Does eye movement betray lying?

No. It doesn’t.

There is a widely held belief that by watching which way a person’s eyes flick when thinking about an answer to a question, you can tell if they’re lying. This belief is one of the claims made by proponents of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP).

I’ve heard this “fact” quoted several times in the past. For example, the two people running a team-working course I attended a few years ago claimed that the left side of the brain focuses more on factual recall and analysis, and the right is more dedicated to artistic and imaginative thought*. Therefore, they told us, when a person is making something up their eyes will glance up and to the right, and when remembering they’ll glance up and left. Why it’s up and sideways, I don’t know.

I’m more than a little embarrassed to admit that when I heard this claim I blindly accepted it as fact. I could offer excuses about boredom, the speakers’ conviction and position of authority, that I’d never heard of NLP before, my ignorance of psychology and neuroscience, but really I should have known better and demanded evidence.

Thankfully there are people out there who have been a little more diligent with respect to NLP. Recently published results of a study into this particular claim, performed at the University of Edinburgh, strongly suggest that the claim is false. You can read and/or download the original research paper here.

In summary, the study consisted of a series of experiments to investigate the claim that, when lying, people tend to glance right, and when remembering facts they look left. The results showed no correlation between lying and eye movement. To quote from the paper:

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.

The authors soon continue with:

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.

I am grateful to Richard Wiseman, Caroline Watt and others firstly for making me aware of the invalidity of the ‘lying eyes’ claim, but also for leading me to read up a bit more about neuro-linguistic programming. NLP was presented to those of us on that team-working course as scientific fact. I now find that it’s pseudoscientific nonsense, with little, if any, supporting evidence. So much for my poker strategy (which also never worked).

Further reading:

NLP eye accessing

NLP in general

* A quick internet search shows that this statement about brain lateralization is a huge simplification, and most mental functions are distributed across both hemispheres.


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