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Nonverbal Signs of Deception

The good news is that officers can become more efficient with a better understanding of deceptive behaviors. This is not about watching for the suspect to touch his face or pick lint. It is about understanding instant changes in behaviors that give stronger indications of deception.

Considering that between 60% to 80% of communication is done nonverbally, officers can’t afford to ignore deceptive leakage through body movements. Unfortunately, many officers fall prey to false indicators, creating an obstacle that is hard to overcome. There are three rules an officer can follow to dramatically increase the detection rate. First, deception is based on changes in baseline behavior. Second, nonverbal behaviors work in conjunction with verbal or a lack of verbal behaviors. Third, the best indicators of deception are micro-expressions.

During the early stages of the interview, officers are determining the suspect’s normal behavior. As the interview continues, the officer watches and notes differences in behavior. If a contradiction is noted, the topic can be revisited at a later time. An officer failing to observe normal behavior will have nothing to compare against during latter stages of the interview.

Nonverbal deception must be gauged with the verbal (or lack of verbal) message. The words being expressed encompass the suspect’s full thought, so it’s important to note if the suspect is saying one thing and the body is saying another. Is there a deviation from the suspect’s norm when explaining his whereabouts the previous night? Does the explanation correspond, not only with his baseline, but with the nonverbal explanation, as well?

Contrary to popular belief, liars move less, especially through illustrators. An illustrator is the use of hand and body movements to strengthen a message. People telling the truth are typically unconcerned and naturally use illustrators to strengthen their message. Liars are more cautious, so illustrators will decrease because their brain is working hard to find the right message to convince the officer of the truth.

The weight of telling the truth is less for someone who has nothing to lose. A criminal risks losing freedom, and an innocent person worries about whether the officer believes him. This alone may cause deceptive behaviors, but the displayed behaviors appear stronger, legitimate, or reliable. Keep in mind the liar’s voice is directly related to his thoughts, not his nonverbal behaviors.

Officers across the globe are trained to look for manipulators. Manipulators are behaviors interviewees perform on themselves, such as grooming, picking, pinching, or scratching a body part. Many studies conclude that people perform these behaviors in many settings and not just during fabrications. Oftentimes, these behaviors are simply a bad habit done subconsciously. These regularly displayed behaviors carry just as much or more weight.

As the liar’s emotions strengthen, his body will react accordingly. The body can create an uncontrollable fight or flight response through the autonomic nervous system. Signs include an increase in sweating, higher breathing and swallowing rates. Blushing or blanching of the skin is also a sign of stress, which is displayed in the neck and facial regions. Blushing is where the suspect’s cheeks turn red and may extend to and around the ears. Blanching is the redness you see creeping up the suspect’s neck from the collar line.


Though difficult to detect, micro-expressions could be regarded as the most accurate indicators of deception. A micro-expression is a one-quarter second facial expression giving the officer a glimpse into the suspect’s true emotion. When the suspect flashes an expression, he will quickly cover it when realizing the truth is exposed. If an officer asks a husband about his wife’s disappearance, he may flash a scowled look but quickly cover it with sadness. The scowl is the concealed emotion, and sadness is the mask.

The most prominent mask is a smile. A smile is used to cover true feelings, but there is weakness in its use. A seasoned liar can smile while lying, but it appears unnatural and not genuine. A truly felt smile is one that pulls the corner of the lips upward, while bringing the cheek and eye muscles together. A false smile lacks the bunching of wrinkles around the eyes and upward curl of the lips. When a weak or false smile is detected, it’s a good sign officers are receiving a false positive emotion and not getting the suspect’s true feelings. The topic of conversation will need further dissecting.

Many myths surround the use of nonverbal deception, but one thing is certain, if done properly, it is a very effective way to gain truth. Be conscious of what you have learned, and use it only when a baseline is established and when the behavior is exposed during verbal explanations. If videotaping an interview, go back and learn from the nonverbal behaviors you may have missed, especially micro-expressions. You may be surprised.

J.L. Sumpter, MS, is a detective / corporal with the Emmet County Sheriff’s Office and a freelance writer on police interviews and conversation management. He is a national public speaker and can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Sep 2008

Rating : 6.0

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