Why you can’t lie

2013-06-15 09:30

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Our body language will always give us away, says author and fraud investigator Clifton Coetzee. With Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius back in court this week to face a charge of murder, Clifton gives tips on how to read subconscious clues

There are sure to have been times when, during the course of a conversation, you’ve had the feeling something isn’t quite right. You start to suspect the person you are talking to is either leaving something out or worse, lying.

Why? What are the clues you are picking up to make you feel this way?

When a person gives their version of an event or incident they will relate a mostly truthful and plausible story.

If that person practises deception, then they will edit their story, taking out any embarrassing, shameful or criminal activities and replacing these with fabrications, which we refer to as ‘sensitive’ parts of the story.

The astute and trained observer will detect this editing process and home in on the sensitive parts. By further questioning they’ll seek to restore the ‘out-takes’ in that person’s story, in order to uncover the truth.

And that is where the essential difference lies between the ‘ordinary’ investigator and the skilled, trained investigator.

There’s a big gap between a strong suspicion that deception is being practised and being able to detect exactly where the lies occur.

The telltale signs often happen below the level of conscious awareness. Being subliminal, the listener is often aware of little more than an uneasy feeling of disquiet. Something just doesn’t ring true.

We learn to read these signs at a very young age, even before we’re able to cope with language.

We learn, as we grow older, that people are able to manipulate facial expressions only imperfectly. We’ve all met people whose smiles don’t seem to correspond with the look in their eyes.

We all know that certain people, in particular those very close to us, can often ‘see right through us’ no matter how hard we try to conceal our thoughts and feelings.

The deep nuances of facial expression are involuntary and beyond our control, though we do tend to become more adept at faking sincerity and hiding some of these telltale expressions. Children, by contrast, are delightfully open and guileless.

Criminal psychologists have for a long time noted the relationship between involuntary eye movements and what people are actually thinking. They noticed that when people are visualising something their eyes tend to become unfocused.

Visually remembered events will usually cause the person’s eyes to flick upwards and to their left, while fabrication of events will often be accompanied by their eyes flicking upwards and to their right – almost as though they were looking at a script.

In the majority of cases, the left brain is associated with logic and memory, while the right brain is associated with creativity and imagination.

Likewise, constructed (fabricated) sounds – such as lying about what somebody said or that one heard a gunshot – will make an individual’s eyes flick right and towards the ears, while constructed (fabricated) feelings will have their eyes flicking downwards and to the right.

To increase the reliability of this behaviour, the investigator looks for other confirming cues occurring at the same time, and in response to any sensitive part of the story or alibi.

When these phenomena repeat reliably, we say that the subject is displaying a cluster of cues.

Here are some signs to look for:

  • Head turned aside, avoiding direct eye contact. Almost as though they’re ignoring or denying your presence in the room.
  • Too direct eye contact. Often because people associate ‘shifty eyes’ with lying, when they themselves lie they tend to overdo the fixing of eye contact.
  • Tenseness around the shoulders. The head is very still, shoulders and head turn as one; the eyes seem reluctant to follow. Shoulders may be hunched.
  • Closed posture. Subject’s arms are folded tight against the chest and/or he leans back in the chair, legs outstretched, indicating that the subject is on the defensive and trying to put some distance between themselves and the interviewer.
  • Partial closure of posture. Subject faces the interviewer but angles the body towards the room’s door, indicating that the subject is mentally trying to leave the room.
  • Subject appears to have developed dry mouth and becomes thirsty. If the subject is chewing gum, the chew rate will be very rapid to try to alleviate the symptom. If water is handy they’ll sip repeatedly. Sometimes they’ll chew in time to their pulse rate.

Oscar Pistorius

The gold medal-winning Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius was in court again this week on charges of fatally shooting his model girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine’s Day this year. Here is Clifton Coetzee’s take on what his face reveals about him:

‘The left eye presents a slight outward focus and intensity. The smile is predominantly to the right side. An askew smile is usually associated with troubled or leaking emotions. The left mouth corner does not extend beyond the vertical line through the eye centre. The upper half of the face is intense – it does not match the lower half. There is very little muscle activity around the eyes and brow area. The expression suggests self-assuredness, potential arrogance with controlled aggression – combined with the chin jut, this suggests a defiant personality. Highly intelligent, this person sums up others quickly and accurately. The high degree of self-assuredness and arrogance suggests a manipulative personality.’

Charlize Theron

‘In earlier years her smile was wider and more natural. As Charlize grew older and more comfortable in the spotlight, she began to control her smile. This control often leads to an imbalance and, in her case, she began to smile more readily to her right side. The left side seems to have been deliberately restricted, resulting in a very slight cynical expression on her left side. In addition, her left eye has a more intense involvement while her right eye has a softer look. Generally, her face is well balanced and reflects a person with a naturally soft side – no signs of malice or personality imbalance.’

Robert Mugabe

‘In static mode, the face is fairly symmetrical at first observation, but covering the right side of the face highlights the differences from side to side. The left side eye is set slightly lower than the right. The left side mouth extension is shorter.

The right side smile muscles are decidedly activated, while the left side are not. The left side has a slightly flat expression. I see no evidence of dual personality.

In many photographs of Mugabe where he displays a full smile, the surrounding eye muscles are not consistent with the lower face muscles. I contend that these smiles are forced and insincere. This person activates the cheek muscles to accentuate his smile, but the eyes and mouth do not support the activity. I contend that this person is false in character.’

Clifton Coetzee is a licensed fraud investigator who has trained and worked with American and Israeli police and intelligence experts. He has plied his trade in the UK, America, Spain, Lebanon and Australia. He conducts and instructs polygraph tests, voice stress analysis, statement veracity analysis and forensic interview techniques.

Here’s what he has to say in his new book, Eyes, Lies, Analyse (R200, Rebel ePublishers) about how your body language will always tell the truth – even when you aren’t.

»Get your copy of iMag in City Press on Sundays.

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