the face that gives liars away, but not in the stereotypical ways we believe. To him “it’s not the shifty eyes or sweaty brow or an elongated nose (à la Pinocchio) the lie detector should look for. Instead, other elements of a liar’s face will give them away – ‘cracking’ briefly and allowing displays of true emotion to leak on to the face”.

Yet, despite the overwhelming evidence that eye-contact has nothing to do with lying, a study conducted by over 90 scientists examined over 5,000 people in 75 countries and what they believe about liars. The number one answer across all cultures was the (false) belief that liars will not look you in the eye. This belief goes back almost 3,000 years, to the sacred texts of Hindu culture.

So why does this misunderstanding exist?

There is no simple answer to this complex question, but Dr. Frank alludes that it may be associated with children’s behavior when they lie. He states that eye contact is probably a good clue to deception with younger children – possibly due to the emotion of guilt –  but that as they grow older, children learn socially that they have to maintain eye contact in order to lie successfully.

By the time they are adults, most people have learned to make eye contact when they lie. Yet, the belief that eye contact is correlated with deception may still persist.