If you’re into celebrity news, legal analysis or just anything involving rich people and drama, odds are you’ve been following Gwyneth Paltrow’s ski collision trial in Utah.
The Goop founder is being sued by a retired optometrist who claims she crashed into him and skied away at the upscale Deer Valley Resort in 2016. Perhaps the most captivating moment in the court case thus far was when Paltrow herself took the stand to answer questions about the incident, which the plaintiff claims caused a severe brain injury and psychological issues.
As she spoke to attorneys, viewers of the trial livestream were quick to analyze the actor’s word choices and body language. And many couldn’t help but remark on her blinking, which seemed rapid and excessive at times.
As posts from social media users indicate, there’s a common belief that if someone is blinking a lot while they speak, they’re probably not telling the truth.
But is excessive blinking actually a sign of lying? Why do people have this association? Is Paltrow coming off as dishonest? HuffPost asked psychology and body language experts to discuss how blinking relates to lying and share their thoughts on the nonverbal signals in Paltrow’s testimony.
Why do we associate excessive blinking with lying?
“Blinking is our body’s response to a wide variety of stressors,” said Paul Hokemeyer, a psychotherapist, body language expert and author. “It’s a neurophysical reaction that occurs below the level of our conscious thoughts.”
From an evolutionary standpoint, he said, blinking is a part of humans’ “flight, fight or freeze” response to apparent threats.
“It enables our eyes to visually perceive dangers and quickly find ways out of danger’s path,” Hokemeyer said. “It’s also tied to our heart rate. Research shows that there is a corresponding increase in blinking when our heart rate increases in response to an external stress. Because of these connections, increased blinking is frequently attributed to lying in the face of a perceived threat to one’s safety and well-being.”
Empirical studies have also indicated a connection between blinking and deception.
“Researchers have found that after the telling of a lie, the rate of blinking will unconsciously and spontaneously increase,” Hokemeyer said. “This is because blinking is a function of our sympathetic central nervous system, which governs our bodily responses that exist independent of our conscious thoughts and are responsible for our ability to survive in threatening situations. So while the conscious mind may be able to tell a lie with conviction, the unconscious mind feels the lie as a threat and responds accordingly.”
But does it actually indicate dishonesty?
So if you notice someone blinking a lot as they speak, does that automatically mean they’re lying?
“The answer is that it depends,” said Traci Brown, a body language expert and the author of “How To Detect Lies, Fraud and Identity Theft.”
“Everyone has their own unique blink rate,” she added. “The important thing is when it changes significantly while answering potentially incriminating questions.”
Pay attention to shifts in patterns rather than the specific behavior of rapid blinking.
“The average adult blinks from 17-20 times per minute in a pretty regular rate,” Brown said. “Stress can change that. It can go as high as 160 and as low as three. Blinking can also flutter in irregular patterns under stress.”
Patti Wood, a body language expert and the author of “Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language & Charisma,” said that blinking rates under ordinary circumstances can vary widely depending on the person, such that 40 blinks per minute might also be a typical rate. So the key is to analyze what someone’s baseline is in different contexts.
“As stress increases, blink rate goes up to 70 blinks per minute or higher,” Wood said. “So, for example, you look at what a person’s blink rate is in a courtroom setting: How are they blinking most of the time? What is their baseline in that situation? Then you look at how their baseline rate changes due to certain factors — for example, when they ask a question and they’re stating their response, or when someone on the stand is saying something about them.”
If you’re trying to assess how someone’s blinking rate can change during questioning, Wood recommended mixing in more difficult questions with easier, fact-based inquiries. You may even ask the same tough question multiple times to get a better comparison. If their blinking pattern changes, you might want to get to the bottom of what they’re truly thinking.
“For example, in a job interview situation, you would ask them what’s making them uncomfortable about answering the question,” Wood said. “You should come from a place of integrity and curiosity. The goal should be to create connection, establish a relationship with people so they feel comfortable telling you the truth, rather than have to fear everyone is lying and expend the energy trying to catch them. Research shows that people who [think they] are in the presence of an honest person with integrity, they are more likely to feel comfortable telling the truth.”
And remember that a change in blink pattern doesn’t necessarily mean someone is lying, so give people grace.
“There are many reasons why someone could have rapid blinking,” Wood said. Despite those studies showing some link between blinking and dishonesty, that’s not the whole picture, especially in a courtroom setting. After all, a person’s excessive blinking may simply stem from the stress of taking the stand in front of so many people.
“Blink rate is linked to a change or sudden shift in emotion. Now we have to accept that for any person, going into court with cameras present, reporting on every word we say, would be stressful.”
– Darren Stanton, a psychologist and body language expert
What else might cause rapid blinking?
“While excessive blinking may be a sign of lying, it can also be a function of a host of other neurological disorders, eyesight strain, environmental stressors such as dry air, and pollutants such as pollen,” Hokemeyer said.
Around this time of year, many people’s allergies act up, leading to dry eyes and extra blinks.
Wood pointed to factors like “general nervousness” and lighting as well.
“The first week I began doing nightly TV interviews for CNN, I noticed that I had a high blink rate because I both was nervous about being on TV and the bright white lights in my eyes made me blink,” she recalled. “I also noticed that I blink for the first 30 seconds or so of the interview, but once I calm down I don’t blink.”
So what about Paltrow’s blinking?
“When she takes a stand to give evidence, her blink rate increases dramatically,” said psychologist and body language expert Darren Stanton, referring to Paltrow’s behavior at trial. “Blink rate is linked to a change or sudden shift in emotion. Now we have to accept that for any person, going into court with cameras present, reporting on every word we say, would be stressful to most people. However, with her, she is used to being in the limelight in front of the cameras.”
Though Hokemeyer didn’t believe Paltrow’s experience as an actor would necessarily make testifying any more comfortable, he too suggested that the situation could say something about her truthfulness.
“Gwyneth Paltrow is a seasoned and talented actress,” he said. “Her conscious mind is highly trained to be articulate and persuasive in environmentally and emotionally stressful situations. But unlike a courtroom setting, the stress of being an actress can be contained through the medium of a fictional character. In the courtroom under oath, however, actors need to find and be their authentic selves. If they can’t or are limited in this regard, their unconscious minds and sympathetic nervous systems will emerge and indicate their truths.”
In any case, it’s not surprising Paltrow’s blink rate would change in the context of being on the stand.
“It seems that Gwyneth’s pattern is to blink a lot when she wants to emphasize something,” Brown said. “She blinked a lot when she said she took her kids to Taylor Swift’s concert. So again, everyone has their own unique pattern. It’s important to take the time to baseline the people you’re watching so you can get the real pattern and not just assume that one piece of physiology means deception.”
Brown said she did not think Paltrow’s blinking was an indication of deceit.
“I believe that she’s being truthful in the clips I saw,” Brown said, adding that “she’s very congruent with her answers.”
When Paltrow is shown saying that she’s sorry for using profanity at the scene of the collision, “her apology is real,” Brown argued.
“We can see her bite her bottom lip ― that’s self punishment,” added the body language expert.
Although onlookers may never know the exact level of honesty in Paltrow’s statements, it’s clear that blinking and other facial cues play a significant role in conveying trustworthiness. Some say the eyes are the windows into the soul, but in trials like this, perhaps they’re simply the key to a favorable verdict.