On the Couch #2

It’s not easy to spot when someone’s lying but there are there are some telltale signs that will help you

One of the many fun things about poker is that it gives us a license to lie, a practice which is generally frowned upon in polite society. In fact, from an early age, we are socialised to tell the truth, so much so that we start to assume that everyone else tells the truth as well – psychologists refer to this as the ‘truth bias’. Consequently, when we come to figuring out whether or not someone is lying to us, we are not very good at it.

Indeed, research suggests that generally we’re no better than a 50/50 chance at spotting when someone is pulling the wool over our eyes – so in poker terms, maybe the next time you’re trying to figure out if someone is bluffing you, you should simply flip a coin!

However, before you start to despair and reach for your lucky two pence coin, be assured that there are things you can do to improve your ability to spot when you’re being bluffed. The first thing to do is to realise that you’re probably not as good at spotting a lie as you think you are. This realisation should give you pause and stop you from making any rash decisions.

Your second lesson in spotting a bluff is to avoid using stereotypical nonverbal cues. Generally speaking, people believe that cues such as a lack of eye contact, and nervous shifting of the body, are reliably linked to when a person is lying. Research has shown that this is not true. In fact, a good liar knows you are looking for the former and may well hold your eye contact slightly longer than normal in order to reassure you that they are being honest.

As for the nervous shifting, when we tell a lie, especially an unrehearsed one, we have to put in more ‘cognitive effort’, and, simply put, this diverts energy away from our normal body movements and into the brain instead. So, when we lie, we generally tend to move our body less than when we’re telling the truth.

Thirdly, try and avoid using any specific non-verbal cues: instead, try to view your opponent more holistically. That is to say, watch them when they are acting naturally (and honestly) and observe their overall demeanour – their whole being and not just one or two specific areas of their body (psychologists refer to this as the ‘honest baseline’). Then, when it comes to a point in the play when they’ve put in a bet and you’re not sure whether they’re bluffing you or not, try to compare their current demeanour to their honest baseline that you’ve observed earlier.

If you instinctively feel that there is a difference, then there is probably something going on – they could be bluffing you, but maybe they’ve got a monster hand and are trying to sucker you into coming over the top of them. The ‘honest baseline’ is a reliable method for detecting deception, but you need to be very observant to use it effectively.

Raised voices

Another way to spot your opponent’s bluffing is to listen to what they are saying. Deception experts generally agree that what people say, and the way in which they say it, is a reliable and effective way to spot a fib. Again, with practise, you will notice that when people are being honest, their speech is more immediate in its tone – for example, ‘I am a good player and don’t need to bluff.’

However, when they are being deceptive, they try to remove themselves from the statement – ‘a player of my calibre doesn’t need to bluff’ – in this case by not referring to themselves in the first person. Also, listen out ”When we lie, we tend to move our body less than when we’re telling the truth” for the pitch of an opponent’s voice when they say something like, ‘I raise’. This will give you access to another reliable finding from deception studies – namely, that when we lie, the pitch of our voice raises slightly.

However, there is some worry that players who know all about deception (and, believe me, there is far more to it than I’ve had chance to outline here!) will be able to use it against you – that is, they can give off ‘false tells’. Well, this is possible but highly unlikely, especially if you avoid looking for the stereotypical cues. Unless you’re up against a world class expert, the chances are that the best player will only be able to fake one or two cues at a time.

Therefore, what you need to do is to base your read of an opponent on a cluster of cues. The more cues that are present, the more likely there is some kind of deception going on. This way, even if your opponent is faking a couple of the cues, you shouldn’t be fooled.

Nevertheless, you should bear in mind that honing your detection skills will take time to master, but it’s worth it in the long run. So put away your lucky coin and engage all of your senses instead: this is the way to becoming a master bluff-spotter!

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