Do Eyes Give Away Lies?

By: Jenna Savage

Criminal shows have used it as criteria for determining whether a person is lying. Movies have incorporated it as part of determining the guilt of a character. And some neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) practitioners promote it. Overall, the belief that eye movement — in particular, the movement of the eyes up and to the right — reveals lying is a common one, propagated by popular culture and controversial science practices. But can facial cues really indicate whether or not a person is lying?

Despite common belief, the answer seems to be no, according to a recent ABC News article.

Researchers led by the University of Hertfordshire’s Richard Wiseman determined that the association between lying and the direction of eye movement is nonexistent. This is consistent with research conducted by Howard Ehrlichman, a Queens College of the City University of New York professor emeritus of psychology, who determined that eye movement does not indicate lying.

However, Ehrlichman maintains that eye movement does offer some insight into a person’s thoughts. When recalling information, individuals tend to move their eyes about once per second. Eye movement is therefore linked with retrieving information from one’s memory, rather than inventing falsehoods.

Though there seems to be a lot of research leading to the debunking of facial expressions, eye movements, and other feature changes as indicators of lying, some still propagate the belief. One such person is Donald Sanborn, the president of Credibility Assessment Technologies, the article reports. His company has licensed technology known as “ocular motor detection testing,” which is founded upon research performed by University of Utah psychologists. Sanborn maintains that the emotional response a person has to lying causes that person’s stare to shift and pupil to change its diameter, as the psychologists at the University of Utah came to the conclusion that pupil diameter, eye position, and delay in response all indicate whether a person is lying.

Using that information to fuel this new technology, Sanborn believes that his device is accurate around 85% of the time. Researchers like Wiseman and Ehrlichman, however, disagree. Their studies have indicated that the relationship between eye position and movement simply does not exist.

So, given the lack of evidence to support a relationship between eye movement and lying, why is the notion so widespread? Researchers are not sure, though some, according to the article, attribute NLP practitioners with the responsibility for propagating the myth. However, NLP practitioners are divided on the issue. Some deny responsibility, while others maintain that the relationship between eye movement and lying does exist.

Ultimately, without research into the origin of the myth, it’s difficult to point fingers at any one party. It is also difficult to eradicate the belief, as it is deeply ingrained within popular culture and certain practices, like NLP and Sanborn’s new technology. However, as research continues to address and debunk the myth, the perceived relationship is slowly being put to rest.