Body language and intentional deception

Verbal/Nonverbal Communication


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Interpersonal communications consist primarily of conscious verbal conversation, but nonverbal cues also play an equally important role. Nonverbal communication includes both conscious and unconscious elements of body language and patterns of eye contact, as well as completely involuntary physiological reactions. Under routine interpersonal situations, verbal and nonverbal communications components are synchronous. However, under stressful interpersonal situations, such as where the speaker is nervous, apprehensive, or engaging in deception, verbal and nonverbal elements of interpersonal communications often fall completely out of synchronicity.

Law enforcement interrogators, in particular, study the relationship between body language and intentional deception.

Even untrained individuals respond to nonverbal communication, especially when it conflicts with verbal aspects of interpersonal interactions, except that untrained listeners perceive discrepancies less consciously and are less likely to be able to identify the basis for their perceptions and conclusions. Trained interrogators, predatory criminals, and many successful salespersons are very aware of identifying nonverbal cues and can often pinpoint the specific nonverbal cues that contradict corresponding verbal components of inconsistent (or deceptive) interpersonal communications. However, the rest of us also notice and respond to those discrepancies, at least unconsciously. That is precisely the reason that both career counselors and professional matchmakers devote substantial effort to improving self-awareness as it relates to body language and other elements of nonverbal interpersonal communications.

The Evolution of Verbal and Nonverbal Interpersonal Communication:

Most so-called higher biological life forms engage in varied behaviors designed to communicate with other members of their own species and others. Animals throughout the natural world use complex combinations of vocalizations and physical posturing to communicate everything from mating interest to displays of dominance and physical threats. Elephants trumpet loudly and flare their ears to intimidate perceived rivals and predators, both domesticated and wild dogs bark or growl and also use their tales to communicate their intentions, and whales slap the water with their flukes in threat displays while vocalizing specific complex calls that are understandable only to other members of their own pods (Moussaieff-Mason, 1995).

According to anthropologists, human communication also evolved from the primarily nonverbal methods of interpersonal communications behaviors relied upon by the earliest hominid species like Australopithecus and Ramapithecus, as dentition and cranial capacity became more human-like (Wenke, 1980). Modern human beings retain the original neural circuitry that gradually evolved into spoken language, and human infants still rely heavily on nonverbal cues while making the gradual transition from incoherent babbling and mimicking their parents’ facial expressions. While spoken language becomes the primary means of communication after infancy, we all retain many elements of nonverbal interpersonal communication, including the ability to interpret the degree of congruence or incongruence between spoken words and nonverbal cues (U.S. (News & World Report, 1998).

Verbal and Nonverbal Components of Interpersonal Communications:

Whether or not we realize it consciously, all of us communicate information nonverbally practically every time we engage in conversation with other people.

Whereas body language and posture that are consistent with verbal components of interpersonal communication tend to corroborate or confirm what we say, these nonverbal cues tend to contradict and undermine what we say, to whatever extent they are perceived by others as inconsistent with our verbal communication..

In everyday social situations such as interactions with family and friends, verbal elements of our interpersonal communications play less of a role than they do in conversations with strangers, primarily because those unfamiliar with us must take advantage of all available information in order to form a first impression. Nonverbal interpersonal communications become even more significant in stressful situations with strangers, such as job interviews, sales negotiations, and contact with law enforcement authorities, for just a few typical examples (Nierenberg & Calero, 1971).

Even untrained listeners are quite perceptive to inconsistencies between verbal and nonverbal elements of interpersonal communications, and can be adept at forming accurate conclusions about speakers. They may often make judgments about speakers, such as whether they appear confident or unsure about themselves, without any conscious awareness of what may have contributed to their conclusions.

Likewise, many of us develop a reliable feel for deceptive communications, even where the verbal components of interpersonal communications are convincing, in and of themselves. By examining videotaped conversations and interviews, it is possible to identify specific nonverbal behaviors associated with stress, and particularly, those related to truthfulness and intentional deception. That is exactly why most of us have had the experience of a distinctly negative reaction to someone who seemed to say the right things verbally, yet still failed to earn our trust.

Body Language in Interpersonal Communications:

Body language is one of the most reliable and identifiable modes of nonverbal interpersonal communications. Posture, gait, and the way we use our limbs to occupy the physical space around us, especially in the presence of others, is an essential component of human nonverbal interpersonal communications (Fast, 1970). In social situations, men tend to size each other up partly by relative size, which is why they stand up as straight as possible and hold out their chests at the slightest perception of a potential physical confrontation.

As is the case with other animal species, male dominance displays or related posturing is intended as much to avoid physical combat by establishing who is the more robust individual without actually risking injury. Trained fighters, for example, and veterans of prolonged periods of potentially dangerous environments (such as ex-convicts released after years of incarceration) tend to continue to carry themselves very differently from other people. For this reason, veteran police officers report that they can often spot recent parolees simply by their posture and the way they walk (Fletcher, 1990).

Because relative strength and dominance also factor into visual cues noticed by females, male primates and humans alike tend to posture and exhibit dominant body language around females. Single men will enter a bar and occupy a conspicuous position that is viewable from all angles around them rather than taking a seat near the periphery or in the corner where they are less noticeable. Likewise, they will characteristically put their hands on their hips or (if seated) drape an arm or extend a leg onto a second chair, in order to take up (or “claim”) as much space around themselves as possible amongst strangers or within large groups or acquaintances..

Relative Positioning in Nonverbal Interpersonal Communications:

The manner in which two people position themselves with respect to each other spacially in face-to-face interpersonal communication suggests a lot about their type of relationship. Interestingly, many of these same postures are apparent even when people are speaking on the telephone, although this now somewhat less pronounced since the prevalence of cellular phones instead of phone booths. Whether the conversation is in person or by telephone, men tend to turn away protectively, sometimes putting a hand up on a wall, creating a zone of intimacy whenever carrying on conversations with women.

Many men still adopt very different postures talking on a cell phone to a prospective date compared to conducting business calls even on a cell phone.

Whenever three or more people are engaged in social interaction, even more can be inferred about their type of relationship, their relative hierarchy, and even their internal thoughts and feelings about the content of the conversation just from observations of their body language. The most dominant person within a group usually takes a position that is in the center of the group, or slightly set off from the other members of the group, such as at the head of a conference table. Confident postures while seated in a group include leaning back or crossing the legs, and (especially) locking the hands behind the head with the elbows pointed out to the sides. Less dominant individuals seated within group settings are much more likely to keep their arms within the framework of their bodies and to lean forward rather than backwards (Fast,.1970).

A person’s reaction to a conversation is also discernable by various limb positions and movements. Crossed arms are characteristic of disagreement and resistance, and when mixed with clenched fists, even defiance. Arm position is even more precisely associated with degrees of their signals; therefore, arms crossed at the hands represents reserved receptivity, and crossed at the elbows (such as while each hand grasps the opposite elbow) suggests ambivalence or reluctance. Crossed at the upper arm, particularly when supported by clenched fists underneath, indicates resistance, regardless of what is being said verbally (Nierenberg & Calero, 1971).

Hand and Body Movement in Interpersonal Communications:

Hands contribute to nonverbal interpersonal communications with their relative position or height against the body frame corresponding generally to degree of confidence. In hand “steepling,” for example, one touches the fingertips of both hands against each other and the higher the hands, the greater the confidence level to which they correspond. According to the experts, the highest confidence would be exhibited by a speaker speaking through steepled hands. One of the most interesting aspects of hand gestures like steepling is that they can even denote the intention to deceive by concealing high confidence: poker players with good cards sometimes steeple their hands underneath the table, subconsciously indicating both their confidence as well as their desire not to divulge that to others (Nierenberg & Calero, 1971).

Body (and hand) movements provide as many nonverbal communication signals as body position or relative limb and hand position. Wringing the hands together is a universal signal of expectation, just as hands open to the sky are an indication of pleading or acceptance. The flattened palm pressed against the cheek like a pillow squashing the face denotes boredom, as does absent minding repetitive movements such as tapping fingers or swinging feet. Conversely, prolonged eye contact and dilated pupils indicate focused attention and interest, and is probably never as obvious as in courtship behavior.

Rubbing the brow with the fingers is an indication of irritation, as is wringing one’s collar with a fingertip in the manner giving rise to the term “hot under the collar.” (Nierenberg & Calero, 1971).

In both one-on-one and group conversation, one of the most reliable indications of relative dominance and leadership is simply who moves first and who “mirrors” whose postures and movements. Generally, the dominant person acts first, whether that entails conscious movement like reaching for a menu or a water glass at a business lunch meeting, or unconscious movements like crossing one’s legs or shifting weight from one leg to the other. In all cases, the dominant person moves first and subordinates follow.

Nonverbal Interpersonal Communication in Deception:

Even if the eyes are not actually the “window to the soul,” it is understandable how that saying evolved. Particularly in instances of attempted deception, the movement of the eyes in conjunction with other facial mannerisms provide some of the clearest universal nonverbal interpersonal communications cues.

Truthful verbal communication is normally matched by much steadier and direct eye contact than deceptive verbal communication. Similarly, verbal lies often trigger downward glances as well as hand gestures to cover the mouth, such as scratching the nose or upper lip while talking.

The mouth itself provides more subtle cues of dishonesty and of discrepancy between thought and expression. Smiles, for example, can be genuine reflections of happiness or patronizing attempts at deception, in which case they employ completely different sets of muscles. Genuine smiles involve the muscles of the cheeks, whereas false smiles are limited to just the muscles of the mouth (Nierenberg & Calero, 1971).


Verbal speech is the primary way that humans communicate. In fact, it has long been thought that much of what distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom is, precisely, our ability to use spoken language. Because we rely so heavily on verbal communication, our comparative ability to recognize nonverbal interpersonal communication has deteriorated to the extent that we perceive it more unconsciously than consciously. Nevertheless, our communicational repertoire includes many types of distinctly nonverbal elements involving everything from our eyes to where we position our feet in interpersonal interactions.

We rely on elements of nonverbal interpersonal communication to supplement our verbal communications in virtually every social realm, including the way we posture for strangers, the way we interact with professional associates whether they are our superiors or our subordinates, the way we establish and maintain our social rank amongst our social peers, and the way we initiate and respond to romantic overtures. Ultimately, verbal communications will always dominate human social interactions, but any careful observation of our nonverbal interpersonal communications reminds us of our common evolutionary roots with so-called “lower” animals and leaves no doubt as to the crucial role of verbal communication in the evolution of modern human social society.


Brownlee, S. (1998) Baby Talk. U.S. News & World Report. 48-55

Fast, J. (1971) Body Language. New York: Pocket Books

Fletcher, C. (1990) What Cops Know. New York: Pocket Books

Moussaieff-Mason, J. (1995) When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals.

New York: Delacorte Press

Nierenberg G., Calero, H. (1971) How to Read a Person Like a Book.

New York: Pocket Books

Wenke, R. (1980) Patterns in Prehistory: Mankind’s First Three Million Years.

New York: Oxford University Press

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