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What Poker Can Teach You About Deception

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Hands reveal a lot about people’s intentions.

Many articles claim that it’s simple to detect deception. “Liars avoid eye contact,” they say. “Liars fidget with their hair,” they say. But such “resources” fail in several domains.

First, they often neglect to mention that there is no magical way to catch lies. It takes practice and considering of the big picture — overall body language, circumstances and the surrounding environment. Second, some of the popular signs of lying are inaccurate. While it is a common belief that liars look away as if trying to avoid getting caught, the fact is that people who try to deceive you will look you straight in the eye to check whether you “bought it.” The third critical thing that casual instructions on “lie detection” neglect to mention is that even experienced professionals fail at detecting lies. 

Let’s consider what you can learn about deception from professional poker players — after all, their success depends on their ability to read opponents.

 

Experts on microepxressions can read emotion even on “still” faces.Reading People is not an Universal Skill

Paul Ekman is the pioneer in the field of studying microexpressions and is “the expert on lies.” He was even the inspiration behind the popular TV series “Lie to Me.” 

On two occasions, Ekman tells the story of how world-class poker pros contacted him with a request to teach them how to read their opponents better.

Experts on microepxressions can read emotion even on “still” faces.

To get a sense of his clients’ expertise on detecting lies, Ekman presented them with a test — “a videotape of 30 people lying or telling the truth.” The test-takers had to decide who was lying and who was sincere. To 95 percent of the 15,000 people who ever took the test, it was nothing more than a game of guessing. Only 5 percent of the test-takers succeeded in spotting lies based on “reading” people. “But would these poker winners be in the 5 percent, who I called the wizards of deception detection?” Ekman wondered about his clients.

As it turned out, the poker pros were quite good at reading other players at the table but did not stand out from the 95 percent when it came to spotting lies in general. The players’ abilities to catch bluffs were domain-specific. In contrast, Ekman noted that most of the time, traditional methods of spotting lies, such as reading microexpressions and detecting changes in voice pitch, would not be of much use to a game where players wear dark glasses and rarely talk. So, how did poker pros read their competition? By reading one thing that other players could not hide — hand movements.

 

Spotting Lies Calls for the Right Focus

Ekman found out that poker pros focus on their opponents’ hands when trying to see past the “poker face.” A couple of years after Ekman’s post, neurology professor Richard Cytowic, M. D. published an article in Psychology Today titled “Hand Movements Give Your Poker Game Away.” The piece presented a study that found the “poker face” is not unbeatable.

The face, especially the eyes, reveals more than any other part of the body about people’s thoughts, intentions and emotions. That is why holding back facial expressions is so critical to people whose occupation compels them to hide their feelings — such as actors, news anchors, poker players, spies, con artists, etc.

But the physical expression of one’s inner state is a natural response as it is one that is hard to suppress. So, focusing on one area leaves another one exposed. Hence, by controlling their most expressible part of the body, poker players forget about the rest. And while they sport sunglasses and do not have to talk, they do have to move their hands to look at their cards or respond to bets. What is more, research has found that one does not need to be a poker pro to “read the hands.” 

The research mentioned above asked college students to “read” videos of poker players who were betting or calling a bet. The students were split into three groups: the first saw only the face, the second saw the face and the upper body and the third group saw only the players’ hands. The only group that showed a positive correlation between guesses and reality was the one who saw only the hands. The ones who were only “reading” faces did the worst.

Then the researchers repeated the experiment with other students but changed what was asked of the volunteers. In the second attempt, they were asked to focus on the players’ apparent confidence level and smoothness of hand movements. The results showed an even stronger correlation between looking at the poker players’ hands and guessing right whether they were holding strong poker hands or were bluffing.

What this could teach you is that when people are trying to deceive you, they will work hard to mask their most revealing feature — the face. But all this energy will leave exposed other telling areas, notably the hands. Granted, some exceptional deceivers can exercise significant control over their whole body. On top of that, as noted above, facial expressions and hand gestures should not be singled out from the rest of the body. Nevertheless, it is critical to know that the phrase “hiding behind a mask” takes a whole new meaning when you consider that a mask cannot cover the hands.

 

Reading People is Multidimensional

So, what do poker players notice when they look at other players? To answer this question, “behavioral investigator” Vanessa Van Edwards interviewed several experts on poker body language.

Mike Caro, who authored “Caro’s Book of Tells: The Psychology and Body Language of Poker,” said, “The general rule is that weakness usually means strength, and strength usually means weakness. But you must decide how much weight to give a tell at any given moment.” When players, especially inexperienced ones, attempt to hide their real emotions, they’ll try to show the opposite of what they are feeling. Still, Caro warns that this is a general rule — there are exceptions, especially when dealing with experienced poker pros.

Other things to look for are stiffness (a sign of a weak hand) and breathing. Pokerology has found that attempts to calm down or mask breathing are usually signs of a weak hand (nervousness).

The experts pointed out different indicators, but they all had one thing in common: neither of them focused on the face. Such is yet another suggestion that if you want to spot a lie, you should consider the overall body language and avoid judging by what seems the easiest — the face.

As Gregory House once said: “Everybody lies.” But unfortunately, there is no sure way to tell when someone is lying. However, if you are adamant about catching someone in a lie, science suggests that you should skip the face and look at the hands. Beware, though, a wrongful accusation can cause you a lot of grief.

 

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Hands reveal a lot about people’s intentions. Experts on microepxressions can read emotion even on “still” faces.