by Jay Johansen | Jul 20, 2021
There's a fascinating theory that you can tell when a person is lying by watching his eyes and seeing which way he looks. If he looks to his left, he's telling the truth. If he looks to his right, he's lying.
You can find many places on the Internet that discuss this theory. Or rather, that present this theory as fact. For example, How to Tell by Eye Direction if Someone Is Lying And How to Spot a Liar by Their Eye Movements (see their "method 2"). I've also seen this used on several TV crime shows.
The theory behind this is that the left side of the brain does the logical thinking and the right side does the creative thinking. So when someone is remembering what actually happened, they use the left (logical) side of their brain and so they look to the left. When a person is making something up, they use the right (creative) side of their brain and so look to the right.
Lest you are waiting in suspense, I'll skip ahead to the conclusion: This theory is false. And anyone who wants to can easily test it and prove it false in ten minutes without getting up from his chair.
Note that the theory is that it works because of "remembering" versus "creating". So the "lie" doesn't have to be about something shameful or illegal or even important. It could be anything where you say what actually happenned versus making something up. This is very different from a traditional lie detector machine that works by detecting stress -- sweating and heart beating faster and so on. The idea of a traditional lie detector is that people tend to get nervous when they lie. So a lie detector wouldn't necessarily work when asking about something unimportant. But the theory here has nothing to do with stress and nervousness. It has to do with "remembering" versus "creating".
So let's test this theory right now. Think about some simple question. Say, what you had for breakfast this morning. Look to your left and say an incorrect answer. Then look to your right and say a correct answer. Like, if you had eggs for breakfast, look to your left and say "waffles". Then look to your right and say "eggs".
Did you have any trouble doing this? Did your eyes swing to the right and you were helpless to stop them when you gave an incorrect answer? Did you have to struggle at all to keep looking left as you gave an incorrect answer? I tried the experiment and I had no trouble looking the "wrong" way at all.
Okay, maybe you're left-handed so your brain works the other way around or something. So just to be complete, try the experiment the other way. Look to your left and say an incorrect answer, and look to your right and say the correct answer. Again, did you have any trouble at all doing this?
I suppose one could theorize that there is this natural tendency to look to the right when lying, but you can overcome it with trivial effort. Even if true, that makes this technique pretty useless to tell if someone is lying, if any criminal or cheating spouse or whatever can foil it so easily. If I'm ever accosted about some lie I've told by someone who believes in this, I'll have to remember to look to the left as I tell my lie. Except that I'll probably forget which way I'm supposed to look when telling the truth and ruin it.
If there was any truth to this at all, it's funny that no one noticed it in all the thousands of years of human history until 1972. I mean, people have been lying for as far back as recorded history goes, and there have always been people who had an interest in knowing the truth. If all you had to do to tell if someone is lying is watch which way his eyes move, wouldn't SOMEONE have noticed this before?
Some theories are very difficult to test. Like if someone has a new theory about the internal structure of the atom, testing it can require billions of dollars worth of equipment, a team of experts, and years of work. I can understand if someone published a false theory about the atom that many people would just take their word for it because it would be wildly impractical for them to try to test it themselves. But this theory ... as I just outlined, anyone can test it for themselves without spending a dime or even standing up.
I wonder ... the people who proposed this idea -- John Grinder and Richard Bandler -- did they try any experiment at all to test it? Or did they just say, "Sounds plausible to me, it must be true, no point wasting time actually trying it"?
© 2021 by Jay Johansen
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