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It's all in the eyes



Jacob Zuma, the former South African president, was sentenced to prison for 15 months for contempt of court this week. This was because he defied an order to appear at the inquiry into corruption charges. The former president has ‘repeatedly declared that he was the victim of a giant political conspiracy’*. Did Zuma stay away because he knew his presence would go against him - would the judge spot he might be lying?

Lies can be tricky little things to spot. When evidence is available, it’s relatively straightforward to make judgements on who’s lying and who’s not - more tricky though when it’s not available.

Different people will have you believe different things on body language. As one blog read recently about eye contact, ‘Refusal to look you in the eye is a sure sign they’re lying’. Hmm, perhaps, but sometimes people look away for inspiration – for example, it’s suggested that the deviation from someone’s normal eye movement baseline provides more of a clue. A study at UCLA demonstrated that 70% research clips of people lying showed the person staring directly at the people they were lying to! (on average people keep eye contact about 61% of the time).

There may be more complex reasons as to why people can't read others. If in doubt, apply the science. A 2019 study by the American Psychological Association** suggests that white people and non-black minorities are less accurate at reading emotions on black faces than on other white faces or black people reading white faces.

The reason – it’s in the eyes. According to the scientific study, white people in the study looked less at the area around black people’s eyes and therefore potentially missed tell-tale signs, like whether ‘crow’s feet’ are present around the eyes – a scientifically proven key indicator for 'happiness, differentiating a fake smile afrom a real one. You may wonder why this is, which is a really good question and one we'd love to discuss further (read more through the links at the end of this page).

Whoever you’re engaged with in conflict, be mindful and apply a scientifically ‘objective’ approach – the clues are still there if you look for them!

Justin P. Friesen, Kerry Kawakami, Larissa Vingilis-Jaremko, Regis Caprara, David M. Sidhu, Amanda Williams, Kurt Hugenberg, Rosa Rodríguez-Bailón, Elena Cañadas, Paula Niedenthal. Perceiving happiness in an intergroup context: The role of race and attention to the eyes in differentiating between true and false smiles.. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2019; DOI: 10.1037/pspa0000139


Sam Macbeth 1st July 2021

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