Staying cool under pressure is one of the fundamental skills of a good poker player. This is widely accepted, to the point where “keeping a poker face” is a commonly used expression to describe a situation where a person doesn’t show their true emotions.
Non-verbal communication has a long history, though, and is not limited to facial expressions. A study from Columbia University suggested that hand movement is the key to reading your poker opponent’s game.
We asked a group of experts to study all non-verbal cues, from hand movements, gestures, and facial expressions, to choice of clothing and poise, in order to identify (in)famous instances where popular figures from politics, sports and entertainment were hiding their true emotions from the world, either through lies or by trying to evade uncomfortable situations.
Remember Bill Clinton denying he had sex with an intern? Or Lance Armstrong vehemently denying doping? How good were these famous people at maintaining a poker face for the camera?
Lance Armstrong's unabashed denial of all doping allegations
Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France seven consecutive times from 1999 to 2005, but was stripped of those victories in 2012 after a protracted doping scandal. In this video, taken in 2006, he defends himself against doping allegations.
Craig Baxter, a body language expert specialising in reading advanced micro expressions, believes that Lance Armstrong’s body language during this interview was worryingly convincing – which might explain why his grand deception went unknown for many years. His story is filled with accuracies such as how his team opened themselves up for investigation, which gives the impression that they were clean and drug free.
“Lance Armstrong may have justified his doping due to his health issues, meaning that the clues to deception just don’t appear, because maybe he didn’t feel the emotions guilt, fear or delight at the time about his wrongdoing”, says Baxter, “Either way, his body language here shows a man who is full of confidence, very chatty, and who is adamant in his statements.”
Even to the trained eyes of a body language expert, this man was an unbelievably convincing liar. However, another US body language expert, Traci Brown, retrospectively spots clues and believes that Lance Armstrong was a “textbook liar” in this video. “He nods yes while saying ‘my best defense is I've never tested positive’. He rolls his lips back over his teeth frequently, which indicates he's got more to say. He's also one to frequently cover his mouth, which also indicates he's got more to say.”
Berlusconi's proclamation of innocence in the Bunga-Bunga affair
Ex Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, reacted like a typical politician to accusations that he paid for sex with an underage prostitute nicknamed Ruby, and that he abused his power by seeking her release from police detention. He addressed the Italian public, and the rest of the world, in a widely broadcasted speech where he proclaimed his innocence.
As this is a rehearsed speech without any interaction, Berlusconi is able to control his delivery and body movements. However, Diego Ingrassia, an Italian executive coach points out that in several parts of the video, Berlusconi looks as if it is physically difficult for him to go through this speech, reinforcing the idea that this speech was either written by someone else, or that at the least someone else made a significant contribution to it.
In particular, at 2m52s, Berlusconi looks “almost in pain”; and from 5m21s there are a “number of changes to his baseline – a harsh voice, asymetric shrug on his right side, and head nod – showing he is angry at the current situation, and refuses to believe what is being said.”
At the 2m27s point in the video Berlusconi says that Ruby used to introduce herself as a 24-year-old. This fact, he says, is “confirmed by several witnesses”. Ingrassia points out, “the body language, especially a nod of the head in the negative direction, seems to contradict his words.” Furthermore, at 7m04s, when Berlusconi explains that there was nothing of a sexual nature during the parties, he shows a quick smile, indicating “he is either amused he included this part in the speech, or feels happiness in remembering those occasions.”
Prince Charles' fateful first engagement interview
In 1981, Prince Charles and Lady Diana gave their first interview following their engagement. Their marriage ended in bitter separation several years later amid claims by Diana that, "there were three of us in that marriage, so it was a bit crowded".
"Charles failed to adapt his behaviour to Diana's presence", according to psychologist and former Oxford don Dr Peter Collett, which is particularly visible during their initial walk (0m20s) when Charles strolls along without acknowledging Diana holding his arm. "If she were to be erased from the frame, it wouldn't look like anybody was missing," explains Collet.
When asked (7m43s) whether they were in love, Lady Diana replied "of course" before Prince Charles famously replied "Whatever 'in love' means". At that point, Charles is seen lowering his eyes and biting his lips, a gesture of self-restraint showing that he knew he had said the wrong thing.
Bill Clinton’s famous response to the Lewinsky allegations
US president Bill Clinton became embroiled in one of the most famous scandals of all time with White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. In this video from January 1998, he famously states "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" at 6m18s. He later admitted to having had, what he called, an "inappropriate relationship" with her, while she worked at the White House in 1995 and 1996.
Bill Clinton’s body language during this section is very revealing. Craig Baxter says, “Bill’s use of distancing language – referring to Miss Lewinsky as ‘that woman’ – is a real red flag when it comes to reviewing a statement. When we wish to distance ourselves from something we’ve done, we often use statements such as this to remove ourselves from the wrongdoing.” Interestingly, Baxter points out that this type of behaviour often goes un-noticed but it can be quite revealing. “This type of sentence structure is not an indicator of deception per se, more of a clue that something is wrong.”
Belgian PM's attempt to reassure markets about Dexia's rescue
In October 2011, the Belgian state rescued Dexia, an embattled bank. Belgium's caretaker prime minister Yves Leterme had to reassure all depositors that the bank would not fail, and their money was safe. Leterme later admitted it was one of the hardest statements he ever had to make, since he was so fearful the country would experience a banking collapse.
A Belgian body language & posture expert, Sofie-Ann Bracke, says, “There are some subtle signs that Leterme is uncomfortable throughout the video. He shifts his weight around several times throughout the video (0m27s, 0m34s, 0m51s, 1m07s). The sequence of his movements is pretty interesting from 1m to 1m8s: he emphasizes words ("leur argent", "pleine sécurité"), presses his lips together, turns his lips to the side and changes his weight distribution. This shows he is clearly very uncomfortable. Finally, you can see fear and anxiety in the way his lips move to the side and as a consequence his upper lip starts hanging back a little (0m36s, 0m45s and 1m06s).”
Richard Nixon's declaration of “I am not a crook”
The Nixon administration became embroiled in the early 70s in a series of scandals, after five men linked to the White House were caught breaking into Democratic party headquarters at the Watergate hotel complex. In this televised question and answer session with the press in 1973, Nixon defends himself.
Nixon’s infamous ‘I am not a crook’ line made international news. However, it’s his body language at the end of that statement that is most revealing. Reviewing the video, Craig Baxter says, “His intense arm fold and gestural retreat at the end of his statement reveals a strong desire to self-comfort and literally ‘step away’ from those statements.
This is a fine example of a strongly worded statement being betrayed by subconscious body language. When you know that your statement is inaccurate, the body knows and can’t synchronise its gestures accordingly. When this happens, the body often reveals a contradiction and the result is what you see here.”
Chess player Magnus Carlsen's interview after his loss
People involved in competitive situations at an international level often have to face the media shortly after a loss, when emotions are still raw, but they have to appear professional and sportsman-like. In the video below, world number one chess player Magnus Carlsen is interviewed after a shock loss, due to a time-rule the organiser hadn't informed him about.
Live Bressendorf Lindseth, a Norwegian consultant expert from Kondor says, “Magnus looks very disappointed and his face shows a clear reaction: his face muscle movements, especially around the eyes and forehead, are fast moving, indicating that he is not successfully manipulating his facial expressions at the time.”
According to Lindseth, “He has a very different facial expression here from when he's playing chess and in deep concentration, where he is completely still and aware that he could potentially give away his position by showing his opponent what he's thinking.”
The Science Of Deception
Think you know how to spot a bad poker face?
Most experts warn that spotting someone bluffing is notoriously difficult.
According to Mircea Zloteanu, a researcher at the Experimental Psychology department of the University College London, popular beliefs and the media have managed to create a misleading image of deception detection that tends to dramatize the ease with which liars are caught.
Zloteanu, whose research focuses on the behavioural cues that can be used to ascertain when others are being truthful or deceitful, says, “You often hear people mention body language, specifically facial expressions, as a source of cues to detecting if someone is lying or telling the truth—such as averting their gaze, or appearing nervous (both of which are not valid cues)—while the reality of detecting lies is a much more complicated matter and is influenced by many factors.”
People tend to be only slightly better than chance at detecting deception, and are biased towards assuming others are truthful most of the time. Even individuals that have to deal with high-stakes deceptive situation on a daily basis (such as police officers) don’t fare much better, they just tend to assume others are lying most of the time.
It’s not as easy as they say
While some have suggested the existence of people that are expert lie detectors, and have 100% accuracy all the time, there has yet to be any conclusive evidence to support this. Zloteanu says, “I would be very wary of anyone claiming they can catch a lie every time.”
The notion of cues arising from deceiving is not without scientific basis. Research has shown that when people lie they experience changes in their behaviour, both verbal and nonverbal. These changes are usually attributed to three main processes: emotional changes, cognitive load, and behavioural control.
Liars are said to experience emotions, such as fear, guilt, or even delight, much more that of their truthful counterparts. These feelings are too strong to supress fully and will affect the liar’s facial expressions and voice.
Secondly, lying is usually a mentally taxing process, as the liar has to construct a plausible lie, while suppressing the truth, and anticipating the expectations of the listener. Due to this cognitive complexity, lies tend to be shorter, less plausible, seem less genuine, and lacking in detail.
Finally, liars try to present themselves as honest by changing their behaviour to match that of an honest person, but as honesty does not have specific cues either, these behaviours can seem rigid, inappropriate, or improperly timed.
Is there such a thing as a “poker face” after all?
The idea that being good at lying or bluffing has to do with having a good “poker face” does not reflect the research. For one, people are not very good at suppressing or masking their emotions. Several research papers have found that suppressing emotions fully is not possible and has wider unwarranted implications for the subject. While people can control what they show on their face and body to a certain degree, empirical studies have shown that it is not possible to fully control the expressions of your emotions; these are especially difficult to control when the stakes for the liar are high.
This might suggest that we can use these “emotional cues” to detect when someone is lying, but these cues are only observed in a small percentage of the entire communication, and are dependent on other factors, such as the consequences for the lie failing or rewards for it being successful, or if the liar had time to prepare. Research has also found that such cues are difficult to detect with the naked eye, and even with training your accuracy does not improve substantially. There are also no emotional cues that are particular only to lying or telling the truth, making it difficult to tell what the person displaying them is actually thinking.
One issue with looking at emotional cues for diagnostic value is that people have very stereotypical, and often incorrect, notions of which cues represent a lie. Appearing nervous and agitated are seen by people all over the world as indicators of a lie, but even an honest person can appear scared and nervous if being accused of a serious crime – this is why polygraphs tend to fail.
The second issue with using facial expressions as indicators of true emotions comes from Zloteanu’s own research, finding that people are very good at faking facial expressions. His team have found that liars are able to fake facial expressions that to a naïve observer appear to be genuine, suggesting that even if people learn to read emotional cues in the face, they would not be able to separate the genuine from the faked expressions.
Ways of catching a deception in poker
Reading the expert opinions above, we can quickly summarize a list of actions that may indicate when players are trying to be deceptive or hide their emotions:
• Covering the mouth
• Rolling lips back over the teeth
• Pressing lips together or to the side
• Changing the voice pitch • Having an asymmetric posture
• Head nodding contradictorily
• Misplaced smiles
• Distancing words
• Folded arms
• Stepping back
• Tight facial expressions
• Shifting body weight
More specifically, in a poker environment, Mike Caro, author of the book "Poker Tells", recommends to watch out for the following behavioural cues, amongst many others:
• Players taking time to clean up a messy stack of chips are usually bluffing
• Players that stare at the flop or their cards have a weak hand
• Beware of players who glance at their chips after the flop
• Players checking the hole cards after the flop are probably checking for suited cards
• Counter-intuitively, expressive facial actions that indicate sadness usually indicates the player has a strong hand
• Nervous betting usually accompanies a strong hand
Using these methods, it has been shown that accuracy in detecting poker tells can improve significantly.
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