The Eyes Have It

The Eyes Have ItIf you have ever dipped a metaphorical toe into the world of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) then you may well have come across the theory of ‘eye accessing cues’, or the practice of determining how a person is mentally processing information by the way they move their eyes.

And even if you haven’t heard of NLP you may be familiar with the notion that you can tell if someone is lying by the way they move their eyes – often referred to colloquially as ‘shifty-eyed’.

This week a new piece of research entitled “The Eyes Don’t Have It: Lie Detection and Neuro-Linguistic Programming” was published in which this theory was put to the test.

Published on  PLoSONE, the  open access online research website, the study by Richard Wiseman et al, conducted a series of tests to determine whether eye movements could be a reliable indicator of whether someone was telling the truth or not.

In the article Wiseman states that:

Proponents of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) claim that certain eye-movements are reliable indicators of lying. According to this notion, a person looking up to their right suggests a lie whereas looking up to their left is indicative of truth telling. Despite widespread belief in this claim, no previous research has examined its validity.


In the first part of his study one group of participants were asked to conduct a task and then lie about it (they were to say that they had put a mobile phone into a desk drawer, when in fact they had kept it about their person). The other half were told to put the phone in the drawer and tell the truth. The eye movements of both groups were coded, but they did not match the NLP patterning, and no significant differences emerged between the two groups.

The second part of the study involved coding the eye movements of both liars and truth tellers taking part in real life, high profile press conferences appealing for information about missing relatives. In half of the recorded conferences the relatives speaking had subsequently found to have been lying, based on irrefutable evidence such as DNA or camera recordings. Once again, no significant differences were discovered in the eye movements between the two groups.

“Taken together “, says Wiseman, “the results of these studies fail to support the claims of NLP. “

Pretty conclusive then, wouldn’t you say? Certainly a number of major newspapers and journals thought so and were quick to pronounce the death of NLP in the wake of these findings.

But in order to fully understand what they are disputing here, let’s take a look at exactly what NLP originators have to say about eye accessing cues, and their usefulness or otherwise in terms of detecting lies.

NLP techniques are used to help recognise the patterns of thinking that people use, and the way that they habitually process information whether people use vision, sound or feelings as a way of accessing certain thoughts or memories – ie they “see”, “hear” or “feel” internal representations in order to access the information.

Knowing how someone else accesses information can be useful in gaining rapport and achieving more effective communication since we are able to “see things the way they see them”, and to frame our own communication in a way that is easiest for them to process.

Eye accessing cues can be used to give an indication of which ‘sensory system’ someone is using when they are thinking by the way that they move their eyes.

The following diagram illustrates this:


The Lie Detection myth

Most NLP courses do teach that when a person looks up to their left they are making pictures and when they look up to their right they are remembering pictures.

This differentiation between looking up to the left and up to the right has given rise to the NLP Lie Detector myth i.e. that you can tell if someone is lying by how they move their eyes. This is simply not true – and was been refuted by the originators of NLP John Grinder and Richard Bandler, They said that for some people their eyes can indicate whether or not they are lying – but that this was not reliable.

For instance, it is necessary to ‘construct’ a picture in your mind if you are asked to imagine something you haven’t seen before (a giraffe performing a limbo dance, for example). This does not indicate that you are being deceitful or attempting to distort the truth.

To be fair, Wiseman’s research does acknowledge that Bandler and Grinder didn’t view ‘constructed’ thoughts as lies, even though this notion seems to have become commonplace. Unfortunately though, by focusing on disproving this ‘notion’ rather than the fundamental tenets of NLP they may have prematurely thrown the baby out with the bathwater!


Leave a Reply

Wordpress SEO Plugin by SEOPressor