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So…it appears the eyes don’t really have it after all

Friday, November 16, 2012
posted by Douglas Keene

Back when I was in graduate school, a book titled Frogs Into Princes was causing quite a stir. It was the introduction to Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) and quickly gathered devotees. We even hear about NLP principles from our mock jurors decades later:

“Eyes rolling upward when asked questions, as if he had to remember what to say.” 

“When I watch her testimony, there is something about her I just don’t trust. I’m good with people and I know she is a liar.”  

We hear a lot of statements in response to deposition excerpts like “her eyes went up and to the right and that means she is lying”! [They also confuse this and say looking up and to the left means deception when NLP advocates say the rightward gaze indicates deception.] Or our mock jurors will say they can look into a witnesses eyes (they are, after all, the mirror to the soul) and definitively detect deception.

We have stopped trying to correct these misperceptions and instead, simply work with our witnesses to minimize behaviors commonly thought to indicate deception–even when it has been clearly proven those behaviors are not at all indicative of deception. What is important is that people think they are seeing signs of deception–and so we address those common behaviors in witness preparation.

A new research paper–available to everyone online, adds to the body of literature debunking NLP principles. [In the interest of equal time, there is a lot of research, including doctoral dissertations and peer reviewed studies, that purport to affirm NLP principles. There are two sides to the issue, and without rolling out the debate, we are decidedly skeptical.] So we’re telling you about it and then we won’t write about NLP again. Probably. These researchers looked at NLP via three different studies. None of the three studies supported the tenets of NLP. That is, there were no differences in the directional eye movements of liars and truth-tellers.

“In short, all three studies provided no evidence to support the notion that the patterns of eye-movements promoted by many NLP practitioners aid lie detection. 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.”

“This work is the first to experimentally test the claims made by NLP practitioners about lie detection. The results provide considerable grounds to be skeptical of the notion that the proposed patterns of eye-movements provide a reliable indicator of lying. As such, it would seem irresponsible for such practitioners to continue to encourage people to make important decisions on the basis of such claims.”

It would be nice if it was so simple to detect deception. But it isn’t. Scratching the nose doesn’t indicate deception. Lack of eye contact doesn’t indicate deception. Shifting in one’s chair doesn’t indicate deception. And, it would appear, moving your eyes in certain ways does not indicate deception either. Indications of lying typically involve divergences from individual practices when telling the truth. Someone may fidget whenever they feel put on the spot, not simply when they are lying. Some people will shift their gaze when lying, but others don’t. The reason that lie detector exams (for all of their faults) begin with asking questions known to be true and false, is to establish an individual baseline for the individual. Lying is personal. We tend to do it in our own idiosyncratic ways.

In preparing witnesses for trial, appearance of credibility or appearance of deception is the central issue. The question is whether jury-eligible citizens believe the witness or not, and whether we can prepare the witness to respond in a way that enhances credibility. For us, therein lies the ongoing intrigue of doing this work. You can never assume. And that’s a good thing.

Wiseman R, Watt C, ten Brinke L, Porter S, Couper SL, & Rankin C (2012). The eyes don’t have it: Lie detection and Neuro-Linguistic Programming. PLoS ONE, 7 (7) PMID: 22808128


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