Body Language Lying

Lies!  Humans use them so often that more than half the time they don’t even realize what they’re doing.

Lies to protect, to persecute, to reassure, to undermine, to harm and to heal are everywhere.  Are all lies are bad?  Is it so wrong to tell a person that they’re prettier than they are – if you love them?  Still, some lies are pure evil – just think about some of the racist hatred spread by the Nazis. However, no matter what kind of lies they are – they are still deception. There are many signals that give away the liar.  These are:

  • Covering the mouth
  • Scratching the upper lip or nose
  • Uncontrolled blushing
  • Facing the palms downwards
  • Lip licking
  • Sudden crossing of the legs
  • Sudden crossing of the arms
  • Sudden smoking
  • Glancing away / Sideways glancing
  • Forced eye contact
  • Overly stiff posture
  • Clenching
  • Fidgeting
  • Hand hiding
  • Pupil contraction
  • Controlled vocal tone
  • Stutters, slurs and hesitations
  • Sweating & palm wiping
  • Sudden giggling

From the list above it’s clear that there is no shortage of signals.  The real trick is interpreting them correctly.  To do this it is necessary to understand a little about people and why these signals happen.

Anxiety is the key.  When people lie, they put themselves in a state of stress.  Adrenaline floods the body, the heart beats faster, muscles tense, blood vessels dilate (or contract), pupils’ shrink, the need for nicotine increases and breathing becomes faster.  Lie detectors and their ability to work depend on these physiological reactions.  A trained body language observer doesn’t need a machine – these changes are very visible if you know what to look for because in addition to physiological changes there are psychological ones too.

From birth most westerners are taught to look at a person when they’re speaking to them.  Children instinctively cover their mouths when they lie and people seem subconsciously aware that their gestures will betray them so they hide their hands. Exactly why people do this we’ll leave up to the psychologists to explain but it is enough to know that they do.


It’s been suggested that this  is the subconscious mind trying to hide the lie. As children become adults they learn not to make this signal. Still, when the lie is significant the liar reverts and simply cannot help completely covering their mouth. This is one of the most powerful and recognisable signals that a meaningful lie has been told. It is more commonly seen in children and women and particularly when the liar just can’t believe that they’ve told such a “whopper”. Occasionally it is done as a form of physical apology for what has just been said.

Lying - Covering the mouth


Body Language Lies - Glancing Away



It’s been suggested that this is the subconscious mind trying to hide the lie. As children become adults they learn not to make this signal. Still, when the lie is significant the liar reverts and simply cannot help completely covering their mouth. This is one of the most powerful and recognisable signals that a meaningful lie has been told. It is more commonly seen in children and women and particularly when the liar just can’t believe that they’ve told such a “whopper”. Occasionally it is done as a form of physical apology for what has just been said.


As children mature, they learn that covering the mouth when lying is a complete give-away. However, the compulsion to hide the mouth is strong even in adults and the liar will often scratch their nose or lip instead. This picture shows this classic signal becoming less obvious although still very recognisable. In this case the woman has compounded her mistake by glancing away and down at the same time. This cluster clearly shows that she is ashamed at having lied. Some Psychologists believe that strong clusters of signals such as this suggest the liar may wish to be caught.




When a person holds their palm upwards (as in the picture) it is actually a sign that they’re telling the truth. If the hand was in exactly the same position but facing down – then watch out. Psychologists believe that an open palm shows that nothing is concealed that could be dangerous. For example, watch a confidence trickster or palmster and how their hands are often palm down in order to conceal. When people tell the truth the body reacts automatically and “shows’ that it has nothing to hide. If a lie is told the the hands in particular, try to hide the intention to mislead.


Unless you’ve been addicted to nicotine you may never fully understand this signal. When people lie it puts them into a significant stress-related condition. Stress triggers the brain’s need for nicotine. A person who makes an untruthful statement will suddenly feel the need to light-up. The action of lighting a cigarette also provides a much needed pause for the liar to collect their thoughts and establish their composure. Finally, the smoke itself is a screen and non-smokers in particular will be distracted.

Smokescreen - lying




This is a less obvious signal and unless a person has literally thrust their hands out of sight just before lying it should not be seen as very significant. Still, when it forms part of a cluster it adds considerable importance to other signals. For example, if a person has just made several lie-related gestures and then abruptly hides their hands the observer should conclude that the liar has become conscious that they may be giving themselves away. As a signal on its own, hiding the hands often just indicates that the person is insecure or unavailable.


In this example the liar is conscious of “wanting” to look away and so maintains an overcompensated gaze. There’s clearly something unnatural about the way the eyes lock on yours and the face is stiff and less animated than you might expect. If you feel that you are being challenged to a game of “who-blinks-first” then there is probably something wrong. In this picture the open, honest eye contact is contradicted by the tiny beads of sweat appearing on the forehead. The overly steady and forced eye contact combined with the anxiety sweat suggests deception is underway.


body language clenching



Sudden rubbing of the hands, clenching of fists and general muscle tension indicate that the person in question is experiencing bursts of stress. If the gestures are occurring continuously it may mean that the person is merely an anxious individual. However, if these signals occur sporadically and in association with verbal or non-verbal statements, they may indicate that lies are being told. As children, most people are punished for “telling lies”. This fear never quite goes away and thus telling a lie can trigger a strong but temporary anxiety reaction caused by a fear of being caught and punished.


When people lie they are naturally aware that they have done wrong and are scared of being caught-out. Most people have, at some time in their lives, been humiliated for telling a lie and being found out. This combination of shame and fear is a powerful cocktail that is rarely admitted and never forgotten. As such, the telling of a lie instantly makes the liar feel defensive and often causes them to suddenly cross their arms and / or legs. To the observer this sudden signal will seem unnatural and defensive. It is the suddenness of the movement that should alert the observer.

Sudden Arm Crossing


Body Language What!



Sometimes known as the “what can I say gesture”, this is often a last resort of the liar. In short they are saying, “This is no longer anything to do with us / me. I can’t say anything more for both of us will know that I am lying. I am disengaging from this communication. ”  As a signal it indicates final resignation – a surrender – to the situation. The palms are held up indicating a form of honesty but this is actually an acknowledgement that the observer has a “right to doubt”. It also represents a final statement that can be read as “believe what you will.” Its use is actually a last resort challenge, “I’ve told you the truth – What more can I say.”

A Word of Warning

A word of warning, signals that indicate a person is lying, particularly those related to stress, can be caused by the situation.  Nina, a member of the team, once interviewed several human resources managers and identified a pattern.  Most of the interviewers felt strongly that that the interviewees were lying – even when they weren’t.   The reason was that the stress of the job interview was causing the candidates to display signals very similar to those associated with the lie.  Let’s face it; a job interview is a pretty stressful experience.

The Voice

As verbal communication took over from body language as the primary method of communication so humans became increasingly able to use words and speech to lie.  Most people use visual clues or signals to tell if a lie is being told.  (Note the images to the right.)

This has made the telephone the most valuable tool of the liar.  You can hear but cannot see.  Still it is possible to hear the signals that tell if a lie is being told – but only if you concentrate and know what you’re listening for.  According to some linguistic and vocal tone specialists human voices become less resonant when people lie.  (It is believed that security forces and the polices use sensitive recording / analysis equipment to detect these changes)

The normal speaking voice becomes flatter, slower, loses its depth.  The impression is a less dynamic and more monotonous tone.  The reason for this is that the human brain is trying to stay ahead of what is being said and this causes the speech to lose its spontaneity and speed.  Also, because people are more cautious that their words may betray them, they say less than they normally would.  Anxiety causes breathing issues that can cause slurring or stuttering.  However, expert liars teach themselves to “believe” what they’re saying.  In confidence trickster terms this is known as the “patter’.

Stiffness of Posture

One of the most reliable signals used to identify the liar is the examination of the posture of the person in question.  Trained observers say that a liar’s body will become unnaturally stiff and awkward.  This is caused by muscle tension.  It is one of the best ways to identify a practiced liar who has learnt to suppress all other signals.  This is because people are naturally animated in their gestures and cannot suppress these without appearing tense and “wooden”.


Inexperienced liars often fidget.  Foot-tapping, pen twirling, finger flicking and general posture shifting indicate a person’s discomfort with the situation they find themselves experiencing.  On their own these are not strong signals that lying is taking place but they are useful cluster enhancers if other more finite signals are evident.

Micro Tells

These are tiny movements that can be recognised with practise and are peculiar to a specific individual. They tend to occur microseconds before a lie is told. Professional poker players are constantly looking out for these “tells” . Warning When it comes to Body language it is all too easy to see signals than can be for lying but may well be caused by something else.

All images used are of models that have assumed poses for photographic purposes.
These images in no way imply any negative characteristics about these individuals.