How To Tell If Someone Is Lying: Body Language Tells You What They Won’t

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated April 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Although body language cannot be consistently relied upon to determine whether a person is lying, it can offer some clues. For instance, a person whose body language differs greatly from its baseline may be lying. Signs of nervousness and the stress response may also arise in people who are not telling the truth. To learn more about nonverbal communication or to address a lying habit, it can be helpful to work with a licensed therapist. 

Get to know them

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Do you or a loved one lie often?

There can be some common tells that people are likely to exhibit when lying, largely because body language is usually a universal dialect. However, individual people often have their unique tells as well. In many cases, tells for when people are lying can be similar to the quirks they may show when they're nervous. 

Body language isn't necessarily an exact science, so some of the tells that will be discussed in this article may not be 100% accurate for all people. As a result, it may not be best to always assume that the following behaviors are signs of deceit. Instead, it can be helpful to be on the lookout for things that seem out of the ordinary and communicate your observations to the person in question. 

Sometimes, what might seem like lying could be something else. Taking an empathetic approach, even when speaking to someone who is being deceitful, may help you reach a productive solution. After all, lies can stem from a place that isn’t malicious, whether it be genuine fear, discomfort, or low self-esteem.

Know the basics

As was briefly mentioned above, people might not always give away that they're lying, but they might give away that they are nervous. Nervousness is one feeling that is often expressed by a few common changes in body language.

One of the biggest examples may have to do with stance. When we are confident, we tend to take up more space. When we're nervous or afraid, we may shrink down or try to blend into the background. If someone is sitting with their knees together or standing with their arms folded, for instance, it could be a sign that they are nervous.

On the flip side, if someone is seemingly standing or sitting in a way that makes them look unnaturally large, they may be attempting to seem more confident than they are, or even trying to intimidate you.

Again, it can be best to remain wary when using basic body language interpretations around people you don't know. Some people naturally sit or stand in different postures, often making it harder to tell whether a posture is natural to them or not. What may be significant are changes to what you typically see from someone.

Note the stress response

Some tells that can point to dishonesty can be the result of the stress response. During the stress response, breathing often becomes faster and shallower, and a person’s heart rate can skyrocket. While these things may not be visible on the surface, small signs, like a tug on a shirt collar, can give them away. If these changes aren't noticeable enough, you might look at a person’s skin. Another part of the stress response can involve redirecting blood away from internal organs toward the muscles, which can lead to the skin turning pinker or redder than it was before.

Watch for any changes

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Even if you don't know someone very well, you may be able to tell when they're acting strangely because some experts believe body language can change when we lie. This change can happen so quickly that even if you don't know someone, you might notice when they're behaving strangely—and, perhaps, lying.

You can even conduct a litmus test: If you think someone is lying, you might try changing the subject to something that they are comfortable discussing truthfully. If their body language changes, they may have been lying before. However, this is not a foolproof method of determining whether someone is lying.

Look at their face

The face is typically the most expressive part of the body. Its changes can also be the most subtle. However, watching for these "micro-expressions" can be very important. These may include flaring the nostrils, biting the lip, or blinking more than usual.

The eyes may also shift around. According to one theory, this can be because the eyes move subtly toward the side of the brain that is being utilized. When someone is lying, they normally need to manage both the truth and the things they are making up. This may, according to the theory, cause their eyes to dart around the room. They may also be hesitant to make eye contact or look at you for too long.

Notice signs of thought

Another set of nonverbal cues can be those we normally associate with thinking. These can be called "signs of thought," such as long pauses in the story or before responses, frequent touching of the face or hair, and putting the fingertips together. 

Look at how they're standing

Someone who is very aware of body language may try to prevent cues that may indicate they are lying. This can result in standing completely still, often with their hands at their sides, or not making any facial expressions. You might watch for a blank gaze and unblinking eyes. If a person is unable to stand completely still because they are too nervous, they may do little things, like regularly shift their weight from foot to foot or shake their feet.

When body language doesn't give you the answer

Body language doesn't always give away lies. Some people may be more comfortable lying than others, and sometimes, mental health disorders may lead an individual to lie more often, even to the point that they believe themselves.

Pathological liars, for instance, may know deep down that they are lying, but because they often lie impulsively, it may seem natural to them to do so.

Next steps

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Do you or a loved one lie often?

If you know someone who lies often or do so yourself, it can be helpful to try to understand why. Many people lie because they need help or are afraid of the consequences that telling the truth could lead to. Encouraging them to tell the truth may help them address any challenges they may be experiencing so that they can live happier, healthier, and more truthful lives.

In many cases, frequent lying can be a habit that’s hard to break. The underlying cause may be a desire for attention, a skewed sense of self, or the need to control other people’s perceptions of ourselves, among other things. Working with a mental health professional can help you understand why you tend to lie and what you can do to change your habits. 

Benefits of online therapy

Traditional therapy can be cost-prohibitive for many, but because you won’t usually need to contribute to things like overhead costs or transportation expenses, online therapy platforms can save you a lot of money. You can also customize the online therapy experience by choosing between video call, phone call, and online chat, as well as selecting the time and location for your sessions.

Effectiveness of online therapy

Research generally supports the effectiveness and affordability of online therapy. Although more research may be needed regarding the efficacy of online therapy for pathological lying, a growing body of evidence suggests that online therapy can be as effective as in-person therapy.

Takeaway

Changes in body language, like an inability to stand still or make eye contact, speaking with a lot of thought and detail, or showing signs of nerves, can point to deceit in some cases. However, lying doesn’t always come with specific behaviors; some people’s lies may be virtually undetectable, and others may seem to be dishonest, even if they’re telling the truth. If you or a loved one have developed a habit of lying, a licensed mental health professional can help you identify and address the root of this behavior. You can connect with a licensed therapist through an online therapy platform or seek out a professional in your local area.
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