Can Body Language Experts Tell When People are Lying?

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I have pretty severe depression and also terrible internet habits, so I recently found myself falling into a YouTube hole of True Crime videos. Basically, I attempt to work writing things while in the background a man calmly describes a brutal murder, usually of a woman, usually by her husband, lover, or male stalker. It’s…extremely not helpful but you’re not my therapist so we’re NOT going into it.

But after I fell into this hole, I also got hit with YouTube’s fantastic algorithm. If you go on YouTube and watch more than five videos on the same topic, at some point you will inevitably encounter the stupidest, most pseudoscientific version of that topic in YouTube’s recommendation. There it is. Watson’s Law.

The version of that for True Crime, apparently, is body language experts. Because sure enough, channels like Derek Van Schaik have started showing up in my recommended list. Guys like Van Schaik claim to have a superior level of understanding body language to be able to tell specifically when someone is lying and when they aren’t.

This was a very popular scheme back in the early 2000s, when Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the fascinating psychologist Paul Ekman. Ekman developed the concept of “microexpressions,” little facial tics that can tip you off to whether or not someone is lying to you. For instance, he catalogued basically every facial expression possible and then pointed out that Bill Clinton used numbers “twelve, fifteen, seventeen, and twenty-four, with an eye roll” when he was lying about something.

If you don’t know about Ekman, you may know about the TV show he inspired, Lie to me, in which Tim Roth plays a brilliant psychologist with a near-magical ability to detect when people are lying based on their microexpressions. It was extremely dumb and I kind of loved it. Tim Roth! Solving murders! What’s not to love?

Well, I guess I don’t love the spread of pseudoscience to a larger population. Because yeah, once it hits the police procedural level, it’s definitely pseudoscience. But was it pseudoscience prior to that point? Honestly, it’s hard to say. Ekman himself has definitely made a very good case for most of his hypotheses, including his idea that expression of emotion is universal across all human cultures. So, a smile is a sign of happiness whether you’re in San Francisco or Guangzhou or Tierra del Fuego. 

Microexpressions as a sign of lying, though, are a bit trickier. Ekman himself points out how rare it is for anyone to be able to detect microexpressions and ferret out liars with any degree of certainty. He says that the people he has trained can do it with 95% accuracy, and that’s with Ekman’s direct, personal training. And even then, the point isn’t simply to detect a lie based on a random behavior, like itching your nose or looking to the left before you answer a question. Ekman points out that those are myths, and that training in microexpressions is more about detecting when someone is hiding an emotion, like anger or fear, and then figuring out why they are hiding that emotion in this particular context.

How many of Ekman’s well-trained lie-spotters go on to make popular YouTube videos about whether or not an Instagram influencer is lying about the quality of her lipsticks? I’d guess about zero. But they’re out there, claiming to be able to spot lies. Derek Van Shaik is the one who keeps popping up in my feed, so I looked into him. Sure enough, he has no proper training in microexpressions, body language, or psychology. The closest he comes is a minor in behavioral science (with a major in political science). Does that mean he’s wrong? Absolutely not! Even Ekman points out that some people are naturals at spotting liars. But people like Van Shaik claim to take a scientific look at the body language of strangers in order to determine whether or not they’re lying, and that’s…immoral. Extremely immoral. It would be like someone who took a few biology classes in college watching YouTube videos and diagnosing people with illnesses. “See the way his skin is slightly yellow? Clear sign of jaundice.” You wouldn’t do that, so why would you call strangers liars and say it’s science? Well, here’s a guess. A million views isn’t too bad.

YouTubers like Van Schaik seem to make most of their videos by simply watching videos of people who we know are lying and then pointing out the body language that they think makes it clear they’re lying. That’s easy. What’s hard is watching videos of people who you don’t know, talking about things that aren’t obviously lies, and picking out which ones are lies. 

Let’s see what happens when an untrained lie detector has a look at a video where he’s “not sure” if the person in the video is lying. In this case, it’s Van Schaik examining a video of Bob Lazar on Joe Rogan. I say Van Schaik is “not sure” Lazar is lying to be kind, but let’s drop that pretense: Lazar is lying, because he’s been a liar for three entire decades by now, and Van Schaik shares an audience and a certain energy with Joe Rogan, both being mediocre white men who think they’re smarter than they are.

If you’re not aware, Bob Lazar is a man who believes in aliens and since 1989 has claimed that he helped the military reverse engineer alien technology near Area 51. He has never been employed by the Air Force, he never attended MIT or Caltech as he claimed, and in 1990 he was arrested and pled guilty toinvolvement in a prostitution ring. He is a Grade A kook. He’s been lying for literally 30 years, and at this point he can do it with his eyes shut, and he probably even believes it. Anyone with any sense can look at this story and say without a shadow of a doubt that Lazar is a liar.

But Van Schaik either has no sense, or is willing to suspend it because his gullible audience wants to believe that Lazar is truthful and Joe Rogan is a genius.

And that’s where we start to really see the harm of this particular pseudoscience of “body language experts” who have no training or ethics. On the one hand, you have the possibility of these idiots accusing innocent people of lying. On the other hand, you have assholes who are pretending to use science to prop up other morons and scam artists. That’s the ultimate irony, here: lying to an audience about your own superhuman ability to detect lies, in order to excuse other liars. It’s the inception of pseudoscience.

And it’s not just YouTubers doing this. As I was researching this video, I saw this Tweet from US prosecutor Joyce Alene, who writes, “As a prosecutor, I was taught that when a witness looks down & to the right as they answer, it’s a signal they are not being truthful.” She included a link to an interview with Mike Pence answering questions on his involvement with Ukraine, and sure enough he does look down and to the right! But that also happens to be where his paperwork is. My friend, psychologist Richard Wiseman, actually studied whether or not your eyes can betray whether you’re telling the truth back in 2012 and he found that no, they don’t at all. But here we are, 7 years later, and someone who is responsible for identifying criminals and putting them in prison has just admitted to using pseudoscience to do her job. That is terrifying. Sure, it’s up to a judge and a jury in the end, but prosecutors have a huge amount of leverage to determine who they pursue charges against, and what sentencing they recommend.

So how do you actually tell when someone is lying? Honestly, the research tells us that you may as well ignore their body language. Pay attention not to how they’re saying something but to what they’re saying. Trained researchers may be able to detect lies based on how many details a person includes, or what words they choose. But you, an untrained person, can also pay attention and get a hint that someone may be lying. Does their story make sense? Is it externally consistent, like does it violate the laws of physics? Is it internally consistent, in that what they said 10 minutes ago jibe with what they’re saying now? Or do they claim to be able to read body language to tell that someone who says he stole alien fuel from Area 51 is telling the truth? Because yeah, that’s a classic sign that someone is lying.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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