What the Eyes Reveal: Myth vs. Fact

What the Eyes Reveal:  Myth Vs. Fact.

It happened again yesterday.  I was discussing how body language help you tell when somebody is lying, when the person I was talking to said, “I’ve heard that when a person is lying his eyes look up and to the left.” 

“Where did you learn this,” I asked.   He told me he had heard it on a television show. 

What he said was one of the very common bits of misinformation about eye behavior and what it reveals that I encounter over and over.   But it’s hardly the only one.   Indeed, I think I hear and read more nonsense about eye behavior than any other area of body language.    Because of this, I’d like to mention two common myths about the eyes and then give you the facts that really will help you learn to read people.


Myth:  A liar can’t look you in the eyes.

Fact:  Research shows that most often the opposite is true.  A liar intuitively understands that lack of eye contact will make you suspicious, so he often over compensates by making excessive eye contact. 

In American culture gaze avoidance is typically a sign of discomfort.   It may indicate that there is something about your presence that makes the person feel awkward or unpleasant.  However, in many cultures avoidance of eye contact is a sign of deference or respect.   It’s extremely important to take their culture into consideration.  It’s possible that what you’re seeing is a positive sign and not a negative one.

Although gaze avoidance may not indicate that a person is uncomfortable or experiencing negative emotions, there is an eye behavior that does reliably indicate this and is not limited to any specific culture.   This behavior is called “blocking.”  When a person is experiencing negative emotions, he may unconsciously find ways to block off his field of view.  Some of the more common variants of this are increasing blinking, closing the eyes, rubbing the eyes, and covering the eyes with one’s hand.  Sometimes even sun glasses can be used as part of eye blocking behavior.

I saw a great example of Eye Blocking when I was sitting at the head table at a corporate awards banquet I was entertaining at recently.  One of the guests began to tell a joke that was a little off color.  He had been drinking and he was very loud.  Almost as soon as he started the joke his wife closed her eyes.  Clearly she had heard this joke before and was embarrassed by her husband every time he chose to tell it.


Myth:  If a person looks up and to the right, it means they’re creating a story in their mind.  If they look up and to the left,  it means that they’re remembering a story they’ve created in the past.  Either way, it means they’re lying.

Fact:  Eye motion does have important meaning, but the direction of the eye motion tells you nothing whatsoever.    When you see a person’s eyes shifting, it means they’re processing information.   In fact, it’s almost impossible to process information without shifting the direction of the eyes.  The technical term for this is Conjugate Lateral Eye Movement, or CLEM. 

Ask a person to visualize a picture and notice that his eyes will almost invariably look up.  But not always.  Sometimes he will look down or to the side.  The reason his eyes move, though, is not that he is making something up, but simply that he is using a lot of brain power, and the shifting of the eyes allows him to reduce the distraction that would come from attending to the outside world. 

So when you see somebody’s eyes shift, what you can take from that is that they are doing some heavy thinking.  Whatever they’re talking about has a lot of details to be chosen from, and they are carefully considering which details are important to relate to you.   There are times when this could be seen as a possible sign of deception.  If what a person is telling you should be very simple or is something they ought to know without any deliberation, then eye shift might indicate that there is something to their story that they’re leaving out.  But if they’re talking about something important, or that has a lot of detail, it probably means they’re trying to figure out which points are most important or necessary to tell you.

What makes Eye Blocking and Eye Shift such useful techniques is that their meaning doesn’t vary from culture to culture.   All body language cues must be interpreted in the proper context, but when you see either of these behaviors you can be reasonably sure you’re getting an accurate glimpse into that person’s hidden thoughts.


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