Your behavior says you’re lying!


By Todd Ward, PhD, BCBA-D ([email protected])

Founding Editor,

Behavior analysts have talked a little about lying.  For example, Skinner (1957) regarded lying as a distorted tact.  For him, lying was indicative of a certain type of stimulus control.  But what does lying really look like topographically?

Psychologium recently published an article titled “11 Body Signs Showing That Someone Is Lying To You.”   The list is briefly summarized below.  Take a look and let us know what you think.  The behaviors listed can be thought of as precursor behaviors that reliably precede a lie, or as concurrent behaviors that might not carry the function of a distorted tact, but may co-occur with the verbal act of lying nonetheless.

Head Position: When asked a question, the liar will likely make sudden jerky head movements.

Breathing: Approximations to breathlessness may occur, represented by marked breaths, raised shoulders, and a distorted voice.

Rigid Stature: Sometimes the liar may be given away by a marked lack of movement, often accompanied by muscle tension or rigidity.

Repetitive Speech: The liar may repeat phrases over and over, trying to convince you (or themselves) of their story, and possibly buy time to elaborate on the lie.

T.M.I.: Like repetitive speech, providing too much information on a topic when not requested can be a tell tale sign that someone is lying due to an effort to convince the other person of the lie.

Covering the Mouth: If someone is lying, they may cover their mouth as part of a reluctance to respond or hide certain emotional responses.

Covering Vulnerable Areas:  Vulnerable areas include the head, throat, chest, abdomen, and so on.  Covering the throat, for example, has been observed in court room defendants while hearing unpleasant witness testimony.

Shuffling Feet: As you might have surmised by now, liars are often nervous and I’m sure you have shuffled your feet at least a few times when the butterflies hit.

Difficulty Speaking: Related to the flight or fight response of the nervous system, the body naturally restricts salivation under stress.  Stress experienced during a lie can lead to a dry throat.

Infrequent Blinking: The famous conman Bernie Madoff was known for extended bouts of unbroken eye contact in an effort to persuade his victims to participate in his schemes.

Pointing: This goes along with the stress response, which can accompany anger.  Pointing can be an exaggerated attempt by the liar to defend his/her position, however dishonest.

Let us know what you think about this list in the comments below!  Also consider subscribing to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is President of bSci21 Media, LLC, which owns and  Todd serves as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management and as an editorial board member for Behavior and Social Issues.  He has worked as a behavior analyst in day centers, residential providers, homes, and schools, and served as the director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Todd’s areas of expertise include writing, entrepreneurship, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Instructional Design, Organizational Behavior Management, and ABA therapy. Todd can be reached at [email protected].

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