Wednesday, May 21, 2014


A few months ago I channel-surfed through a trailer for The Mentalist which showed the hero telling a suspect “I know you’re lying because you [winked, looked away, gave some other body language indication of lying].” My immediate reaction was to say “Baloney!” and keep on channel surfing. I don’t remember the specific tell that the mentalist described, but I do remember thinking that there were hundreds of innocent explanations for why a witness would do that during an interrogation.

Here’s my take on body language. We are all experts at interpreting body language if we leave the interpretation at the subconscious level. Have you ever had this happen? You see someone reacting in a way that makes you mistrust him, you can’t really put your finger on what it is, but you are uncomfortable. Trust that feeling. Your subconscious interpreted the person’s body language as that of an untruthful witness based on thousands of generations of heredity. Our remote ancestors’ survival depended on reading body language, and they passed their talent on to their offspring, who passed it on to their offspring, who eventually passed it on to us. This type of interpretation happens in the more primitive parts of our brains. If we try to overthink it, we wind up in "analysis paralysis" like Aesop's centipede. When asked how he could operate so many legs in unison without getting them tangled up, the centipede admitted that he didn't know, but he'd concentrate on it and figure out how he did it. The more he thought about it, the more tangled his legs became, until he was completely immobile with his legs tied in knots.

I think we're better off leaving body language interpretation on the subconscious level. I’ve read several articles on body language which says if someone does this or that, it’s a sure sign of lying, and I’m not convinced. I agree with Phillip Houston and Michael Floyd (authors of Spy the Lie: Former CIA Officers Teach You How to Detect Deception), who rightly say that no one body language quirk is a sure sign of lying, it’s simply an indicator that you might want to take a critical look at what the witness is telling you. If the witness displays enough body language tells, your subconscious is going to decide they're lying before your conscious can apply the principles you learned in body language class.

One of my favorite bogus signs of lying is the crossed-arm stance. “Whenever someone crosses their arms in front of you,” so the pundits say, “they’re getting defensive, and they’re getting defensive because they’re lying.” Once again, I say “Baloney!” Obviously the people who peddle this brand of baloney have never encountered a bodybuilder or a teenage boy. Take a look at these two bodybuilders and try to decide if they’re (a) lying, (b) acting defensive, or (c) showing off their muscles.

I struck that pose several times when I was a teenage weightlifter, usually in front of a pretty girl.

There are any number of reasons unrelated to lying why people fold their arms across their chests. Sometimes they even do it because they’re cold.