NLP for Interrogation


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NLP was developed in the mid-70s by John Grinder, a Professor at UC Santa Cruz and Richard Bandler, a graduate student. NLP, as most people use the term today, is a set of models of how communication impacts and is impacted by subjective experience. It's more a collection of tools than any overarching theory.

Much of early NLP was based on the work of Virginia Satir, a family therapist; Fritz Perls, founder of Gestalt therapy; Gregory Bateson, anthropologist; and Milton Erickson, hypnotist.


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These are taken from private email exchanges. They are copyright © 1996, 2000, by Stever Robbins. If you'd like to republish or quote part of this page, just write and we can work something out. Stever Robbins.

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I am an author and instructor in criminal interview and interrogation and have been for more than 24 years. Over the last 10 years or so, I keep seeing NLP information being taught as an interrogation method. I have done some selected reading from other sources and I have been perusing your web page (very well done!).

My question relates to the diagnosis of eye movement. I have some understanding of the phenomeon of visual, auditory, kinesthetic and of information retrieval and creation. Many of my students are saying that they are receiving training in NLP and are telling me that they are learning that the eyes will tell everything and that you can always tell if someone is lying based on eye movement - specifically if they break eye contact to the right the person is lying. From some of my readings, the articles I have read on your page and my own area of expertise, I find this information extremely hard to accept as an absolute and don't believe this is appropriate/accurate use of NLP. Is this information I'm hearing accurate?

For confirmation, I am author of the text Principles of Kinesic Interview & Interrogation published by CRC Press Forensic Science Series. You may locate my web page at

Can you give me a little feed back or an information source where I can clarify this information before I stick my foot in my mouth?

Thanks for your help.

Stan B. Walters

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At 01:34 pm 2/1/97 -0500, you wrote:
>I keep seeing NLP information being taught as an interrogation method...
>if someone is lying ... they break eye contact to the right ... hard
>to accept as an absolute and don't believe this is
>appropriate/accurate use of NLP. Is this information I'm hearing accurate?

Your instincts are correct. The people being taught NLP are being given incorrect information, or are interpreting the information incorrectly.

"Accessing cues" happen when a person retrieves information that isn't easily accessible from consciousness. If someone has been practicing or rehearsing a lie, they won't necessarily require a noticable accessing cue to get it.

A 'constructed' cue might still happen when they're remembering. The circa-1977 NLP eye accessing model says rightward eye movements accompany Visual or Auditory CONSTRUCTED information. But people construct images/sounds for all kinds of reasons. Bandler and Grinder explicitly say in Frogs into Princes that many people reconstruct their memories, and show a 'construct' eye accessing cue even when remembering. In fact, on a biochemical level, all memories are 'constructed(1).' How 'constructed' a memory has to be to trigger that eye accessing pattern isn't clear.

Of course, people don't necessarily access the information you think they're accessing. I did my undergraduate MIT thesis on validating the eye accessing cue model(2). My experimental protocol found no correlation, though my own personal impression of the model's validity was reinforced during debriefing.

As part of the experiment, I asked, "How many chairs do you have in your living room?" expecting them to access visual information. They would have a KINESTHETIC eye accessing cue. That counted as a non-correlation. During the debrief, the subject said, "Remember when you asked about the chairs? I suddenly remembered how wonderful it felt when my mother rocked me to sleep in those chairs." (He went on about the wonderful FEELING for a few more seconds.) Just because I wanted him to access certain information didn't mean he did.

In police interrogation, I can imagine anyone--innocent or not--worrying about how their answers will be taken. If they worry by constructing scenarios in their mind, that could produce a 'constructed' accessing cue.

Finally, there are other models of eye movement which are taught in more recent NLP seminars that have little to do with the original accessing cues. Accessing memories is only the first step in using the information. Once accessed, a person arranges the information spacially around them according to their "submodalities" and for associated pictures/sounds, according to the content of the information. At this point, a righthand glance might be an accessing cue or might be a reference to information spacially located to the right.

A better approach to lie detection is to learn to notice unconscious physiological responses: pupil dilation, pore size, skin flush, muscle tone changes, breathing, etc. Calibrate carefully. Ask lots of questions that you know the answers to, until you are sure you can tell what combinations of nonverbal responses correspond to truth. If they happen to lie to one of your questions and you know they're lying, you'll also have the chance to calibrate a lie. Good poker players do this when they look for a "tell" in the other players.

Then when you interrogate, watch for deviations in their nonverbal behavior. Those won't necessarily mean they're lying, but they will point to areas where the person--for whatever reason--had a significantly different internal response.

You want to calibrate with questions as close as possible to the intensity of the questions you'll be asking. If you calibrate 'truth' by asking, "Were you born on January 3, 1970?" and then interrogate with, "Did you fire two shotgun blasts into the gas station attendant at point blank range?" you'll likely get different nonverbals simply because of the relative intensity of the two questions.

I've heard that voice tone often changes when someone is lying. Since voice tone is pretty unconscious in the Western world, it's often outside the awareness of the liar. So calibrating on voice tone might be another fruitful tack to take.

But so far as I know, there's no absolute way to know if someone's lying. Human beings are far too complex for our current understanding to give definite results.

I hope this helps.

- Stever

(1) The Psychobiology of Mind-Body Healing, Ernest Lawrence Rossi, 1986, W.W. Norton & Company, page 69. Back

(2) I've since changed my stance on the validity of even asking if the eye accessing model is 'true.' Accessing cues are a guide to intervention; they're not supposed to be 'true.' See the "Thought on Proving NLP" section on diagnostics for details. Back

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I have just read the email exchange between yourself and the police interrogation expert. As a newcomer to NLP I have started reading on the subject and have a book list I am working through. I am also looking for real-life examples of what I learn. Today, in a meeting, a colleague told what I believe to be a lie in response to a direct question. Their physical response was to move their eyes down and to the left before answering. This person is right-handed, would left-handedness have made a difference? Their voice-modulation did not noticeably change and nor did their body-language however, their breathing appeared to get faster. The eye movement however, was very pronounced. What would you infer from this?


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Nothing. Unless I knew the person very, very well, and had carefully calibrated their normal nonverbals, I would simply assume they had a pronounced eye movement. The bottom line on lie detection is that you simply can't tell from any of the simply NLP observations whether or not someone's lying. You may have said something or asked a question which triggered the person thinking about a childhood trauma or a memory of a heated conversation. Or the eye movement may have had nothing whatsoever to do with your conversation, and was simply in response to the person having a sudden thought.

As a rule, nonverbal observation never means any one specific thing. For an individual person, you can, over time, get an idea of what different nonverbal behavior means for them. But even in that case, the best you can hope for is to associate nonverbal signals with a specific frame of mind. And that does mean specific. It's likely someone has repeatable nonverbals for "thinking about that time Mom kissed me goodnight and gave me my teddy bear." Unless their feelings about Mom are unidimensional, it's much less likely that they have recognizable nonverbals for "Mom" in general.

Lying is a very, very broad category. It's also very poorly defined (if someone says "Are you ready?" and I say "almost," even though I'm in the middle of something and have no intention of walking upstairs, is that a lie? Will I be showing the lying nonverbals, or the nonverbals of the computer game I'm engrossed in?). The only thing I've ever heard is that lying is often (not always, but often) accompanied by voice stress and a change in voice pitch, probably because for most people, voice pitch and stress is pretty much totally unconscious. Even that is only partially accurate, though.

Sometimes if I think someone's lying, I'll simply reask the question a couple dozen times in a couple dozen different ways. Or I'll ask, "Really? Are you sure?" Or I'll ask for details. Those aren't NLP techniques, though—I'm just listening for the person to be inconsistent or trip themselves up.

By the way, if you really thought that they were lying with that eye movement, your suspicions may have caused you to have a pronounced nonverbal reaction. Hopefully, they interpreted that correctly :-)

Stever's sage advice: don't hang around with people you think lie to you. It makes life much easier!

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