NLP or Neuro-Linguistic Programming, is a behavioral science that some consider a little far-fetched. TV shows like The Mentalist have pushed NLP ideals somewhat into the realms of fiction, while popularizing the ideal that it’s possible to assess whether a person is lying; even influence their behavior.

A lot of research has been done to establish whether there is a link between behavior and lying, but no one has looked into the popular notion that eye movement relates to whether a person is being truthful or not.

NLP advocates maintain that a person who is lying often looks up and to the left as you look at them, while a person telling the truth tends to look to the right. The relationship between eye movement and thought is an important part of the NLP framework, which is not only about reading other people but also learning to relate better to people, by having better communication skills.

The connection between telling the truth and eye movement is claimed to be due to the person having to recall memories instead of constructing imaginary thoughts. The new research published in PLoS ONE seems to show the claim as unfounded, and the researchers go so far as calling for the idea to be abandonded.

Professor Richard Wiseman (University of Hertfordshire, UK) and Dr Caroline Watt (University of Edinburgh, UK) investigated the idea by filming volunteer test subjects, as they either lied or told the truth. Their eye movements were then assessed in detail following a predefined method of describing their movement.

In their second study, a different group of people were asked to watch the video recordings and see if they could detect the lies based on the volunteers’ eye movements.

Wiseman described the findings as conclusive:

“The results of the first study revealed no relationship between lying and eye movements, and the second showed that telling people about the claims made by NLP practitioners did not improve their lie detection skills.”

The researchers conducted another trial to cross-check their findings in the real world. They examined press conferences where people were claiming to be victims of crimes or appealing for missing people, where the outcomes were already known.

Dr Leanne ten Brinke noted that:

“Our previous research with these films suggests that there are significant differences in the behavior of liars and truth tellers … however, the alleged tell-tale pattern of eye movements failed to emerge.”

While Watt concluded that:

“A large percentage of the public believes that certain eye movements are a sign of lying, and this idea is even taught in organizational training courses. Our research provides no support for the idea and so suggests that it is time to abandon this approach to detecting deceit”

Written by Rupert Shepherd