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Some things you just can't hide - It's not always about detecting deception!

Unveiling The Truth 

At the height of the Cold War, an ex-Army soldier came under investigation for espionage. During lengthy interviews by FBI agents, he willingly implicated himself but refused to name others involved.  For days, investigators went round and round with him, and yet the soldier would not reveal his still-active accomplices.

Joe Navarro body language expert; psychology

At the next meeting, the soldier was presented with thirty-two 3 x 5 cards, each containing the name of a fellow soldier who had access to the compromised secrets, but were not thus far implicated. Each card was momentarily shown to the soldier for any comments he was willing to make regarding these individuals. As the soldier viewed each card and remarked, the investigating agent was able to observe the orbits of the eyes, as well as pupil changes at close proximity.  At the conclusion, the FBI agent thanked the soldier and left. Two days later, the agent returned to the interview carrying the military records of two individuals.  When confronted with the files, the surprised soldier finally admitted their involvement with him in the espionage conspiracy.

What the soldier did not realize, as I noted in Three Minutes To Doomsday,  was that when he had seen the names of his two accomplices on the flash cards, his eyebrows had arched slightly in recognition, and then his pupils constricted with some slight squinting, an indication of concern.  By relying on the known tells of discomfort (in this case: pupil constriction, squinting), the FBI agent was able to positively identify the two conspirators who later confessed to both Army and FBI investigators of their complicity (Navarro 2008, 173).

Nonverbals and Deception – The Truth

By now most people know that body language can be helpful in detecting deception. But what most people, including law enforcement officers don’t realize is that most of us are not very good at it. In fact, all the research points to the fact that most of us, including your author here, is no better than chance at detecting deception. Even the truly gifted barely rise to the sixty percentile in accuracy. So what are we to do?

I think it comes as a surprise to many people that when I was in the FBI I did not solely focus on deception (I assumed most people would lie to me), but rather, I concentrated on developing lead information and unveiling that which was being obfuscated.

I find, even today, too much time is wasted on trying to determine deception when other information which is being withheld may be of greater value. Parents, even business people doing “due diligence” can get sidelined trying to determine veracity when through nonverbal communications you can determine more accurately what is problematic, at issue, or is being concealed, minimized, or altered.

Putting Our Brains To Work

To use nonverbals for this task, requires an understanding of the workings of the brain and, in particular, the brain region known as the limbic system.

Over millions of years, our brains evolved a very elegant system for dealing with threats, danger, and emotions, called the limbic system, about which Gavin DeBecker, Daniel Goleman, and Joseph LeDoux have written extensively (see bibliography below). The limbic system serves as our early warning mechanism, in part to assure our survival as well as to deal with our sentiments. The limbic response to threats or to other things that trouble us consists of the freeze, flight, or fight mechanism often erroneously over-simplified as the fight or flight response.  Additionally, some type of pacifying behavior typically follows a limbic response, which is why children cry and want to be held when they are suddenly frightened (Navarro 2007, 141-163).

The limbic region of the brain keeps us alive by reacting very effectively to threats or emotional events and then by channeling what we feel and sense into outward nonverbal messages (Panksepp, 1998, 33). For example, a baby who doesn’t like a certain food will have a limbic reaction that manifests to the mother as distancing from the food, grimacing, and tightening or pursing of the lips.  Similarly, a person who is confronted by a snarling dog will have limbic reactions such as holding still and not moving, running if chased, and then fighting the dog if required. In each case (freeze, flight, fight), the confronted individuals reveal what they are sensing nonverbally through displays of inactivity, concern, fear, anger, despair, or resolve (Navarro 2008).

For millions of years before humans communicated through spoken language, a threat to one individual (such as rotten food, a snake, or a tiger) was a threat to all, and so our bodies evolved outward displays of emotions, discomfort, or danger to communicate what we perceive in conjunction with our brain’s limbic responses (Navarro 2007, 141-163).

Limbic responses, which are in essence emotional responses, are in fact universal (Ekman 2003, 21). When we see furrowing of the brow, the wide eyes of fear or recognition, clenching of jaws, the tightening of face and neck muscles, lip compression, a hard swallow, or a heaving chest, we can have confidence that the person is displaying the nonverbals of distress and discomfort.

Limbic responses apply across a broad spectrum of encounters, from bad food, to someone confronting us in an alley, to arguments with our loved ones, even to specific words (Vrij, 2003, 22-23).  In the criminal arena, for example, for the innocent and honest, certain words and objects do not have the same weight as they do for someone who is complicit or knowledgeable with regard to a crime (Navarro 2003).  An investigator asking an innocent person if he owns a Smith & Wesson revolver will not have the same impact as asking the identical question of a person who has used a Smith & Wesson revolver to kill someone. When the brain hears the question, the nonverbals of these two individuals (the innocent and the guilty) will be different, even without answering the question. For the guilty these words have a different weight; they in fact represent “a threat” that to the innocent means nothing. This would be like telling someone at home watching TV that an airline flight somewhere has been canceled; it is of no consequence to the individual, but not so to the person awaiting the arrival of a loved one.

As an interviewee hears questions, verbal cues will arouse the limbic system and the signs of distress will begin to manifest immediately.  These signs principally include avoidance by changing the subject, remaining very still, showing little hand or arm movement, or foot withdrawal, distancing or leaning away, closing of the eyes, or pointing the feet towards an escape route. Further discomfort may be shown by a quick rubbing of the forehead as the question is pondered, massaging of the front of the neck with the fingers, the disappearance of lips and tightening of jaw muscles, rubbing of hands with interlaced fingers, or the squinting of the eyes (Navarro 2010, 19-78). 

As the distress passes, the person will then pacify in some way (think of a child sucking his thumb after he falls and cries) by exhaling through puffed cheeks, or doing more hand to body touching, such as neck touching, neck massaging, temple rubbing, rubbing hands together, lip licking, lip biting, brushing pants with the palm of the hands, etc. These behaviors are universal and highly reliable. Humans perform these pacifying behaviors multiple times per hour as they deal with situational stressors. A difficult situation, near accident, or emotional confrontation will generate a need to pacify (Panksepp, 1998, 26, 252, 272). A near slip on the stairwell a few minutes ago as I was preparing to write this blog, caused me to exhale profoundly and rub my face. Pacifiers are ubiquitous, they are the brain’s way of dealing with stress in real time.

As I noted in, “Louder Than Words,” once you are attuned (through study or training) to how the limbic system functions you can put limbic reactions to work for you at home and at work.  By using nonverbal cues, you can have a window into the mind of the person you are talking to or interviewing, to determine what is being concealed, what is problematic, what is at issue - perhaps even detect (no promises here) deception.This technique can be effectively used to evince information that only the guilty know or to detect what is being concealed.  By discussing a variety of subjects in a non-accusatory format (this is key), different topics can be brought up over time to assess for displays of discomfort. The interviewee does not even have to answer the questions; his or her nonverbals will reflect how he or she feels about the questions or subjects being broached. It is essential that delays be built into the tempo of the questions to allow for the person’s brain to fully process the question at hand and its implications (this is the stress cue), and for the reactions to leak out nonverbally.

Interviewees, during due process or hiring inquiries, must not be “machine gunned” with significant questions, nor be made to feel uncomfortable by extrinsic factors such as the location of the interview, the number of people present, or the closeness of the interviewer, as these will affect observations by creating stress.

Practical Usage

The following case (also from “What Every Body is Saying,”) illustrates how this technique was used to identify the whereabouts of a fugitive.  Investigators went to the house of the mother of the fugitive and conducted an interview with her within the residence.  During the interview, the mother said she had not seen her son in over nine months. When asked if she thought he might be hiding with his father in another state or might be with other family members, the mother answered, “No.”  When asked if there was a “possibility” that her son “might have sneaked into her house and was hiding there,” she also answered, “No.” 

However, when the word “house” was mentioned, the investigators noted she covered the dimple on her neck just above the breastbone (supra-sternal notch) with her right hand.

Later in the conversation, she was asked twice more about the possibility that her son might be in the house, and as before, she said, “No,” but again covered her neck dimple as she spoke.  Having confirmed this behavior several times, the officers asked for permission to look around the residence, to which the mother hesitatingly agreed. Her son, wanted for unlawful flight to avoid prosecution, was found hiding in a closet. The nonverbal behavior observed (the covering of the supra-sternal notch), a universal sign of discomfort, insecurity, or concern (most often performed by women), had revealed his immediate presence and location.

Nonverbal clues like this were similarly used in solving a rape that occurred nearly thirty years ago in Parker, Arizona.  Only the investigator knew the facts of the case, as related by the victim who was a 42-year-old migrant worker and mother of three.  Based on the victim’s accurate description, a suspect was soon apprehended, but during questioning, the suspect refused to admit involvement and was adamant that the victim was wrong in her identification. Taking a piece of information that the victim had provided to the interviewer that the rapist had said and that was unknown to the public, the officer asked the subject, “What were you thinking when you asked the victim about her children,” as she was raped?” At that moment, the subject’s countenance changed, his face ashened, and his shoulders rose to meet his ears (a sign of insecurity and distress); a clear indication he was ashamed of what he knew. He immediately broke down, began sobbing, and admitted the rape. His limbic system caused him to react emotionally to the very words he had previously uttered to the victim.

In many ways, this technique mirrors what a polygraph attempts to do; that is, not detect deception, but rather, to detect physiological changes and in our case, nonverbal reactions to a specific question or cue. In the rape case above, the investigator surmised that the suspect had been concerned about the victim’s children and recognized that mentioning this detail would evince a limbic response as a result of the rapist’s guilty knowledge.

In another case, a murder had taken place using an ice pick. Only the investigator and the medical examiner knew this detail. One individual came into focus during the investigation as the most likely suspect, but he neither seemed nervous nor did he seem to mind questioning by the investigators. This subject answered all questions put to him, and as the investigator commented, did not show any “traditional signs of deception” during the interrogation.  In the opinion of the investigator, the subject simply seemed too “cool” and calm, so a different interviewing tactic was employed. 

Rather than ask the subject questions that had previously been covered, such as if he had committed the crime or his whereabouts at the time in question, the investigator asked the following series of questions with a time delay in between: “If you had killed him would you have used a gun?,” “If you had killed him would you have used a knife?,” “If you had killed him would you have used an ice pick?,” and  “If you had killed him would you have used a machete?”. 

To all of these questions, the subject answered, “No,” however, the nonverbal responses to each question were clearly not all the same. When the ice pick was mentioned, the subject lowered his eyelids and left them low for several seconds before rubbing them with his fingers and answering, “No.”  This eye-blocking behavior was enough to convince the investigator that not only did he have the right individual; he also realized the topic to pursue. In the end, after continued questioning about the ice pick, the subject began to reveal what happened the night of the murder.  He was betrayed by his own eyes because of his guilty knowledge.

Everyday Encounters

This technique can be useful in determining the truth of the matter, not necessarily  whether or not there is deception. For example, a mother of teenagers I had trained years ago told me how she had asked her kids before going out, “will there be alcohol at this party?” Both of her boys looked at each other but in answering one of the boys said, “no, definitely not.” But in doing so he raised his right shoulder, a sign of lack of confidence. After a few more questions, the other brother chimed in and stated the truth, there would be plenty of alcohol at the party; just as the mother feared.

Similarly, a friend who sought to purchase a building in Manhattan decided to do some “due diligence” before entering into negotiations with the seller and the broker. By asking very precise questions and just waiting to see the man’s reactions he soon realized that the bargain was not what it seemed.

When the seller was asked general questions there were glowing responses about the building. However, when my friend asked about the “last time the duct work had been cleaned” the man ventilated his collar and coughed before he answered (pacifiers). Later he ran his hands through his hair multiple times to the question, “have there been any liens on this property?”  My friend hired an investigator, not just a real estate agent, and found there were all sorts of issues with this property. His careful use of nonverbals detected issues which in the end made him wisely terminate further interest in the building. To this date, he still does not know the full truth about the building, he just knows that a lot was being concealed and the investigator confirmed there was enough there to avoid proceeding any further.


Lying, as I have often said, “is a tool of social survival;” everyone does it and in the end we may never know the full truth. Having said that, there are things we can look for to determine if there are issues or concerns or to evince if something is being hidden or masked. Toward this end, body language can be, as I have shown, of great assistance. Whether detecting espionage activities, keeping our children out of danger, or keeping us away from bad investments, this knowledge and skill is useful and powerful.

By focusing on the physical manifestations of discomfort and stress as well as the pacifying behaviors that accompany stress, you can bring clarity and transparency to everyday concerns and issues where the truth may be at play.


Ekman, Paul. 2003. Emotions Revealed: recognizing faces and feelings to improve communication and emotional life.  New York: Times Books.

Ekman, Paul. 1985. Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriages.   New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Ekman, Paul. 1975. Unmasking the Face. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

De Becker, Gavin. 1997. The Gift of Fear. New York: Dell Publishing.

Ford, Charles V. 1996. Lies!, Lies!, Lies!: the Psychology of Deceit. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Press. Inc.

Goleman, Daniel. 1995. Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books: 10-21.

LeDoux, Joseph E. 1996. The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. New York: Touchstone.

Navarro, Joe. 2003. A Four Domain Model of Detecting Deception. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, (June): 19-24.   

Navarro, Joe. 2011. Clues To Deceit: A Practical List. Amazon Kindle.

Navarro, Joe. 2010. Louder Than Words. New York: Harper Collins.

Navarro, Joe. 2017. Three Minutes To Doomsday; an FBI Agent, a traitor, and the worst espionage breech in US history. New York: Scriber.

Navarro, Joe. 2008. What Every Body Is Saying. New York: Harper Collins.

Panksepp, Jaak. (1998). Affective neuroscience: the foundations of human and animal emotions. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Vrij, Aldert. (2003). Detecting lies and deceit: the psychology of lying and the implications for professional practice. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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