Nonverbal Clues to Deception

How crucial are nonverbal clues to detecting deception?

A recent 2017 study argues that reading nonverbal behavior is a crucial component to discovering mistruth and understanding if another person is lying. In this research, Dr. Eric Novotny and a team of scholars respond to previous research that underplays the role of nonverbal clues in everyday deception detection.

Their work built on a 2002 survey which asked participants how they tend to discover a lie. This survey found that most participants discovered lies through verbal cues or hard evidence, rather than noting tone, eye contact, or other nonverbal cues.

Based on that survey, Dr. Novotny hypothesized that there was a difference between discovering and suspecting a lie and that nonverbal behavior was critical to understanding deception detection. This distinction, he argued, was well-grounded in psychological research, because initial suspicion is a key part of changing one’s perception to the point that they would check a lie in the first place.

This initial framework led to a pair of studies. The first was a close replication of the 2002 survey. However, instead of only asking participants about what clues led them to discovering lies, they asked what clues led to the original suspicion of a lie. This adjusted survey was contrasted with a control group which simply asked the same 2002 questions.

Unsurprisingly, those asked the original questions reported non-behavioral factors, such as confessions or hard evidence as leading to their discovery, just as the previous research found. However, participants confirmed that behavioral evidence was used most frequently in terms of developing a suspicion, just as was hypothesized.

Dr. Novotny notes how extraordinarily different the results were with just a simple change in the questions asked. This raised the possibility that linguistic changes were more responsible for the differing results than anything else, so he conducted a second study to account for this.

This next survey worked with identical hypotheses but featured a variety of survey questions. The procedure was almost the same but divided the questions into four slight variants. Still, the same results were replicated despite minor differences in survey wording.

Because they also affirmed the 2002 study’s findings, Dr. Novotny and his fellow researchers concluded that discovering a lie is quite different from beginning to suspect one. This has critical implications on the field of deception detection. Instead of simply focusing on hard evidence, it is important to pick up on subtle nonverbal cues in order to begin to learn when we are lied to.

While we all have some ability to do this, it is also something that you can improve on, like all efforts to read people. That is exactly why Humintell offers both “Evaluating Truthfulness” and “Tactical Interviewing” training packages.

Our Voice’s Emotions

Humintell tends to focus on nonverbal behavior and facial expressions, but our voices also convey a lot of subtle information.

This should not be a surprise to many of you who intuitively see different emotions and attitudes in pre-vocal utterances such as sighs, grunts, or yells.

In a 2015 study, a team of researchers sought to explore these sorts of pre-lingual vocalizations as expressions of raw emotions, perhaps even dating back to before humans developed language. Specifically, they wanted to know whether these sounds conveyed recognizable universal emotions.

Their incredibly wide-ranging study consisted of two main investigations. First, they took a series of 16 vocalizations and attempted to determine whether these would be matched to the same emotions by diverse participants from ten globalized and industrialized cultures. In addition to these globalized cultures, which included Western, Middle Eastern, and Asian nations, the researchers also sought to replicate their findings in a remote village in Bhutan.

The emotions under consideration included all of the universal basic emotions but with slight variations, such as dividing happiness into desire, awe, amusement, and contentment. After specifying these emotions, the researchers tied them to related vocalizations. For example, laughter was seen as representing amusement and screaming as signifying fear.

With this framework established, the first study involved asking online participants to match instances of these vocalizations with brief, one-sentence stories intended to express different emotions. They were highly accurate in identifying the intended emotion, doing so about 80 percent of the time. Still, some vocalizations were systematically misidentified by given cultures, such as surprise in India.

While these results certainly suggest a broad consensus matching universal emotions with non-linguistic verbalizations, the study authors pointed out that each of the participants were wealthy, well-educated, and generally assimilated into globalized norms, such as through access to the internet and mass media. Thus, the study may simply be measuring norms promoted via a globalized and interconnected world.

In order to correct for this possible error, the second study came into play. This involved the researchers asking similar questions to non-globalized villagers from Bhutan. These new participants engaged in a face to face context as they lacked internet and electricity. Importantly, they comprised an autonomous community with almost no contact from outsiders, including tourists.

They were asked to perform similar tasks as in the first study, identifying vocalizations with the same, translated stories. While the villagers were generally less accurate, they correctly identified nine of the vocalizations, including those intended to evoke amusement, disgust, fear, sadness, and surprise, i.e. many of the basic emotions.

Thus, the researchers were able to find strong evidence that non-linguistic vocalizations do convey universal emotions, and that globalized cultures tended to identify similar emotional meanings.

This makes a great deal of sense given Dr. David Matsumoto’s advice in a previous blog, where he contended that words are often less important than tone and expression in understanding cross cultural emotions. An understanding of the sounds people make is crucial to help read them, within our culture and outside of it, and Humintell is proud to offer courses in both contexts.

Greed or Gratitude?

In the midst of holiday season, it is easy to get caught up in the festivities and ignore something fundamental: your emotions.

As Dr. Catherine Franssen writes in the Huffington Post, the anticipation and receipt of gifts are both deeply tied with neural pathways that make us feel pleasure. This can be great, making us feel terrific, but it can also change our brain and outlook if we become disappointed. Instead of giving into this cycle, Dr. Franssen advocates the cultivation of another emotion: gratitude.

The desire to acquire pleasurable items is rooted in our hereditary need to obtain objects which might be crucial to survival. In Dr. Franssen’s view, humans evolved with this desire in order to drive them to more effectively search out food, shelter, or other necessary goals.

This resulted in greed, or the desire to possess something new, to become linked neurologically with the release of dopamine. This chemical, when released into the pleasure centers of our brain, quite simply makes us feel good. However, it also makes us want more and more to the point that modern humans often get addicted to the behaviors that reliably reward them with dopamine.

Unfortunately, reliance on these behaviors can change our brains as we adapt to the inevitable disappointment that arises when rewards do not materialize. This can lead to a deep level of stress, mistrust, and agitation, along with distinctly weakened immune systems.

With this in mind, take a look at the way people often behave around holiday season, especially given the crucial role of presents in most major winter holidays. The anticipation of being given a present or of eating rich food releases dopamine just as reliably as the achievement of those desires. At the same time, it is easy to be disappointed if the reality doesn’t quite meet those expectations.

This puts great pressure on everyone who is expected to give great gifts or host fantastic parties, converting what could be a pleasant time with family and friends to a stressful neurological nightmare. This is even exacerbated by advertisers who take the chance to barrage you with progressively higher expectations.

But Dr. Franssen doesn’t denounce or dismiss the holidays! On the contrary, she sees this time of the year as a perfect opportunity to practice gratitude. This involves affirming the positive impact of other people and showing thanks for it. She encourages each of us to cultivate feelings of gratitude, especially around the holidays, by affirming the positive support of other people in our lives and focusing on those relationships over material items.

Humintell has previously emphasized this very same point by describing the positive effects of gratitude on the mind and also on your health! We recognize that it isn’t as simple as this blog might make it sound, but there are many ways to improve your holiday experience either through mindfulness and meditation or by simply shifting your focus away from material consumption.

Either way, we wish you the happiest of holiday seasons!

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