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The claim is often made by people of varying credentials that humans are able to spot lies and determine dishonesty in other people through simple observing of body posture, facial cues, eye direction, etc. i.e.: Body language.

People like Pamela Meyer (who even gave a TED talk about the subject) have turned this into a business and sell books, seminars, etc. about the subject, and make the claims that theirs is a reliable method for becoming a human lie detector.

So, my question:

Is there any scientific evidence to support the claim that untruthful statements can be detected, by observing body language alone, with any degree of accuracy? And, related, how accurate (if this is applicable) is the detection rate of claimed experts/professionals.

In other words, if I were to wear a coat that hides my shirt and said: "I am wearing a blue shirt underneath this coat.", is it possible, through my body language alone, to determine if I am telling the truth?

Note: I am not referring here to analyzing a statement for inconsistencies, which may reveal a lie. I am only talking about detection of lies through body language.

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    Here is an interesting article: io9.com/… – Cornelius Jun 29 '14 at 10:22
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    Related question: skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/5134/… – Oddthinking Jun 29 '14 at 11:31
  • The kind of lie detection Meyer talks about is about detecting emotions and they whether they are consistent with what someone is saying. When it comes to the color of the shirt you are wearing that's not the kind of issue where it's clear what emotions it should raise and the kind of emotions that would come up when you aren't saying the truth about it. – Christian Jun 29 '14 at 12:02
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Is it possible to determine dishonesty in a person through body language?

No. "to determine" is a categorical verb. Maybe "to suspect" would have been more appropriate.

So, what does body language include? According to The Free Dictionary by Farlex:

  • gestures
  • postures
  • facial expressions, which according to Paul Elkman are of four types:

    • macroexpressions - these are normal expressions, so you wouldn't expect these from a liar
    • microexpressions - these are of interest, but they last only 67 miliseconds which makes them difficult to detect and very easy to miss
    • false expressions
    • masked expressions

Gestures and postures

Here are some gestures common when lying: the neck scratch, covering the mouth or touching your face [1]. But none can be specific to lying. Most people believe that liars avoid eye contact [2]. So if someone avoids eye contact it means that person is lying? No. Children who avoid eye contact when answering questions are providing better answers [3]. What about Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Native American cultures which believe eye contact is disrespectful [4]? Several studies concluded that gestures are an important addition to verbal communication. It seems that the effects of gestures are larger when they are not overlapping the verbal information [5]. What kind of gestures accompany a speech is determined by situation [6] so you can't assess someone's gestures without evaluating the corresponding speech. Listeners attempt to find a meaning also in the hand movements that accompany speech [7].

Body posture seems to be correlated with the manifestations of power [8]. In sports, specific deceptive movements can trick the opponent [9]. But the opponent can learn to spot those movements [10].

Facial expressions

A trained eye can spot someone's feelings and emotions (practice helps [12]):

Relative to genuine emotions, masked emotions were associated with more inconsistent expressions and an elevated blink rate; neutralized emotions showed a decreased blink rate. Negative emotions were more difficult to falsify than happiness [11].

But the context influences how one can detect microexpressions:

The results of Experiments 1 and 2 showed that negative context impaired the recognition of micro-expressions regardless of the duration of the target micro-expression. Stimulus-difference between the context and target micro-expression was accounted for in Experiment 3. Results showed that a context effect on micro-expression recognition persists even when the stimulus similarity between the context and target micro-expressions was controlled. Therefore, our results not only provided evidence for the context effect on micro-expression recognition but also suggested that the context effect might result from both the stimulus and valence differences [13].

Conclusion

Yes, body language is useful to detect someone's emotions. So, why my answer to the main question is "no"?

  • (negative) emotion is not the same as dishonesty
  • you can't get a definitive conclusion
  • body language should be assessed in correlation with context, verbal communication and key emotional circumstances
  • the conditions in the above line affect assessor's ability to spot specific changes
  • it is not possible to make a "standard" protocol to detect lies. This depends on situation, assessor's intelligence and intuition, liar's experience etc.

References:

  1. BodyLanguageUniversity.com. Accessed 29.06.2014. Available at http://www.bodylanguageuniversity.com/public/132.cfm
  2. A WORLD OF LIES. J Cross Cult Psychol. 2006 Jan;37(1):60-74. doi: 10.1177/0022022105282295. PubMed PMID: 20976033.
  3. Phelps, F. G., Doherty-Sneddon, G. and Warnock, H. (2006), Helping children think: Gaze aversion and teaching. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 24: 577–588. doi: 10.1348/026151005X49872
  4. Vermont Department of Haelth. Cultural Differences in Non­verbal Communication. Accessed 29.06.2014. Available at http://healthvermont.gov/family/toolkit/tools%5CF-6%20Cultural%20Differences%20in%20Nonverbal%20Communic.pdf
  5. Hostetter AB. When do gestures communicate? A meta-analysis. Psychol Bull. 2011 Mar;137(2):297-315. doi: 10.1037/a0022128. PubMed PMID: 21355631.
  6. Holle H, Gunter TC. The role of iconic gestures in speech disambiguation: ERP evidence. J Cogn Neurosci. 2007 Jul;19(7):1175-92. doi: 10.1162/jocn.2007.19.7.1175. PubMed PMID: 17583993.
  7. Dick AS, Goldin-Meadow S, Hasson U, Skipper JI, Small SL. Co-speech gestures influence neural activity in brain regions associated with processing semantic information. Hum Brain Mapp. 2009 Nov;30(11):3509-26. doi: 10.1002/hbm.20774. PubMed PMID: 19384890.
  8. Huang L, Galinsky AD, Gruenfeld DH, Guillory LE. Powerful postures versus powerful roles: which is the proximate correlate of thought and behavior? Psychol Sci. 2011 Jan;22(1):95-102. doi: 10.1177/0956797610391912. PubMed PMID: 21149853.
  9. Brault S, Bideau B, Craig C, Kulpa R. Balancing deceit and disguise: how to successfully fool the defender in a 1 vs. 1 situation in rugby. Hum Mov Sci. 2010 Jun;29(3):412-25. doi: 10.1016/j.humov.2009.12.004. PubMed PMID: 20417980.
  10. Sebanz N, Shiffrar M. Detecting deception in a bluffing body: the role of expertise. Psychon Bull Rev. 2009 Feb;16(1):170-5. doi: 10.3758/PBR.16.1.170. PubMed PMID: 19145029.
  11. Porter S, ten Brinke L. Reading between the lies: identifying concealed and falsified emotions in universal facial expressions. Psychol Sci. 2008 May;19(5):508-14. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02116.x. PubMed PMID: 18466413.
  12. Shen XB, Wu Q, Fu XL. Effects of the duration of expressions on the recognition of microexpressions. J Zhejiang Univ Sci B. 2012 Mar;13(3):221-30. doi: 10.1631/jzus.B1100063. PubMed PMID: 22374615.
  13. Zhang M, Fu Q, Chen YH, Fu X. Emotional context influences micro-expression recognition. PLoS ONE. 2014 Apr 15;9(4):e95018. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0095018. PubMed PMID: 24736491.
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    @Relaxed I'm interested in knowing how to differentiate "obscure" from non-"obscure" publications. What are the criteria? – Cornelius Jun 29 '14 at 17:38
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    This answer only seems to state that there is no reliable way to do this every time. However, is there evidence that you can tell a liar better than random chance? That would qualify, IMO. – RomanSt Jul 1 '14 at 2:00
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    This answer is really bad, it's concerning to see that it does not seem to bother anybody. I can't possibly (and don't want to) take it apart bit by bit in a comment but just to give some examples: the first reference is devoid of any scientific credibility, the second one is a survey of stereotypes about liars (i.e. the researchers asked random people what they think liars typically do). None of this contains any evidence that specific gestures are actually associated with lying, yet they are presented in that way. – Relaxed Jul 1 '14 at 20:14
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    @Relaxed whenever you find an answer that you consider bad, you are welcome to write a better one! In time, voting will make the difference. – Cornelius Jul 1 '14 at 20:19
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    @Cornelius I did write a better one, it was deleted… And the voting obviously does not work, this one has a +5 net score, which is precisely what I am complaining about! – Relaxed Jul 1 '14 at 20:24

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