Deception cues:

We humans are by nature quite gullible. We want to believe in certain things—that we can get something for nothing; that we can easily regain or rejuvenate our health thanks to some new trick, perhaps even cheat death; that most people are essentially good and can be trusted. This propensity is what deceivers and manipulators thrive on. It would be immensely beneficial for the future of our species if we were all less gullible, but we cannot change human nature. Instead, the best we can do is to learn to recognize certain telltale signs of an attempt at deception and maintain our skepticism as we examine the evidence further.

The most clear and common sign comes when people assume an extra-animated front. When they smile a lot, seem more than friendly, and even are quite entertaining, it is hard for us to not be drawn in and lower ever so slightly our resistance to their influence. When Lyndon Johnson was trying to pull the wool over the eyes of a fellow senator, he would go an extra mile with his physical presence, cornering them in the cloakroom, telling some off-color jokes, touching them on the arm, looking extra sincere, and cracking the biggest smiles he could muster. Similarly, if people are trying to cover something up, they tend to become extra vehement, righteous, and chatty. They are playing on the conviction bias if I deny or say something with so much gusto, with an air of being a victim, it is hard to doubt me. We tend to take extra conviction for truth. In fact, when people try to explain their ideas with so much exaggerated energy, or defend themselves with an intense level of denial, that is precisely when you should raise your antennae.

In both cases—the cover-up and the soft sell—the deceiver is striving to distract you from the truth. Although an animated face and gestures might come from sheer exuberance and genuine friendliness, when they come from someone you don’t know well, or from someone who just might have something to hide, you must be on your guard. Now you are looking for nonverbal signs to confirm your suspicions.

With such deceivers you will often notice that one part of the face or the body is more expressive to attract your attention. This will often be the area around the mouth, with large smiles and changing expressions. This is the easiest area of the body for people to manipulate and create an animated effect. But it could also be exaggerated gestures with the hands and arms. The key is that you will detect tension and anxiety in other parts of the body, because it is impossible for them to control all of the muscles. When they flash a big smile, the eyes are tense with little movement or the rest of the body is unusually still, or if the eyes are trying to fool you with looks to garner your sympathy, the mouth quivers slightly. These are signs of contrived behavior, of trying too hard to control one part of the body.

Sometimes really clever deceivers will attempt to create the opposite impression. If they are covering up a misdeed, they will hide their guilt behind an extremely serious and competent exterior, the face becoming unusually still. Instead of loud denials, they will offer a highly plausible explanation of the chain of events, even going through the “evidence” that confirms this. Their picture of reality is nearly seamless. If they are trying to gain your money or support, they will pose as the highly competent professional, to the point of being somewhat boring, even hitting you with a lot of numbers and statistics. Con artists often employ this front. The great con artist Victor Lustig would lull his victims to sleep with a professional patter, making himself come off as a bureaucrat or the dull expert in bonds and securities. Bernie Madoff seemed so bland nobody could possibly suspect him of such an audacious con game as the one he pulled off.

This form of deception is harder to see through because there is less to notice. But once again you are looking for contrived impressions. Reality is never so pat and seamless. Real events involve sudden random intrusions and accidents. Reality is messy and the pieces rarely fit so perfectly. That was what was wrong with the Watergate cover-up and raised suspicions. When the explanation or the come-on is just a little too slick or professional, that is what should trigger your skepticism. Looking at this from the other side, as a character in Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot advised, “When you are lying, if you skillfully put in something not quite ordinary, something eccentric, something, you know, that never has happened, or very rarely, it makes the lie sound much more probable.”

In general, the best thing to do when you suspect people of trying to distract you from the truth is not to actively confront them in the beginning, but in fact to encourage them to continue by showing interest in what they are saying or doing. You want them to talk more, to reveal more signs of tension and contrivance. At the right moment you must surprise them with a question or remark that is designed to make them uncomfortable, revealing you are onto them. Pay attention to the microexpressions and body language they emit at such moments. If they are really deceiving, they will often have a freeze response as they take this in, and then quickly try to mask the underlying anxiety. This was the favorite strategy of detective Columbo in the television series of the same name—facing criminals who had tried to reverse engineer the evidence to make it look like someone else had done it, Columbo would pretend to be perfectly friendly and harmless but then would suddenly ask an uncomfortable question and then pay extra attention to the face and body.

Even with the most practiced deceivers, one of the best ways to unmask them is to notice how they give emphasis to their words through nonverbal cues. It is very difficult for humans to fake this. Emphasis comes through raised vocal pitch and assertive tone, forceful hand gestures, the raising of eyebrows and the widening of eyes. We might also lean forward or rise up on the balls of our feet. We engage in such behavior when we are filled with emotion and trying to add an exclamation point to what we are saying. It is hard for deceivers to mimic this. The emphasis they place with their voice or body is not exactly correlated to what they are saying, does not quite fit the context of the moment, or comes a little too late. When they pound the table with their fist, it is not at the moment they should be feeling the emotion, but a little earlier, as if on cue, as if to create an effect. These are all cracks in the veneer of the realness they are trying to project.

Finally, with deception keep in mind that there is always a scale involved. At the bottom of the scale we find the most harmless varieties, little white lies. These could include all forms of flattery in daily life: “You look great today”; “I loved your screenplay.” They could include not revealing to people exactly what you did that day or withholding bits of information because it is annoying to be completely transparent and have no privacy. These small forms of deception can be detected if we pay attention, such as by noticing the genuineness of a smile. But in fact it is best to simply ignore this lower end. Polite, civilized society depends on the ability to say things that are not always sincere. It would be too damaging socially to become constantly aware of this subrealm of deception. Save your alertness for those situations in which the stakes are higher and people might be angling to get something valuable out of you.

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