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Cues to watch for during the presidential debate that may help you spot a lie

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With so many accusations of the 2016 presidential election being rigged, allegations of deceit and half-truths, fact checking can only take you so far.

When you’re watching the third and final debate Wednesday evening, October 19, 2016, watch Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s body language and other cues.

What to watch for

While there aren’t necessarily a lot of “hard and fast rules,” said Augustana psychology professor Mark Vincent, it is possible for non-verbal cues to give away whether a person is being genuine or not.

“It’s hard for people to keep track of their body language, so there are generally some cues that people tend to give,” Vincent said to WQAD News 8.

A guideline on detecting deception, issued by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2011, suggested that noting changes in the following cues could point to deception:

  • Facial expressions
  • Gestures and body language
  • Voice
  • Verbal Style
  • Verbal statements

“…it’s not the mere presence of absence of these behaviors that are indicative of lying;” read the FBI guidelines, “instead, it’s how these nonverbal cues change over time from a person’s baseline…”

The “baseline” is how a person acts normally, explained Detective Jon Leach with the Moline Police Department.

Leach has been with the department for 13 years, and in investigations for six years. He said when he’s getting ready to interview somebody for a case he’ll spend 10 to 15 minutes talking with them about unrelated topics, to get a feel for what their “normal” is.

Once you notice something in a person’s baseline has changed, that’s an indicator of deception.

“The more indications you have, the stronger case you have,” he said.

It’s when a person is motivated to lie, “and there are stakes if they are caught” that clues (like the five mentioned above) can appear, according to the FBI guidelines.

If a subject pops up that a person doesn’t want to talk about, and he or she turns to the side or turns away from you, “it’s like they’re disgusted with your questioning,” Leach said. It’s obvious you’ve hit a nerve and brought up something they don’t want to talk about.

Also, a person who wants to do all the talking “is a huge red flag,” Leach said. It means they don’t want to give you any control to guide the conversation.

As far as questioning goes, Leach noted that in his experience, a person who is innocent will tend to want to continue talking about what they are accused of, to further try to prove their innocence.  A person who is guilty will be happy when the topic gets changed.


The widespread idea that eye movement points to deception has been shown to be unlikely by nearly two dozen studies cited by the FBI guidelines.

“There is no scientific evidence to suggest that eye behaviors or gaze aversion are reliable signs of lying,” read the FBI guidelines, citing a study published in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior.  The study, called “Lie Detection Across Cultures” was done by Charles F. Bond Jr., Adnan Omar, Adnan Mahmoud, and Richard Neal Bonser.

“I don’t go so much with the eyes, I go more with the body language and more with what they say,” said Leach.

Fidgeting, voice stress, or body posture are also thought to be tell-tale signs of lying, but according to research cited by the FBI’s guidelines, these too are just myths.

“… there is no clear relationship between fidgeting and lying,” read research study “Cues to Deception,” published in Psychological Bulletin, by Bella M. DePaulo, James J, Lindsay, Brian E. Malone, Laura Muhlenbruck, Kelly Charlton, and Harris Cooper.

According to Detective Leach, when somebody is scripted and they have practiced what they’re going to say, it’s tougher to tell if they’re being deceitful.   And as Professor Vincent put it, “Some people are just really skilled at lying.”

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