Can You Spot Liars Through Their Body Language? A Former FBI Agent Breaks Down the Clues in Non-Verbal Communication

Can you spot a liar? We all know peo­ple who think they can, and very often they claim to be able to do so by read­ing “body lan­guage.” Clear­ing one’s throat, touch­ing one’s mouth, cross­ing one’s arms, look­ing away: these and oth­er such ges­tures, they say, indi­cate on the part of the speak­er a cer­tain dis­tance from the truth. In the WIRED “Trade­craft” video above, how­ev­er for­mer FBI spe­cial agent Joe Navar­ro more than once pro­nounces ideas about such phys­i­cal lie indi­ca­tors “non­sense.” And hav­ing spent 25 years work­ing to iden­ti­fy peo­ple pre­sent­ing them­selves false­ly to the world — “my job was to catch spies,” he says — he should know, at the very least, what isn’t a tell.

Not that all the throat-clear­ing and arm-cross­ing does­n’t indi­cate some­thing. Navar­ro calls such behav­iors “self-soothers,” phys­i­cal actions we use to paci­fy our­selves in stress­ful moments. Of course, even if self-soothers pro­vide no use­ful infor­ma­tion about whether a per­son is telling the truth, that does­n’t mean they pro­vide no use­ful infor­ma­tion at all.

But Navar­ro’s career has taught him that actions deci­sive­ly indi­cat­ing decep­tion are much more spe­cif­ic, and with­out rel­e­vant knowl­edge com­plete­ly illeg­i­ble: take the sus­pect­ed spy he had under sur­veil­lance who gave the game away just by leav­ing a flower shop hold­ing a bou­quet fac­ing not upward but down­ward, “how they car­ry flow­ers in east­ern Europe.”

For the most part, detect­ing a liar requires a great deal of what Navar­ro calls “face time,” a neces­si­ty when it comes to observ­ing the full range of and pat­terns in an indi­vid­u­al’s forms of non-ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tion. In the video he ana­lyzes footage of a pok­er game, the kind of set­ting that height­ens our aware­ness of such non-ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tion. At the table we all know to put on a “pok­er face” and shut our mouths, but even when we say noth­ing, Navar­ro empha­sizes, we’re con­stant­ly trans­mit­ting a high quan­ti­ty of infor­ma­tion about our­selves. What­ev­er the set­ting, it comes through in how we dress, how we walk, how we car­ry our­selves — espe­cial­ly if we think it does­n’t. In the eyes of those who know how to inter­pret this infor­ma­tion, all the world becomes a pok­er game.

Navar­ro is the author of two books on this sub­ject: The Dic­tio­nary of Body Lan­guage: A Field Guide to Human Behav­ior and What Every Body Is Say­ing: An Ex-FBI Agen­t’s Guide to Speed-Read­ing Peo­ple. For a con­trar­i­an point of view that chal­lenges the idea that we can ever read peo­ple accu­rate­ly, see Mal­colm Glad­well’s new book, Talk­ing to Strangers: What We Should Know about the Peo­ple We Don’t Know.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Han­nah Arendt Explains How Pro­pa­gan­da Uses Lies to Erode All Truth & Moral­i­ty: Insights from The Ori­gins of Total­i­tar­i­an­ism

How to Spot Bull­shit: A Primer by Prince­ton Philoso­pher Har­ry Frank­furt

FBI’s “Vault” Web Site Reveals Declas­si­fied Files on Hem­ing­way, Ein­stein, Mar­i­lyn & Oth­er Icons

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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