The Neuro-Science of Lying

A recent meta-study of 60 independent research studies on deception by Dr. R. Edward Geiselman and his team have uncovered a classic set of behaviors that indicate a pattern of deception.

Dr. Geiselman has a Masters degree in Experimental Psychology from Ohio University, and a Ph.D. degree in Experimental Psychology from Ohio University in 1976. He has been a member of the core faculty at UCLA for almost 30 years.

He is one of the world's foremost experts on how to spot a lie.

How to Spot a Lie?...Understand That Lying is Hard Work

Lying takes heavy cognitive work. There are specific tasks in constructing a lie:

  • Your frontal lobe alerts you that you do not want to disclose the truth.
  • Your mind endeavors to fabricate a lie on the spot, or access the memory of the planned lie prepared for this occasion.
  • You need to concentrate and focus on presenting the lie as best you can.
  • You need to gauge the reaction of the listener to see whether they are accepting it. This process of en-gauge-ment instead of authentic engagement is one of the essential "tells" of a liar.
  • The body is used to being a confirming, congruent "language" to the spoken word. It's hard enough to construct lies, but flawlessly compelling your body into being perfectly congruent with your lies is virtually impossible. If you are lying, your body language is mannered as you seek to present a coherence stance with what you are saying. A quick, one-sided shrug is a clear sign of incongruency between body and mind. Incongruency is the hallmark of lying.

As is often the case in social science, what we discover through careful research frequently contradicts popular belief. Geiselman and his team are hard-core lie detectors. The team regularly engages in ongoing applied research, teaching lie-detecting interview techniques to police, military, and intelligence officers. Here are a just a few of Dr. Geiselman's findings:

How to Spot a Lie

  • One of the cliches of deception is the fast-talking glib explanation. The opposite is actually the case. As a general rule, liars are laconic. They say little, and generally tend to go dark. Instead of trying to tell an elaborate story, they actually clam up.
  • On the other hand, a seemingly contradictory indication is that an explanation is often provided before one is requested. Think of this as a sequencing pattern. If a liar is asking, they may tend to be brief, but they may offer an elaborate story as a way of establishing a narrative before they are even asked to provide one.
  • If you push a liar for specific details they will struggle to provide specific answers, while an honest response is openly specific.
  • The notion that a liar will avert his eyes (presumably in shame) is another cultural myth. A liar will tend to stare right at you while lying, and continue staring afterward. Research tells us that this is because they are attempting to gauge your reactions to see if you are buying what they are selling. An honest answer will involve looking away, which oddly enough, is correlated with truthfulness. Neuro-Linguistic programming has mapped the eye movements of how memory is accessed, and this analysis provides a valuable set of clues for detecting deception.
  • Another body language "tell" is that liars tend to gesture toward their bodies, often pointing to themselves, or touching their face. Honest responders tend to point away. Liars also touch or tighten their lips, or play with their hair. Or you might see a "gestural retreat" with a step backward, and crossed arms. Or they rub their necks. Sometimes they may wring their hands, self-caressing, soothing themselves through the anxiety of deception. Or a finger pointing one way, while their eyes are pointing another. Body language never lies.
  • Liars will often act confused and ask you to repeat the question. This is because, unless a lie is prepared beforehand, the prefrontal cortex needs time to construct a suitable fiction to answer the question.
  • Honest answers tend to have the same cadence and pace of speech within any given spoken sentence. Liars, however, change their pace of speaking within the same sentence.

How to Spot a Lie...Tell it to Me Backwards!

Geiselman teaches police and intelligence officers how to use neuro-science to add to the already heavy cognitive load of the liar by asking them to tell their story backwards.

 Deceptive people are already under a heavy cognitive load because they have to maintain the consistency of their story over time. They also have to monitor the person who is interviewing them to see if they’re buying the story or they have to adjust the story to make it more believable.The reverse-order technique adds to that heavy cognitive load, increasing the likelihood of the telltale signs of deception.  We use the reverse-order technique near the end of the interview when we think we’ve got about as much information as we’re going to get from their story and our follow-up questions.We’ll say something like, "Thank you very much for what you’ve told me. It’s been very helpful, but now I’d like you to try just one more thing to see if you can remember anything further.

I’d like you to start at the very end of the story as you’ve told it and go backward in time, being as detailed as you can." Deceptive people have a great deal of trouble doing that. Some truthful people do as well, but deceptive people really have a tough time doing it, and the basic indicators of deception start showing up. R. Edward Geiselman

Lying and the Restless Lie Face

  1. Remember in most cases, the liar has to construct a story. When the brain is making something up, the eyes will give them away. the eyes automatically move up and to their right which is your left). The liar is in the process accessing their right hemisphere which is where the visual cortex resides. If they were accessing a true memory of something they actually saw, said, or did, then they would look up and to their left ( which is your right).
  2.  Notice the slight rise of the eyebrows in the center forehead. This is a micro-expression which is a sign of fear. This elevation of the eyebrows may be detected during the telling of the lie, or while they are holding eye contact with you (as liars tend to do)  just after telling a lie. The reason for fear is obviously the fear of disclosure. This is another reason why a liar will study your face intently.
  3. Look at her turned down lips. This is another involuntary indication of fear, (and perhaps even distress?). The muscles around the lips are very revealing of emotional states and are very difficult to bring under voluntary control.
  4. Notice the hand toward the body, a bad liar will often touch their lips or otherwise obscure their face.

How To Spot a Lie... Start by Not Trusting Your Gut Reaction

Geiselman warns that it's a myth that we can have a reliable "gut reaction" to detecting a lie. Your actual ability to detect a lie is not at all related to your "gut" reaction.

This is another popular myth that has been dismissed by research. It's not that you don't have a "gut" reaction. You do. But this reaction is far less predictive of your ability to spot a lie than you may believe. On the other hand, Dr. Geiselman warns that if you tend to hyper-focus and over-analyze, you might do worse than just going with your gut reaction.

Lies and Couples Therapy

Needless to say, competent couples therapists, by definition, must be skilled in working with lies and deception. They pursue training in neuro-science and understand how to confront and intervene.

Lies show up in marriages in a number of ways, such as couples struggling to recover from infidelity. Couples therapists benefit from taking micro-expression training and reviewing applied social science research. These efforts can help improve your ability to know how to spot a lie.

But to understand how to intervene is another matter altogether. This is where your therapeutic orientation shows up. Truth detection, like couples therapy, is an emerging social science.

It's important for a couples therapist to determine what sort of lies and deception are involved in a marital betrayal. Dr. Ellyn Bader, in her Developmental Model of couples therapy, describes four main categories of lies that may occur in marriages: Loving Lies, Conflict-Avoiding Lies, Passive-Aggressive Lies, and the Big Fat Felony Lies.

Dr. Bader reminds us that although deception is a barrier to intimacy, everyone rationalizes a need to deceive at one point or another. Dr. Bader also coined the controversial notion of the Liar-Invitee, and wrote a book on patterns of marital deception. I will be addressing some of these concepts in an upcoming post.


Dr. Geiselman's study was published in The American Journal of Forensic Psychiatry (Geiselman et al., 2011).

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