Analyzing behaviors in aviation security, with Philip Baum

Aviation security professional Philip Baum ( talks about analyzing behavior for aviation security and risk assessment purposes, and for security purposes in general. Transcript below.

Topics discussed include: looking for deviations from the baseline behaviors normal in an environment; successes of behavioral analysis for security purposes; what can make some of this work controversial; thoughts on what aviation security does wrong. 

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Zach Elwood:

This is the People Who Read People podcast, with me Zachary Elwood. This is a podcast aimed at better understanding other people, and better understanding ourselves. You can learn more about it at And if you like this episode, you’ll probably find a good amount more episodes you like in my back catalog. I have episodes on security and policing, I have episodes on mental health, I have episodes on reading behaviors in sports and games, and more.

On this episode I talk to Philip Baum, an aviation security consultant and trainer. Our talk is focused on behavioral analysis: the studying of human behavior to detect threats. We focus on the aviation industry, but much of what Philip says is applicable to security and threat detection work in general.

Philip has a long resume and you can learn more about him on his website that’s, avsec is short for aviation security. I’ll read just a little bit from his website about his history:

He’s a security professional with more than 35 years’ experience, primarily gained in the international civil aviation environment. He started working in the aviation industry in the 1980s, when he joined Trans World Airlines’ security subsidiary at London Heathrow. From Duty Manager at Heathrow, he moved to TWA’s International HQ where he ultimately became Manager Security Training and Auditing. He left, in 1996, to establish his own company, Green Light, through which he serves as a subject matter expert for the Airports Council International (ACI) in the area of Behavioural Analysis, and runs training courses for them. He also designs and delivers the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) Inflight Security courses.

He devised and developed a security system called Tactical Risk Assessment of People, which is based on non-racial profiling, observational and questioning techniques. He also established, and chairs, the Behavioural Analysis series of conferences, as well as the DISPAX World trade shows on hijacker and unruly airline passenger management.

He served 24 years as the editor-in-chief of Aviation Security International from 1997 until 2021. The general media use Philip’s services when in need of expert comment; he is a regular guest on CNN, Sky News and the BBC.

Philip’s first book was released in 2016: it was called Violence in the Skies: a history of aircraft hijacking and bombing.

Okay, here’s the interview with Philip Baum…

Zach: Hi, Philip, thanks for coming on the show.

Philip Baum: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for inviting me.

Zach: So, maybe we could start with you giving a quick summary of your career and what has interested you in this space.

Philip: I guess I started my professional career within the aviation industry, and I’d always had a dream about aviation. I grew up on the flight path into London Heathrow and would watch all of the aircraft flying in on their final approach from my bedroom. But I never wanted to be a pilot, I was always fascinated by both the people that worked within the industry and the people that were travelling. And so perhaps it was no surprise that I eventually found myself working at Heathrow Airport, and in a security capacity. And the programme I found myself working on was a passenger profiling programme. Now some people might think the word ‘profiling’ is a swear word, but it’s not because I’m talking about non-racial profiling. I’m talking about identifying people that might be a risk. And that was something I was very actively involved with throughout the 1990s. In fact, in 1996 when TWA went into chapter 11, I actually left TWA and set up on my own. I set up my own consultancy programme company called Green Light. For the last 27 years, that’s what we’ve been marketing– behavioral analysis, identifying hostile intent, and hopefully developing systems where we can identify the person rather than the item. So we’ve been less concerned about the gun, the grenade, or the bomb, I’m more concerned about the person and what their intent is.

Zach: What are the specific areas of the airport or flight process that you focus on?

Philip: The two areas of aviation security that I’m particularly interested in are in-flight security, so that’s unruly passenger management and hijacking management, but also in the behavioral analysis and what happens at the airport. I guess, ultimately it’s about the people and about identifying people that might be a threat, and identifying the best way to actually manage those threats in the worst-case scenario. So most of my work has been airport based, very much looking at how you can incorporate behavioral detection or what I’m still happy to call passenger profiling into the security operation, because I firmly believe it should be our first line of defence. And I think if we look around the world, we tend to find that everybody wants to use technology. They all want to actually have a system where the computer says, “This person is a threat.” Whereas I think we should be using the best technology of them all, and that is the human brain. Ultimately, it’s what we tell the general public to do. We tell people to see something, say something. And yet somehow for some reason, we feel that when it comes to airport security, we would rather an archway metal detector or an x-ray machine do the job for us. And all of those technologies are great and they have their place, but they need to be used intelligently. And if you look at the history of attacks against aviation– and I have to say I did write the book on it, Violence in the Skies: A History of Aircraft Hijacking and Bombing– through my research for the book, I found that actually before almost each incident, there was somebody saying that they thought that something was wrong. But they often didn’t act on it. And I’m going back and including events like 9/11. You know, there were 11 out of the 18 hijackers who were identified, but people didn’t act appropriately having been concerned about people’s behavior.

Zach: Do you think a part of that would be a factor and there will be people afraid to be wrong and be perceived as culturally or racially insensitive or things like that? Could that be a factor?

Philip: I think there’s no question that people are frightened of reporting. And yet, I find it really bizarre that when it comes to airports and it comes to airport security, for some reason the general public expect everybody to be treated the same. Now, of course, we’d all love everybody to be treated the same and everything to be fair, but unfortunately, security isn’t fair and security can’t be fair. And what really troubles me is the fact that we want everybody to be treated the same way before they get on an aircraft, and yet we accept the fact that when you get off an aircraft at of an international flight, you go through immigration controls. Immigration don’t treat everybody the same and yet every day they find people doing something wrong after they’ve got off an aircraft. At Customs inspections, there’s the green channel or the red channel. And in the green channel, customs officers pick on certain people because of their appearance and their behavior. And every day they find somebody doing something wrong after they’ve got off a flight. So it always begs the question, why aren’t we doing that before people get on a flight? If we allow behavioral analysis to be used in airports, why don’t we use it within the security pre-flight screening process?

Zach: When it comes to the use of behavior, are there certain things that stand out to you as top of mind for, you know… And I don’t know how much of this you can talk about because I don’t know how much is kind of industry secret knowledge that people don’t talk about, but are there things you can talk about when it comes to behavioral analysis and prediction?

Philip: I think the key to it is actually understanding the baseline. And this isn’t only about aviation security, this is in any environment. If you’re at a sports stadium, you have expectations of behavior from different fans, from the players, from the people that work within the sports stadium, from the people that live in the local environment, from the taxi drivers, from all of the other security services that are operating at a given venue… You could do the same in a retail environment, you can do the same on a beach, in a casino, at a health club. Wherever it is, most people that are working there understand the baseline for the environment that they’re working in. And what we’re actually asking people to do is to identify when somebody doesn’t match the baseline. And if somebody doesn’t match the baseline, we’re not accusing them of anything. We’re just saying that that person warrants further inspection. So if it’s at a train station and somebody is actually giving you cause for concern because of their behavior, you’re not going up to arrest them. But you might actually be going up and actually starting a conversation with them. And that can be done in a very customer service-focused manner. It doesn’t have to be accusatory in any way. And actually, you might, through that conversation, elicit information that will help you resolve your causes for concern. Ultimately, the people in public places and in crowded places that we’re likely to end up focusing on more than any other will be people that are on their own. Because the is less leakage of emotion and behavior by somebody that is on their own than people that are with their family members, with their friends and with their colleagues, where you see the normal banter, the normal interaction and normal facial expressions. So somebody on their own, yes, they might be more likely to be– I’m going to use the phrase ‘picked on’– but they might generate greater concern in the eyes of a trained security officer purely because they’re not actually displaying emotions that are present in normal day to day communication.

Zach: Are there other major things that stand out when it comes to behaviors? I’m wondering if there’s maybe some things about, you know, say on the security line if people are acting a certain way? Or can that be really hard to say because, you know, anxiety, people can be anxious for many different reasons and such.

Philip: There is no question that people can be anxious. And listen, I come from the aviation industry, and it is estimated that actually 40% of people that are arriving at an airport have some degree of concern when they arrive at the airport. Whether it’s fear of flying or fear of the process or fear of losing their luggage, or just concerns about time and queues, lines that they might have to wait in. There’s a lot of stress at airports. So we’re not just looking for the normal day-to-day stress that a trained security operative will be able to identify and distinguish that from somebody that might actually have hostile or negative intent. What we’re trying to do is, as I’ve said, identify deviances from normal baseline behaviors and to identify a whole range of different threats. And the fact that we’re looking for a whole range of different threats actually helps address the concerns that people have that we might end up racially profiling people. Because, for example, we’re not only looking for the terrorist threat, we’re not only looking for the criminal that may be the shoplifter, we are also looking for the person with poor mental health that might be a threat to others or indeed to themselves, we’re looking for the insider threat, we’re looking for victims of human trafficking or the traffickers themselves. And obviously, the list of suspicious indicators that you might focus on will vary from location to location and from industry to industry.

And for me, the classic example of behavioral analysis, both working and not working, I can take you back to the Ariana Grande concert which some of your listeners may be familiar with that took place at the Manchester Arena five years ago, where Salman Abedi actually arrived at the arena well after the concert had actually began. And he was carrying a backpack, which is not how people normally come to a pop concert. He arrived late, he was on his own, he sat in a secluded part of the arena kind of out of sight. He was observed for almost an hour and a half by various people, including one security guard who did absolutely nothing. He was seen first of all by members of the general public, and such was their concern that even members of the general public went up and spoke to Salman Abedi and even said to him, “You know what? It looks a bit strange somebody like you arriving here with a backpack sitting in this location. What are you doing here?” And Salman Abedi said, “Well, I’m waiting for somebody.” And the person that saw him wasn’t happy and went to speak to a security guard. And the security guard had said, “Yeah, I’ve already seen him. I’ve already clocked him. I’m already looking at him.” But he didn’t do anything, he waited for somebody else to come. And then the supervisor or a more senior person came along. And the two security guards chatted with each other about what they would do if Salman Abedi were to do something dangerous. And they actually said, “Well, maybe we’ll jump on him.” But they were both clearly concerned. And that security guard in the inquiry following the event, when he was asked, “Why didn’t you do something?” He said, “I thought I would be accused of racial profiling. What if I got it wrong?” And as a result, many people lost their lives and hundreds of people were injured, because Salman Abedi eventually blew himself up despite having been observed by security staff for nearly an hour and a half. And so it shows that people had concerns and therefore behavioral analysis actually does work. But behavioral analysis doesn’t really work unless you’ve also got the mechanism and the operating protocols to make sure that people do act on their concerns, and that we don’t victimize security guards for getting it wrong. And providing they’re not just picking on somebody because of the colour of their skin or their sexuality or some discriminatory factor, providing they’re doing it because they can actually put into words their concerns that here, using the example of Salman Abedi, was a young male with a backpack that was arriving after a concert began, sitting out of sight of most of the people and behaving unusually, not maintaining eye contact with anybody, and his demeanor was not that of somebody that was waiting for a relative to come out of the concert at the end.

Zach: To your point for 9/11, I remember there were examples of people noticing unusual behaviour, and I think that even included people noticing the behaviours of the terrorists long before the attacks when they were doing their test flights and such. Is that… Am I getting that right?

Philip: Yeah. No, there were people that reported. And even if you go to Richard Reid, the Shoe Bomber who tried to carry out his attack a few months after the 9/11 attacks, you know, why did Richard Reid not attack El Al the Israeli airline as planned? Because he did a test flight and he was identified as a possible threat to the flight. And he went away and he said, “I know I’m not going to get through the security system. They are going to pick on me.” So he ended up targeting American Airlines. And indeed, what did Richard Reid do? He turned up on the 21st of December 2001, the anniversary of the Lockerbie disaster, and tried to get through the system. He was identified as a possible threat. He was delayed so much at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport that he actually ended up missing the flight, was sent to a hotel at American Airlines’ expense, and the following day he came back and basically the people in charge basically said, “Hey, we gave this guy a hard time yesterday, let’s let him on the flight now.” So there are numerous examples of behavioral analysis working. Now I think there will be some people that will say, “Yeah, 11 out of 18 hijackers on September the 11th were identified. Why didn’t they do anything?” Well, there are various reasons why people don’t do something. Often, it is the time pressure that is put on, particularly the aviation industry, with the desire for on-time performance. Because of course, beyond those 11 hijackers that were identified, there were probably another couple of 100 passengers that were also identified as being a possible threat that day who were not a threat. And it does take time to actually implement a behavioral analysis system, but personally, I think it is far more effective than the routine X-ray screening of all bags and asking everybody to walk through an archway metal detector. Which is, as I say, it’s great theatre, it looks good, and many of these technologies are very useful tools to have. But we need to find a way to make sure that if people have got concerns, people act on those concerns.

Zach: The Ariana Grande bombing made me think of a very minor incident, but it was one that was interesting to me. It was a thing from a few months ago, a basket ballgame in America where an animal rights activist was trying to run onto the basketball court and was immediately caught by a security guard. It was interesting because I think there were things about that person’s behaviour sort of similar to what you were saying where I think these people arrived at their seat late and they didn’t seem interested in the game, I think they were just kind of like looking tense and looking at the court. And so the person suddenly rushed from their seat to the court and it seemed like the security guard had been eyeing them as unusual and immediately caught them basically right after they got out of their seat. I think it was another of those cases where the security guard just was trained to know this is pretty unusual behavior from this person, they seem like they’re planning to do something.

Philip: It’s interesting because I’ve been involved in security operations at a number of major sporting events and indeed, what we are often asked to do is when we see somebody, we’re told to keep an eye on them. And I always have a problem with that because that might be fine from a police law enforcement surveillance perspective where you keep an eye on somebody, but if you’re brought in as the security professional to prevent potentially a suicide bomber actually reaching their target, you don’t keep an eye on somebody, you act. And as soon as you’ve identified that person, you take steps to try to neutralize the threat. Now, that doesn’t mean neutralize the individual, but it does mean neutralize the threat. And that means you need to interact with that person. You don’t wait for them to get to the security checkpoint. Again, I’m thinking about a sports event where you may be having patrols outside the stadium. You don’t wait for the person to get to the ticket counter to challenge them. Because if they were a suicide bomber and they did have suicidal intent, then the moment you challenge them at the security barrier and they detonate their device at that point, you have increased the number of casualties tenfold. You actually want to intercept that individual in advance of the security checkpoint, or indeed potentially, after the security checkpoint. But not at the most crowded densely packed area of your security operation.

Zach: And I guess the seeming ambiguous nature of some of this work is part of what makes it hard because some people, even if you have your list or your training that’s done well, from an outside perspective, the questioning of one person can seem kind of subjective and random to the outside eye even if it’s done in a great way. So I think that… Would you agree that the subjective seeming nature of it can add to the hardship and the reasons that people can often find it controversial even if it’s done well?

Philip: Yeah, I have to agree. Listen, it is subjective by its very nature. And as I said, we have this great desire to treat everybody equally and everybody the same. But let’s face it, that’s not what law enforcement does. The police when they’re going out on patrol, they patrol some areas more than others where there is a greater chance of there being a criminal act perpetrated. The types of technologies we even implement at different locations are proportionate to the type of threat that exists at that location. And if you are trying to secure a premise, you need to act on concerns. You can’t just act because a system alarms or just because somebody sees something on an X-ray monitor. That is poor security. The number of terrorist plots that are identified around the world by law enforcement communities are not identified because we’re keeping every single member of society under surveillance. They’re identified because the security services are focusing their attention on certain areas more than others. And that is an unfortunate necessity of everyday life. That’s what we are paying our security services to do; to keep us secure. And yes, it will mean that some people are possibly picked on when they are completely innocent. And that’s where the training kicks in. Because that’s where you don’t pick on somebody and victimize them, you actually identify somebody that you’ve got cause for concern. And using a customer service approach, you actually try and resolve your concerns. You have the conversation, and you actually try and elicit the information in a customer service manner.

We have to remember that there is no such thing as 100% security. We all know that. I find it amazing that after each, particularly aviation-type incident, the media often sort of say, “How is it possible that somebody could get through airport security?” And I’m sitting there thinking, “Of course, it’s possible that somebody can get through security!” Look at the prisons of the world. Nearly every prison around the world has got a problem with drugs or with small bladed items or cell phones and mobile phones managing to get onto the inside. How do they get inside? Well, they get through using insiders, they get through by using innovative concealment technologies or concealment techniques, possibly internal carries. Because if somebody has got the will to get through a system, they can find the way to do it. And a person hasn’t got to worry about wait times or customer service, they know that they’re already dealing with people that are supposedly the bad guys in society and their friends and family, and yet things get into prisons. So if things can get into prisons, things can get into airports, things can get into sports stadiums, and therefore we cannot just build a system that is based on screening technologies. And we need to supplement that with a human approach to security that yes, it is subjective, but it’s based on common sense. It’s based on the very thing that we asked everybody else in society to do; to report concerns. To see something, to say something. If you see a bag on a bus or on a train, you’re told to report it. Well, the same if you see an individual that is giving you cause for concern. You need to report it. Then it’s down to the training as to how you respond to it.

Zach: Yeah, that gets into something I’ve talked about in a couple previous episodes about behavioral analysis and security and interrogation situations; the line between what’s a controversial use, and what’s a good use of behavior is how certain you’re acting on it. Like you say, it’s like if you’re using it as a reason to just look into something more, that’s not really going to go wrong unless you do something really bad. But the problems come in when practitioners are too certain, you know, and the stories about cops thinking, “Oh, this person’s guilty because they did XYZ behavior.” That’s really where the problems come in. As opposed to just using that as one of many points and just interrogating someone a little bit differently or something.

Philip: Well, listen, I’m really troubled by a lot of the stories that I see in the press, both from United States, Canada, and indeed from my own country from the UK, where we see excess force used by law enforcement. Those are, of course, in the main isolated incidents and they are extremely regrettable. What I do know about law enforcement, and certainly I can speak about it from a British perspective, is that most police officers are actually almost not acting when they should, because they are terrified of being accused of profiling somebody based on their race, religion, color of skin, or sexuality. Which is why when we are teaching them, we’re saying when you’re describing a reason for arrest or for even having a conversation with somebody, you need to be clear in your mind what it is that is giving you cause for concern. It’s not about their ethnicity, it’s not about their gender, but it is about a behavior. So if you are saying that somebody was behaving suspiciously, write down what does suspicious mean in that context? If you say somebody was standing on the corner of the street looking left and right, looking as if they were trying to identify somebody and perhaps carrying out surveillance for a future attack, then you have actually put into words what you were concerned about. And even then, that doesn’t justify immediate use of force, it justifies an intervention of going to have a conversation with that person to find out is that person carrying out hostile reconnaissance for a future attack, or are they simply waiting for their girlfriend or boyfriend or partner to turn up because they’re late? So for every suspicious behaviour, there is a potentially good explanation for it. And we need to make sure that those people that are implementing behavior-detection programmes and reacting to it are trained to have those conversations using a friendly customer service-based approach. Obviously, in certain circumstances, that’s not always going to be possible. There will be people who will immediately respond to law enforcement– even a polite question– in an aggressive way. And that’s where these things can often start to escalate and we can end up in a place that we don’t want to end up in. But at least you need to justify your initial intervention on the basis of behaviors that you’ve witnessed that have given you cause for concern.

Zach: Any specific behaviours you’d like to talk about? Or do you think it’s mainly about the baseline, as you said, and just noticing major deviations from baseline?

Philip: It is about the baseline. I mean, you can come up with– and when I’m running training courses on this, we’ll often do an exercise in trying to develop a suspicious signs lists based on your operational environment. And you can come up with 100 or 150 suspicious indicators if you wish. The trouble is that you might well witness something that isn’t even on that list of 100 or 150 suspicious indicators. And actually, I think-

Zach: And you can’t keep track of all those in any way.

Philip: Yeah. I think actually it is important to actually empower the security operative to be able to use their common sense and to be able to utilise their own words to describe what it is that they are concerned about, rather than simply having a checklist of concerns. Obviously, there are the things that people always talk about. Somebody that is perspiring profusely or shifting their weight from foot to foot. Well, those may be causes for concerns. But if you’re at a sports stadium and you’re supporting your team, you might well be shifting your weight from foot to foot, you might well be perspiring. If you’re going on a Tinder date, you might be waiting for somebody in a restaurant and be very anxious. There are lots of reasons why somebody might not be behaving exactly in accordance with the baseline set. So it’s all about sensitivity and how you react to it. But you would actually have to customize a suspicious signs list for the environment that you’re going to work in. So yeah, I’ve done programme quite recently for a beach security unit. Obviously, if you are seeing somebody with a heavy overcoat– I’m pushing it to the extremes here to really the absolute obvious– somebody sitting on a beach with a backpack and a heavy overcoat over them. Well, obviously, you’re going to be wondering what is that person doing? But it may be a homeless person that carries their life around with them on their back and is simply going down to a beach. But it would certainly warrant further inspection.

Zach: Is there much use of video training of watching footage of actual criminals and people who did bad things, and using that in the training?

Philip: You definitely can use that, particularly if you’re doing training for retail staff that are trying to identify the behaviours of shoplifters. There’s nothing better than actually showing them how people actually shoplift. There are, of course, lots of TV series that actually even help us. I can’t remember what the American version of Border Force is, but I think in every country now, they show you customs inspections of people arriving in a given country. And you are seeing the video footage of the person that is actually picked up, and their behavior whilst they’re questioned whilst their bag is searched, and the description as to why they were actually identified in the first place. Those are all really useful, but the really best way of training people is to take them down to a live operational environment, the environment in which they’re going to work, and talk to them and shadow them.

And you will see that in most environments, 99% of the people are normal law-abiding citizens. And the people that you will focus on are people who are also law-abiding citizens, but actually they’re not necessarily matching baseline expectations at that given time. I’ll give you an example from a sports event that we recently covered, where we were very concerned about an individual’s behaviour outside of sports stadium. And eventually we went and we spoke to the person, and we found out that they were basically an autograph hunter. And that’s all they were doing. It was that they were waiting for their sports personalities to exit the grounds so that they could actually get an autograph. And their behaviour was different to other autograph hunters, but we got the explanation. And so, nine times out of ten or 99 times out of 100, you have the conversation and actually, you realize that there was nothing wrong. But it doesn’t mean that you were wrong to intervene. And that’s where I get really frustrated with security managers, particularly in an airport environment. When somebody sounds the alarm or somebody goes to intercept somebody and then you don’t find anything on them. And if a security manager turns around and says, “See, you were wrong.” That, for me, is a very poorly trained security manager because-

Zach: -being wrong is part of the… Yeah, the part of the optimal strategy means you have to be wrong a good amount of time.

Philip: Absolutely! People are going to be wrong. And you do not penalize somebody for being wrong because all you’re doing is dissuading them from actually sounding the alarm in the future. And anyway, who’s to say that the person that you did identify that wasn’t carrying anything wasn’t doing hostile reconnaissance for a future attack anyway? Exactly as Richard Reid did with his shoe bomb.

Zach: It’s like in poker, playing the most optimal strategy of that or a lot of games requires you to sometimes, you know, a good amount of the time be wrong with your decisions because it’s a game of incomplete information. So any game of incomplete information, you will, by definition, be wrong with the optimal strategy a good percentage of the time.

Philip: And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I mean, the other issue I have with many security managers and supervisors is where there is a screening checkpoint– is if somebody raises their concerns about somebody where the supervisor says, “Well, did you find anything? When you X-rayed their bag, did you find anything?” And the screener says, “No.” Or, “Did they alarm the archway metal detector?” And the screener says, “No.” And then the supervisor says, “Well, let them go then.” Now, for me, that does not make sense. The fact that we did not find something prohibited or restricted in somebody’s bag or on their body does not mean that they do not pose a threat. There is the possibility that they might acquire the weapon or whatever it is they’re going to use after the checkpoint using insiders. There are numerous types of attacks that can be perpetrated without the need for a weapon or explosive device at all where somebody can actually pose a threat using their bare hands.

Zach: One thing I’ve wondered about airport security, are they recording conversations very much and analyzing it for an automatic analysis of scary words like explosion or bomb or things like that. Is that a thing that happens?

Philip: In Hollywood, yes, but not in the real world. [chuckles]

Zach: Gotcha. Okay. That’s good to know. It’s something I’ve always been curious about when having conversations in airports.

Philip: There may be very specific locations where there is some kind of analysis going on, and I certainly think that in the future that we might see that utilized more often in future. But the reality is that, you know, I get exasperated every time I see that somebody’s been arrested because they used the word ‘bomb’ at a security checkpoint. I mean, do you really think that a bomber is going to come along and utilize the word ‘bomb’ at a security checkpoint and actually have a bomb? All I feel is that everybody becomes fixated on that person and ignoring all the people that really could be a threat.

Zach: They’d probably be the least likely. Yeah.

Philip: It’s the same with this whole nonsense over the liquids, aerosols, and gels. I mean, talk about a distraction where you’ve got screeners that are almost excited because they found 125 mils of toothpaste or a bottle of perfume or a bottle of water. And that’s what the screeners are looking for. Because they know they’ll find bottles of water and tubes of toothpaste. For me, that is just a huge distraction from actually focusing on trying to marry up the bag, the contents of the bag, and the person that is carrying the bag. And that can be in a retail setting, in an airport setting, at a sports stadium, or in any environment. It’s about building a picture of the entire person that you’ve got in front of you.

Zach: I know you focus on unruly passenger behaviour, and I know that there’s reports and statistics showing that that has gone up in recent years. Can you talk a little bit about how bad that problem is? Has it really gone up as much as people say? And maybe what do you see as some of the causes there? I know that’s a lot of questions I just asked, but…

Philip: Well, there’s a lot of problem with statistics, isn’t there? That they reveal interesting facts, but they also disguise interesting facts. What we do know is that there are more incidents being reported now than ever before. But maybe there aren’t actually more incidents, maybe the people are just reporting them more than they did in the past because that’s what crew members are being encouraged to do. And because of our greater use of social media, there are more incidents that are hitting the headlines because there is video footage recorded on board aircraft that simply people weren’t doing 10 years ago or 15 years ago. But there is no question there is a problem with unruly passengers. And I think what we’re seeing is a gradual breakdown of discipline in society, where people feel more entitled. And I know I sound like some extreme right-wing activist here but I am extremely concerned. Even though I think I’m politically very moderate, I am extremely concerned about the fact that people on both sides of the political spectrum are becoming more and more extreme and more and more opinionated, and some of those opinions then turn into arguments, and often, arguments that have severe implications for public safety. Whether it’s on an aircraft or a sports stadium. We are seeing a greater number of people since the pandemic– and there’s no question that the pandemic had a hugely detrimental impact on people’s mental health, we’ve seen a surge in the number of people having to report poor mental health over the last few years.

And the fact, you know, an aircraft cabin reflects society. You have got people now flying in greater numbers that have poor mental health. And sometimes if you combine that with use of alcohol, use of antidepressants, depriving people of sleep, fear of flying or whatever, that you get this sort of potentially dangerous cocktail that is put together that results in people acting extremely unreasonably. But the airline industry itself also needs to hold its hands up and say, “Some of the ways that we do treat people is actually unacceptable. Some of the stresses that we do put people through is unacceptable.” I’m not saying that it’s done maliciously, it’s not done with negative intent. But as the customer, there are probably times where we all feel that what we’re being subjected to is unacceptable behaviour on behalf of the airline or the airport or the security services. And often, that’s just the result of insufficient staffing, or sufficient staffing but insufficient training, and it’s just a multitude of different factors that all combined together that can, in the wrong combination, have really serious consequences.

Zach: Yeah. And to your point, it’s completely not surprising to me that there would be more incidents. Even if the reporting might be also, as you say, the reporting can be exaggerated for the same reasons, the incidents themselves can be on the upswing because people are just more sensitive to threats and insults and such. But the kind of definition of extreme polarisation which a lot of countries are going through these days, it just makes sense that more people are on edge, more people are willing to say something insulting to people, you know? It’s not surprising to me that we have a pretty good upswing, and then combined with the stress of COVID and such.

Philip: You know, whether we’re in Europe or when we as Europeans are looking at things on your side of the pond, we’re seeing a greater polarisation of political opinions. And that simply reflects society, and that impacts people’s behaviour as well in places like the aircraft cabin.

Zach: So there’s, as you’ve talked a little bit about, there’s kind of a cat and mouse aspect to all the security work in the sense that most people trying to do bad things will be aware, or at least the more professional ones will be aware of the security approaches. And the more aware people are of the security approaches, the less effective those approaches are. How do you see the, you know, when it comes to specific things that the aviation security industry focuses on, how do we balance that risk? Is there maybe a rule of not talking about the specific strategies too much publicly and these kinds of things?

Philip: No, I don’t think there is really. I think that people do talk about their strategies. I find it amazing that the airport screening process is so predictable. We are so transparent about what is going to happen to people. I often wonder why, for example, does an X-ray manufacturer have to have its name on the side of the X-ray machine?

Zach: [chuckles] That’s a good point.

Philip: I mean, let’s face it. You’re not going to sell another X-ray machine to another airport because the name’s on the side of it. It’s not really about the brand at that point, so why have we got it there? Why are we telling the people with negative intent that you’re using a certain manufacturer or system that they can then go away, go online, look up the angle at which the X-ray beam hits the bag, and therefore plan their attack around that? Why are we doing that? Why isn’t it just a black box that you put your bag in on one side and it comes out the other side?

Zach: Are there other aspects of security that strike you as a little bit too obvious and repetitive in that aspect?

Philip: Well, I feel that a lot of what we do is– I’ve said it before– I feel a lot of what we do is theatre. It’s deterrent. But if you actually go to the real world, we do know that the terrorist fraternity out there understands the limitations of the security checkpoint, and they know what works and what doesn’t work. They know what type of devices won’t make it through a security checkpoint and which ones will. And we often, I don’t think, treat the enemy with sufficient respect. That’s why ultimately, the aviation system has always been reactive. We’ve always waited for an attack to happen and then we patch the hole. For example, before Richard Reid, we knew that there was a problem with shoes. But we didn’t do anything about it because nobody had actually tried to conceal a bomb in their shoes. We didn’t deploy common body scanners until Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab went through with his underpants bomb. We didn’t lock cockpit doors and we didn’t restrict box cutters until September the 11th. And there are so many things that you think, “Why does it take an event to happen in order for us to actually implement effective security measures?” And I know people don’t like to hear about the Israeli security system because they get bored of hearing about how amazing the Israeli system is, but the reality is the Israeli system had an attack in 1968 and then they implemented a whole series of measures that pretty much ensured the security of El Al aircraft and other Israeli aircraft ever since. There were a couple of incidents in the early 1970s but once their profiling system was implemented, that was it. Now, you can’t transplant the Israeli system and put it into the United States or the United Kingdom because the scale of the aviation industry is so much greater in the United States or in Europe than it is in Israel. And the tolerance that people have got for more invasive security is much lower. But you can use elements of it. You can deploy common sense. We know that, for example, the terrorists out there are planning attacks that are going to be based on chemical and biological weapons. That’s not a shock, that’s nothing new, I’m not breaching any security by saying that. We know that that is out there. What measures are in place at airports to prevent a chemical or biological weapon attack? Well, I think your listeners probably know what the answer is, I don’t need to put it into words. The reality is we’re waiting for that type of attack to happen before we implement a measure to actually prevent it. But there is a measure that can prevent it. And actually, it is based on behavioural analysis and behaviour detection. And that means making hard decisions about people. That you’re not going to resolve whether or not somebody can get onto a flight or get into a sports stadium simply on whether you detect a threat item in their bag or on their person, it means that you’re going to possibly prevent somebody going into a sports stadium, to a rock concert, to a shopping mall, to a theatre, to an airport, or getting on a bus because you’ve got sufficient concerns about them. And you’re actually going to say, “It may not be fair to that person, but our primary objective here has got to be to safeguard lives and to do what we need to do.” We just need to make sure that the people that are doing it are trained to act sensitively and to be able to question people appropriately, because in 99.9% of cases where concern arises, then you will be able to resolve those concerns by having a friendly conversation with an individual.

Zach: And I think most people are okay with the idea of if me or other people being occasionally inconvenienced is what it takes to save a lot of people, then that is a fair trade-off. I think most people would-

Philip: I think you’re absolutely right. I mean, there is the occasional person that will say, “Why are you focusing on me? Do I look like a terrorist?” First of all, I’ve got no idea what a terrorist looks like and nobody can tell you what a terrorist looks like. But we’re not even only looking for terrorists, are we? We’re looking for anybody that could be a problem, and somebody that could be used by a terrorist, and somebody that could be trafficked, and somebody that is a trafficker as I’ve said before. We’re looking for a host of different people that are out there. And providing we do implement security sensitively, I think we can be far more effective than we are at the moment. And I think we should be actually getting rid of elements of the security system to make the whole system actually more user-friendly and customer service friendly. I think that actually even having the checkpoint… I mean, this was something that was sort of born about 25 years ago, the whole concept of centralized screening in an airport where everybody is screened at the same place, I feel that was detrimental to effective passenger profiling or behavioural analysis. It was so much better than when we used to do it at the gate. Because at the gate, you could have a flight that was departing to Shreveport, Louisiana, and another flight that was going to Cancun in Mexico, and another flight that was going to London Heathrow, and another flight that was going to Reykjavik, Iceland, and you will know that the behaviours of people going on those four different flights will be completely different and that what they will be carrying will be completely different. And you would have a relatively small group of people that you will be able to analyze. But we moved away from that model of screening at the gates and moved it to a big centralized screening area, not because it was better security, but because it was cheaper and because it was better to put all of your resources in one place. And we have to recognize that security does cost. We know from 9/11 and other major terrorist events that short-term savings actually result in long-term huge expense.

Zach: This has been great, Philip. Thanks for your time and I really appreciate you coming on.

Philip: My pleasure.

Zach: That was aviation security professional, Philip Baum. You can learn more about his work at his website Avsec, that’s

This has been the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zachary Elwood. If you enjoyed this episode, check out the back catalog of episodes on my website Some of the more popular episodes I’ve done have been about reading human behavior for security- and criminal investigation- related applications. 

Thanks for listening.


Reading poker tells in a hand from the WSOP Ladies Event, with Lara Eisenberg

A talk with poker player Lara Eisenberg, who won the 2021 World Series of Poker Ladies Event, and who got 2nd place in a 2022 World Poker Tour event for $481,000. Topics we talk about include: how her thoughts about poker tells have changed over time; some specific behaviors from a poker hand from the Ladies Event; some behavioral patterns she noticed in herself; the anxiety involved in bluffing; and skydiving, which Lara has done competitively. 

Episode links:

Related resources:


The illusions of memory and self, with Anne Wilson

A talk with social psychologist Anne Wilson ( about memory and how we define who we are. Topics discussed include: the nature of self; the nature of memory; the fallibility of our memories; the theory of temporal self appraisal (which is about how we experience ourselves as being close to or far away in time from different versions of ourselves); false memories; the role creative storytelling plays in constructing our views of self and the world; and political polarization. 

Episode links:

Resources discussed or related:


My book Defusing American Anger is out

A short update about my book Defusing American Anger being released, and a few other small notes. You can get the book at

Episode links:


The fear and loneliness of leaving one’s cult, with Calvin Wayman

A talk with Calvin Wayman (Twitter: @calwayman), who was raised in a fundamentalist Mormon cult, with four mothers and 44 siblings. This world was everything and everyone he’d known. At the age of 30, he left that world, and was as a result suddenly isolated from everything that had previously given his life meaning.

We talk about that experience with a focus on the existential feelings of isolation and loneliness that accompanied it. Topics discussed include: how he began to question his world; factors he sees as present that made him someone willing to question things; Plato’s allegory of the cave; The Matrix and our willingness to take the “red pill”; how his community and family reacted to his decision; the human desire for certainty; and more.

Podcast episode links:

Resources related to or mentioned in this episode:


On psychopaths and ‘dark empaths’, with dark traits expert Nadja Heym

A talk with Nadja Heym, a psychology researcher who specializes in dark traits, like psychopathy, narcissism, and sadism, and who has researched so-called “dark empaths”: people with dark traits who have a good amount of empathy. We delve into some nuance in the area of psychopathy.

Topics discussed include: How she defines psychopathic traits; The misuse of the term “psychopath” (and related misuse of other terms like “narcissist”); Can we say from a brain scan if a brain is “psychopathic”?; “Bad seed”-like concepts of how psychopaths arise; Can an environment (like a highly competitive job) make someone have more psychopathic traits?; What are “dark empaths”? 

Episode links:

Resources related to or mentioned in our talk:


Does our anger at the “other side” help create the very things we’re angry about?

When trying to convince people of the problem of polarization and the necessity for depolarization endeavors, a common objection from politically passionate people goes, “But the other side is horrible, so polarization makes sense.” In this episode, I talk about what is probably the primary counterpoint to that objection: that us-vs-them anger, in a non-obvious way, can help create the very things we’re angry about. For this reason, if one wants to defeat extreme views on the other side (or on both sides), the way to achieve that goal is to take a depolarizing, anger-reducing, de-escalating approach. 

Transcript below.

Podcast links:

Resources mentioned or related:


This is the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zach Elwood. This is a podcast about better understanding other people and better understanding ourselves. You can learn more about it at; there are also transcripts and links to related materials on that site.   

As I’m recording this today, there are a lot of birds chirping outside, so apologies for the bird noises. 

If you’ve listened to this podcast before, you probably know I sometimes tackle topics related to political polarization. And I’m currently working on a book on this topic, with the working title Defusing American Anger: Why We Hate Each Other And What We Can Do About It. 

When it comes to depolarization endeavors, I think it’s very important to try to overcome common objections. And one of the most common objections I hear is: “but the other side is so horrible, so it makes sense to be polarized.” Some people even think we need to be more polarized, to combat the obvious threat and danger of the other side. 

I have a number of counterpoints to that. One is to point out that people engaged in depolarization efforts aren’t trying to change anyone’s political beliefs, which I think is often what people think. And I think this gets into some of the ambiguity in the term ‘polarization’; because there is ideological polarization, which is about beliefs, and then there is affective polarization, also known as emotional polarization, also known as us-vs-them polarization, which is what I like to call it. 

So when people hear that I and others are working on “depolarization” they can think that we’re trying to change their beliefs, when what we’re really saying is: we are trying to reduce the anger. Or more accurately, we are trying to reduce the expressions of anger — the hateful insults and threats, the angry language — because we can see that those things are what drive our divides. One can have any range of political beliefs, even beliefs many would view as extreme, while seeing the wisdom of taking a depolarizing, de-escalating approach. 

But the main counterpoint I’d make to people who perceive one group as hugely bad and dangerous is this: our us-vs-them anger helps create the very things many of us are angry about. Our us-vs-them anger is not some side event going on while we fight over the issues; it is actually the main event. Because that immense anger can actually shift our beliefs, and make us more extreme in our beliefs, and make us less willing to negotiate. Put in more technical, academic terms: our emotional polarization can create ideological polarization. 

And research helps make this case. One of the most important studies on this, in my opinion, was one by James Druckman and his colleagues; that paper was titled Affective polarization, local contexts and public opinion in America. It showed how political animosity pre-covid was tied later to more polarized, extreme covid-related beliefs and behaviors. I’m going to read some excerpts from my depolarization book in a bit, and I mention Druckman’s work in there. 

One reason I wanted to create this episode was to create something that I could point people to. I wanted something I could share when people say “the other side is horrible so polarization makes sense.” And if you care about this cause, maybe you could share this episode with your audience, and explain why it’s important. Or maybe when you find someone making those objections, that polarization is okay, you could share this episode with them. 

Another reason I wanted to talk about this topic was to see if people knew about research related to this. I’ve actually been a bit surprised how hard it’s been to find work related to the idea that emotional polarization amplifies ideological polarization. To me, it’s such an important concept, because it helps make the case to politically passionate people why depolarization efforts are so important. So if anyone has thoughts on this topic, or knows of related resources, I’d greatly appreciate you reaching out via the contact form of my site 

Okay so next I’ll read a couple excerpts from my manuscript, and just please keep in mind this is from an early version of the book, so it is still pretty rough and unpolished. 

We tend to think that our stances and the other group’s stances are things that exist on their own, apart from us. We tend to perceive that the other side is, suddenly and out of the blue, becoming more extreme and more detached from reality. But understanding polarization dynamics lets us see how our dislike of the other side contributes to creating the very things we dislike. 

As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, put it in a 2022 talk on the Braver Angels podcast: “Culture wars are different than real wars: the more you attack the other side, the more you strengthen it.”

There’s plenty of evidence that our stances on issues can be affected by our us-versus-them feelings. Our dislike of the other group, our fear of them and anger at them, can make us form more extreme and hardened positions on issues. And this is a hugely important point because it helps us see that our us-versus-them anger is often creating the very things we’re angry about. 

This gets back to the feedback loop involved in these dynamics. Our dislike of the other group makes us form more extreme positions, which increases the other side’s dislike and makes them form more extreme positions, which makes us dislike them more, and so on. 

A 2020 paper by James Druckman and colleagues was titled Affective polarization, local contexts and public opinion in America. In that work, they showed how people’s political animosity influenced later stances on covid. The more us-versus-them animosity people had, the more likely they were to have more extreme stances on how to respond to covid: either being for an extensive response to covid, or being for very little response. Importantly, that research showed that us-versus-them animosity came before the covid stances, showing that emotion influenced beliefs (and not the other way around). 

Via email correspondence, Druckman summarized his views on how our us-versus-them emotions can affect our political beliefs: 

Our theory is that as affective polarization increases for someone, they become more likely to align their beliefs with those of party elites. Party elites tend to be more ideologically polarized and thus the more affectively polarized people follow those cues, and that leads them to become more polarized on issues (as was the case with COVID-19 policies). 

In other work, we find this holds across various policy domains, support for political compromise, and norms. For example, those who are more affectively polarized are more likely to oppose checks and balances when their party holds power but then flip to support them when their party is in the opposition. It is similar to policies; they are more protective of their policy and thus become more extreme. 

End quote

So in short, we can see that political animosity, either directly or indirectly, is likely influencing our beliefs.. 

And we can see how this dynamic may be playing out for many issues we fight over. The more we dislike the other side, the more we’ll have an instinctual urge to align against the other side’s stance. 

And each group’s divisive rhetoric will play a role here. When liberals say things like, “Conservative stances on immigration are due to racism,” it’s understandable how it would be that conservatives might feel even more emotionally committed to their anti-immigration stances. Their dislike of liberals will manifest as more committed stances against immigration. 

When conservatives say things like “Liberals want to increase immigration because they want to destroy America” or “because they want to get more votes,” some liberals will feel various pressures to be more committed to pro-immigration stances. 

And we can see real-world evidence of this playing out for various stances. To take one example: A 2020 Pew Research survey showed that back in 2015, roughly 65% of Democrats agreed with the statement “immigrants strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents.” In 2020, that number had risen to about 86%, a rise of about 20 percentage points. We can see this dramatic change in liberal-side views as being a direct result of perceptions that Trump and the GOP were being insulting and threatening to immigrants. We can understand it as liberal-side beliefs being shifted due to a growing perception of the other side’s moral badness. 

To be clear: this is not to say that having positive feelings about immigrants is an extreme belief. It’s just meant to be an example of how our us-vs-them emotions can shift our beliefs. And we can imagine how related beliefs could be shifted in ways that some would view as extreme: for example, we can imagine that dynamic being at play with an increasing number of Democrats saying they’d be for open borders policies or having no border control at all. On the other side, we could also imagine that emotional dynamic being at play for increasing support for a border wall. 

We define ourselves by what our in-group is like, but also by what a perceived out-group is like. We define ourselves partly by the ways in which we are not like a disliked outgroup. This helps explain why it can seem that we can become angrily polarized over anything, especially things that aren’t yet associated with one party or the other: all it takes is one group taking a stance on something, and the other group can have a reflexive instinct to criticize that stance and align against that stance. 

When we’re polarized, there’s a natural feedback cycle that causes things to keep getting worse. And this helps explain why we will naturally keep finding ourselves polarized over new issues, like covid. For my podcast, I interviewed Michael Macy, who with his colleagues worked on a paper titled Opinion cascades and the unpredictability of partisan polarization. In that work, they studied how we can polarize randomly on issues that aren’t yet tied to a political party. Similar to how in many complex systems, slightly different initial conditions can lead to vastly different results later on, early conditions, including early opinion-holders and influencers, can influence a political party to be aligned with one or another stance on an issue. These early choices have a cascading effect, meaning that, for some issues, the political parties could hold reversed positions if things had gone a bit differently. 

Research also shows how the more we view a stance on an issue in moral terms, the less willing we are to negotiate. One study that talks about this was from 2022 and was titled Moral Frames Are Persuasive and Moralize Attitudes; Nonmoral Frames Are Persuasive and De-Moralize Attitudes. That study found that quote “the use of moral frames can increase and entrench moral divides rather than bridge them.” end quote. This isn’t surprising: the more we see something as a moral disagreement, the less likely we are to want to budge on that issue. And the more we perceive the other political group as alien and monstrous and evil, as an entire group, the more of a moral framing all disagreements on issues will have, no matter the issue. So we become more gridlocked and unable to negotiate, and the resentment over that lack of negotiation grows and feeds back into our us-vs-them anger. 

Fathali M. Moghaddam is a psychologist and conflict researcher, and author of the book Mutual Radicalization: How Groups and Nations Drive Each Other to Extremes. In that book, he writes that mutual radicalization occurs when quote “two groups take increasingly extreme positions opposing one another, reacting against real or imagined threats, moving further and further apart in points of view, mobilizing their resources to launch attacks, and finally attempting to weaken and destroy each other.” end quote. Here’s another excerpt from his book on how entrenched and malleable us-versus-them feelings are: 

This work on mutual radicalization highlights a destructive process that can become self-perpetuating, self-contained, and independent from ideology and other characteristics of groups. Irrespective of whether the groups and nations involved are capitalist or communist, Muslim or Christian or Jewish or Buddhist or some other religion, or what their ethnic or gender mix and other characteristics are, once they become entangled in mutual radicalization they can be sucked into a spiraling and ever more destructive process. 

Although individually those entrapped in this process might include highly insightful individuals who can recognize that the collective is going down the wrong path, the sheer force of mutual radicalization often overrides their objections and pushes them along to conform, obey, and speed toward a destructive end. In mutual radicalization collective pressures override individual intelligence.

End quote.

We often fight over which political group has grown more extreme. People on both sides will try to make the case for why one side or the other has grown more extreme in the recent past. But the fact is that there is no one measure of extremity or radicalization. As extreme polarization grows, each group will adjust their stances in big ways on some issues and not so much on other issues. All this complexity means that it’s possible for each group to form narratives about the other side’s growing extremity and have points to back those claims up. 

If you’re someone who thinks that dangerous people with extreme beliefs are hurting America—whether you see that as an issue on both sides, or almost entirely on one side—the way you defeat those people and ideas may be, counter-intuitively, by reducing our collective us-versus-them anger. Because it’s our collective anger that gives power to the most polarized people and views. 

For my podcast, I interviewed conflict resolution expert Guy Burgess, and one thing he said was, “The idea is to see yourself as others see you. Once you do that, then you get a sense of what makes others so mad at you and willing to fight so hard. And you can then start asking questions about, well, do I really need to do those things? Or maybe if we did it this way, I wouldn’t provoke so much opposition but I’d still get the things that I really care about.” end quote.

And again, this is not to say we shouldn’t have passionate stances about things that are important to us: we’re talking about the unreasonable levels of animosity we can have and express towards our fellow citizens. That animosity is the problem.  

Us-versus-them polarization is a powerful, self-reinforcing dynamic: a kind of self-sustaining perpetual anger machine. Like a nuclear reaction or a hurricane forming in warm waters, once set in motion, all the elements are there for the process to ramp up and spiral out of control. 

In Robert Talisse’s book Sustaining Democracy: What We Owe To The Other Side, he writes about the indirect dysfunction caused by us-vs-them polarization. One less obvious problem is that the more polarized and angry we grow, the less able we become to work even with people who used to be or could be our political allies. We can see this dynamic playing out with people in both parties becoming more antagonistic and argumentative with each other. The most polarized people are focused on purity and ridding their side of the impure and the not properly polarized. We can see it playing out, for example, in many progressive-leaning organizations that have become dysfunctional due to internal divisions and fights, something written about in a 2022 Intercept article titled How Meltdowns Brought Progressive Groups to a Standstill. The angrier we become, the more intolerant we become of dissent, and the more we harshly judge even people who are largely politically aligned with us. In this way, more us-vs-them anger makes people less likely to achieve the normal political goals of persuading people and forming large coalitions. It results in a general maddening and meanness, across the board. 

And just a note here that if you’re interested in these topics, I highly recommend Robert Talisse’s book Sustaining Democracy. It’s the best book aimed at American depolarization I’ve yet read. 

Let me skip to another related excerpt from the book

In a polarized society, people in both groups often have blind spots for seeing how their side is contributing. When the other side seems so egregiously wrong, the bad behaviors of people on our side can seem minor by comparison. Either that, or we genuinely don’t see how our group contributes. 

Reading this, you’ve likely had some thoughts like, “I’ll concede that there are a few people on my side who add to our divides, but clearly, the other side is much, much worse, so thinking about how my side contributes strikes me as a bit pointless, and maybe even dangerous.”

When asked to examine how the left might be adding to our divides, some liberals will object that this is making a false equivalency or that it’s a “both sides” argument. They’re saying it’s wrong to speak as if the two groups contribute similarly. But this can be seen as a defensive reaction to avoid the real issue. Acknowledging the flaws of your group is not making a false equivalency or a “both sides” argument: you can see how your group has issues while thinking the other group is worse—even much worse.  

People who study polarization understand that in every polarized nation, both groups in conflict almost always play a significant role in amplifying the divides. 

Even in the case of Nazi Germany, a situation where most people would perceive one group as much worse than the other group (to put it lightly), there was significant violence and aggression from the far left at that time that contributed to the nation’s collective us-versus-them narratives and anger.

The following is from a piece about post-World War I Germany from

Against this background, Germany had to create a new government and try to reinstitute law and order. But the ministers and politicians of the newly established Weimar Republic had formidable enemies: their own people. The new republic saw pitched battles between increasingly polarized left and right-wing groups. The early government was seized by left-wing revolutionaries, and communist uprisings roiled the streets.

In response, private armies called Freikorps fought back. These groups were funded by former officers of the German army, which was now under severe restrictions in terms of both size and scope because of the Treaty of Versailles. The paramilitary groups came and went as political crises erupted. They were staffed by a vast group of discontented men, from former soldiers who were indignant at Germany’s surrender to young men who were angry at being unemployed. Eventually, as many as 1.5 million German men would join a Freikorps group. They represented a growing tide of nationalism and right-wing extremism that would erupt into political chaos and eventually lead to the rise of the Nazi Party.

The new government lacked authority, so it leaned on the Freikorps to fight its battles. The country was plagued with wave after wave of violence, both from workers’ groups on the left and increasingly combative right-wing groups who resented what they saw as Germany’s complete abdication to the international community’s demands after the war. And the Freikorps and other paramilitary groups were in the middle of the often bloody fray—legitimized and bolstered by a government so weak it gave them free rein to terrorize whom they pleased. [end quote]

(And as a quick note here, to be completely clear: this example I chose is not meant to compare current American political groups with those in WW2 Germany.) 

This example was chosen to make the case that, ven in situations where most people would judge one side to be much worse than the other, both groups will almost always have played a role in amplifying the divides. Some will perceive this point as akin to victim-blaming or making excuses for an aggressive group’s attacks, but it’s not. It’s simply recognizing how human conflicts almost always work. It’s recognizing how the roots of our us-versus-them anger form and grow. 

The 2006 book The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict, written by C. Terry Warner and The Arbinger Institute, examines the hidden emotional forces that can help drive conflicts. It explains how, in conflicts—whether a marital fight or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—people on both sides can contribute, sometimes without even realizing it. That’s because when a conflict begins, we stop seeing the opposing side’s humanity and increasingly see them as objects. Even if we believe we’re simply trying to achieve correct and rational goals, if our “hearts are at war” with the people on the other side, those negative emotions change how we speak and behave. And soon, that animosity plays a bigger role than the issues we initially were arguing over. This starts a cycle where our negative emotions induce equivalent negative emotions on the other side. To quote from The Anatomy of Peace: “We begin provoking in others the very things we say we hate.”

Okay, that’s the end of me reading excerpts from my work-in-progress book, which is currently titled Defusing American Anger

Again, if you like what I’m doing with this work, you can sign up for a premium membership to my podcast at, and that will also get you a free copy of my book when it’s ready. Aside from that, I’d highly appreciate you sharing this podcast with others. Consider sending this specific episode to people who you think might appreciate learning more about polarization dynamics and why depolarization is an important goal.  


Reading situations and opponents in racecar driving, with Andy Lally

A talk with racecar driver Andy Lally, who specializes in endurance GT (sportcar) racing. Topics we talk about include: What’s the breakdown in skill versus chance in an average race? What are the considerations when trying to pass other drivers, or trying to prevent drivers from passing? Where’s the boundary between acceptable behavior versus behavior that people would consider too-aggressive and dangerous? What are some spots where Andy was proud of his decisions? What it’s like being a vegan in an industry where that’s pretty rare?

Podcast links:

Related resources:


Facial expressions and their connection to personality, with Herman Ilgen

A talk with Herman Ilgen, who’s been a negotiator for more than 30 years and who is the founder of the Institute for Nonverbal Strategy Analysis (INSA). Ilgen has researched how facial expression patterns may be connected to personality traits. His paper was titled “Personal Nonverbal Repertoires in facial displays and their relation to individual differences in social and emotional styles.” Topics discussed include: what led him to do that work; what the findings were; how one might make practical use of the findings; and various thoughts on nonverbal behavior and on negotiation strategies.

Podcast links:

More resources related to this talk:


Us-vs-them anger in a small town, with Rebecca Schillenback

Credit Casey Martin, Ithaca Voice

In the small town of Caroline in central New York state, there seems to be a war going on. A large sign in the town reads, “There’s a war in the valley, time to pick a side.” The divide is over proposed zoning laws. Rebecca Schillenback is a resident who wrote a letter to the local paper objecting to the war-like us-vs-them rhetoric she sees her neighbors using. I talk to Rebecca about: the nature of this divide and the roots of the emotions; how it relates to our national us-vs-them divides; and her Quaker faith and its role in her attempt to reduce anger. 

Podcast links:

Some resources related to our talk:


Improving sexual satisfaction in long-term relationships, with Jessica Maxwell

A talk with psychologist Jessica Maxwell ( about her research on sexual relationships. We talk about “growth” versus “destiny” views about sex: in other words, whether someone sees sexual satisfaction as something one must work on, or if one sees it as largely an issue of destiny–something that’s either present or it’s not. Other topics include: the role of media in affecting our views on sex; how boredom and lack of novelty can hurt sexual satisfaction; performance-related anxiety; how porn might be affecting people’s ideas of sex; thoughts on scheduled date nights versus more spontaneous attempts at romance; sleeping in separate bedrooms. 

Podcast episode links:

Resources mentioned in this talk:


The role of nonverbal behavior in competitive situations, with Philip Furley

A talk with Philip Furley, who has done a lot of research on behavior and psychology in sports. A transcript is below. Topics discussed include: how an athlete’s body language can influence teammates, opponents, and even judges; behaviors and strategies of penalty kickers and goalkeepers in soccer; some specific behaviors from the recent World Cup; collective displays of team unity (like the “Haka”); the difficulties of finding behavioral patterns in sports; thoughts on making practical use of Furley’s research findings.

Podcast links:

Some resources mentioned in our talk, or related to it:


Welcome to the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zach Elwood. This is a podcast about understanding people better. To learn more about it, go to 

In this episode, I talk to Philip Furley, who’s done a wide range of interesting sports psychology-related research. He’s done so much interesting research related to the role of nonverbal behavior in sports, it was honestly hard to decide which topics to focus on and which questions to ask. Here are some of the topics we talk about. 

  • We talk about positive and negative body language in sports and what effects that can have on one’s teammates
  • We talk about celebratory body language and how that can influence the perceptions of other people, including judges
  • We talk about some behaviors and strategies of penalty kickers and goalkeepers in soccer
  • We talk about some specific behaviors from the recent World Cup games
  • We talk about the challenges in finding general behavioral patterns in sports. 
  • We talk about anxiety and the role it can play in sports 

And along the way, Furley and I talk about various ways someone might make practical use of his research findings

I want to give a big thank you to Alan Crawley, who I’ve previously interviewed on this podcast and who goes by the online handle Sin Verba. It was Alan’s idea for me to ask Furley for an interview, and Alan also came up with most of the questions you’ll hear me ask, because he’s much more familiar with Furley’s work than I am, and also because he’s a lot more familiar with the game of soccer. So thank you for all that, Alan. If you’re interested in learning more about nonverbal behavior, I highly recommend checking out that talk I did with Alan; it was one of the more popular episodes of mine lately. And if you’re interested in sports-related psychology specifically, just a note that I’ve done quite a few sports-related and game-related episodes in the past. 

Okay here’s the talk with Philip Furley…

Hi, Philip. Thanks for coming on.

Philip: Hi, thanks for having me.

Zach: So maybe we could start with talking about your interests a bit. What is it that’s driven the various kinds of research you’ve done in the sports field and elsewhere?

Philip: Yeah. Okay, I didn’t really get into the stuff we’re gonna be talking about till a bit later in my scientific career. I started off my PhD in 2009. That was more on cognitive topics like how you can control your attention in various sports settings. And then in Germany, after you finish your PhD, if you want to become a professor you have to do something called the Habilitation. And there I got very interested the social psychology of sports, and that’s when I started to research into this nonverbal behavior and nonverbal communication, body language stuff. What I noticed is a lot of people talk about that in applied settings; sport commentators. But then when I had a look and reviewed the literature, not that much research had been actually done in the field of sports. I mean, it was a very mainstream topic in general psychology, but within the field of sport not that much research had been done, which was a good starting point for me to get started in this field of research.

Zach: One of your areas of research has been the body language of players, sports team players, and how that can affect their teammates or opponent players, for example, by communicating confidence or lack of confidence. Can you summarise? I know that’s probably a big ask, but can you summarise your views about the role of body language plays in sports?

Philip: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. It’s hard to quantify it. There are several things we were interested in our research; first of all, the first thing is how body language is affected by various situations in sports like for example the current score line, how it is going at the moment for the team, for the player, and if other people can recognize this just based on the body language. And then in turn, how this again might affect other players, opponents, spectators, and then again in the long run, how that might again come back to affect sports performance. These were sort of the questions that we were looking into. And we’ve got some answers to these questions, but what we find very clearly is that nonverbal behavior, the body language, the facial expressions, they are very much affected by various things that are going on in sports.

One thing we had a look in a lot of different situations… So, players change their body language if they’re currently doing well, if they’re leading, or if they’re currently trailing. This is something that we’ve always found in all the experiments we’ve done. We’ve had to look at that in soccer, in tennis, in table tennis, in handball and all sorts of different contexts. And this is something that we can clearly show. The body language is affected by how it’s going so if you are not doing so well, this shows in your body language, and if you’re doing well, this also shows again in your body language. And people– observers– who are not especially trained in drawing inferences from nonverbal behavior body language can make accurate inferences. If you show them brief video recordings or photos, they can say, “Okay, this guy is leading, this guy’s trailing,” and also by how much they are trailing. Someone finds quite a contingency between the nonverbal behavior and the current scoreline. In further experiments, we could also show that this can have an effect on other players. For example, if you put athletes in hypothetical scenario and tell them to look at this player and how likely they are gonna play well or play poorly against this player, then they are a lot more confident playing against somebody whose body language is from images where they’re currently trailing, as opposed to where they’re currently leading. To give you one example of a line of research we’ve been doing…

Zach: To take a specific example, in one of your studies on baseball, you discovered the importance of holding your head high. Could you talk a little bit about that specific finding?

Philip: Yeah, this was an experiment we did with actors. They use the so-called point light technique there that we just put markers on joints of people and then we manipulated the body language they were doing. This was a follow up experiment from the research that I’d been talking about before. And then if we manipulate the body language to resemble the body language of a trailing athlete, that sort of looks a bit more submissive as opposed to dominant, then you could clearly tell that the observers form very different impressions. So if you showed these point light images to observers, also to athletes, then they had a negative image of the athlete that was sort of looking downwards, that was sort of collapsed, didn’t have a lot of body tension. And they were also a lot more confident to be interacting with this athlete. For example if it was a pitcher, then they were a lot more confident that they would be able to hit the ball to hit a good strike at the baseball.

Zach: One thing I’ve wondered is how would you implement this in a real-world setting. So let’s say you were a basketball coach, let’s say, and your team had been losing for a while in the game, if you could give advice to the team, would you suggest that they change their body language? And how would you suggest they do it? Would you suggest maybe they just avoid expressing negative or losing appearing emotions or gestures? Or would you suggest they maybe fake some nonverbal confidence and things like this?

Philip: Yeah, exactly. It’s not an easy question to answer and one doesn’t want to encourage unnatural and bit freaky gestures and body language. What you do find in a lot of our research is that the body language is sort of automatically affected by what’s going on. And you can get sort of into a downward circle that it’s going poorly, and this shows in your body language. And then this might affect your teammates and boost the confidence of your opponents. This is something that we can simulate in the experimental research that we’ve been doing. And of course, applied work, wants to look how you can interfere in a way with this negative cycle. So being aware of what’s going on is of course a first important step. And then I think it’s important to sort of… If you notice that things are going poorly and you’re losing tension and this shows in your expressions, then it’s maybe important to take a deep breath, step back and refocus; maybe use some positive self-talk to get out of this vicious circle if you want [that you sort of say, okay.] Kind of a fresh start, gather yourself, and then maybe take a deep breath and try to get into a more positive posture. Because for knows, there are all these feedback loops. It’s not a one-way street so that only that their situation affects your nonverbal behavior, but also the other way round. There’s feedback from your body and if you sort of intervene here and try to adopt an upright posture, chin up, and gaze up, then I think you can have positive influences on your body language. But it’s not that trivial. This is something that you do have to probably work on, that you do have to train. You have to notice when something like that is occurring, and then try to sort of break out of this and get re-refocused.

Zach: Right, like you were saying some people would think, “Oh, I’m going to fake having really positive body language or whatever,” and I think what you’re pointing to, it would be strange to fake that. It would come across as artificial so that they’d be avoiding the obvious… You know, it’s almost like taking the advice of having a positive mindset and that will naturally leak out to your body language, I would think so.

Philip: No, exactly. And simplistic messages like that is something that I don’t go for. I know this is something difficult that’s on my mind, my goal as a scientist is trying to understand what’s going on and then giving some helpful advice that might actually help. So we’ve also looked into the question whether you can distinguish between post expressions, post body language, exaggerated body language, and body language that’s actually affected by circumstances in sports. And people are very good at detecting these differences, which would speak against sort of just trying to fake it and act too dominant, too confident.

Zach: Right, that makes sense. Do you have a sense of how big an effect we’re talking? I think that’d be a lot of people’s question. You know, it’s probably like in the scheme of things. It’s a smaller percentage, but still that can be significant. Because in a lot of games, you are talking about a very close game. So I’m curious, do you have a sense of, you know, the difference between a team with very bad beaten body language who really lets it show, versus a team that’s more cognizant of these things? Do you have a rough guess of how big of a percentage it would matter?

Philip: Yeah. I’m not gonna give you a percentage, I don’t think I can sort of answer that with the methods that we have in science. I mean, you see all these messages that a lot of the stuff that’s communicated is most of it nonverbal. I’m not really sure how they came up with these percentages, so I can’t really speak to a percentage. As you were was saying, I think it’s very important. It’s one of these many variables that has an influence. And they’re not isolated, they belong to the whole toolbox. And I think this is one that hasn’t been addressed enough by research, and that applied coaches and sports psychologists can do a lot with. So they’re considered very important, but sort of in combination with different things. You have to get into the right state, this is likely gonna affect your body language and nonverbal behavior in a positive way. And if you notice that if you’re in a good state but your body language can still be improved, this is something else you can work on. This is another thing that you should pay attention to.

Zach: Apart from the nonverbal, have you done any research or seen any research about the role of verbal encouragements or how people talk to each other? Has that been part of your work?

Philip: Not really so much of my research. Recently, we were asked to contribute a chapter on communication and a big part of that was nonverbal communication. And yes, obviously what people say to you, what coaches say to one has a big impact. It also matters how they state things in a calm, not-too-agitative way. These are things that have been studied, but not so much by me and my students.

Zach: You had done some research on surfing and how surfers’ body language can influence observers and judges. Could you give a talk a little bit about what you found with that research?

Philip: Yeah, this was more of an applied question, not so much the basic research I had been talking about before. I’m very interested in in the sport of surfing, I got into surfing myself when I was going to school in San Diego. I’m not very good at surfing but I started to follow it quite actively. the contests’ broadcasted out here in Germany via the internet, and so I’ve been following it quite a bit as a spectator. And one question that arose there was that it’s always one to three surfaces who are competing against each other. And then the two best waves they serve are scored by a judging panel, and then they get points for the waves. What then often happens is that a surfer gets a first good wave, and the other surfer has already two good waves so he needs another score to beat the other surfer to progress in the heat. This is kind of the format that exists. And then they’ve got a limited amount of time that they have to get the two best waves in a heat. And then the scenario actually always occurs that one surfer needs a certain score to beat the other surfer. What you then often see is that the time runs out so the surfers take off on a wave, and then at the end of the wave they show some very interesting nonverbal behavior in the surfing situation– they call them claims– they show some victorious nonverbal behavior like punching and doing fist pumps and this kind of stuff, and they do that towards the judging panel. And something that they always said in this commentary is that these nonverbal celebrations affected the judging panel. That they didn’t really judge the performance, but how they thought they did.

This was a question that I thought we could answer very well with some methods that we’ve been using. So we had a whole lot of video material from surfing contests, and then we could do have this video material judged. We could judge the actual performance and then we could see how much the judging was affected if you showed this additional victorious nonverbal behavior at the end. And we got quite clear answers. We even did a good experimental setup and we could clearly show that both lay people when judging the performance of surfers, they judged more favorably if the surfer celebrated their performance with a certain nonverbal [unintelligible 00:18:08]. But it was quite interesting that also experienced surf judges judged about half a point– which is quite a lot in surfing– better than all these victorious nonverbal behaviors after the wave, in comparison to just seeing that performance without the nonverbal behavior at the end.

Zach: Yeah, that seems pretty huge. And getting back to their question of is it a good strategy to deceptively do these things, it would seem in this case that it would be a good strategy with the caveat, of course, like the other things we were talking about where at a certain point if you’re known for somebody that’s always behaving triumphantly, everybody will know that about you so it would get out that you were often doing that. But it seems like in the context of a specific event, there wouldn’t be much reason to not try to act more confidently and triumphantly after your…

Philip: Yeah. No, I agree sort of up to a point, exactly. Because in these videos, the surfers actually did do something well that they thought they should celebrate. And then the comparison was showing this or not showing this. So the message would be if you do well, I think it’s beneficial to show this. But if you’re doing poorly, I think judges will notice and spectators would pick up on that and you might get a bit of a weird reputation.

Zach: Right, you’re a phony. Yeah, you’re just a faker. You got to use it within reason, basically. You have to use it judgmentally where like, ‘You could have actually been proud of that.’

Philip: Exactly, that’s what I would say. That’s a good way of summing it up. So if you’ve done something good, it helps. It can help to show that to people around you who are watching, but within limits. If you’ve done sort of okay or not so well, it wouldn’t be advisable to try to fake it.

Zach: Yeah, then you just get viral videos of yourself doing very bad performances and celebrating. Right?

Philip: And could end careers, I think. [laughs]

Zach: What about when it comes to some of the similar kind of displays that some teams do? For example, the New Zealand Rugby team does the haka, and there’s other teams that do collective exhibitions of unity; hugging themselves, chanting before a match and things like this. Have you done research on how those things affect or intimidate rivals or affect performance?

Philip: Yeah, not directly. I mean, some research touches into that. I think the haka is a very good example. It’s very impressive and it’s something that’s grown culturally in the natives of New Zealand. Things like that have a long tradition in all sorts of cultures with two effects, with two intentions. First of all, to psych one up oneself, to sort of get the team ready. It’s a pre-performance ritual that gets you pumped up, ready to perform, ready to fight in these matches. On the other hand, it has the effect to try to intimidate scare the opponent. And if it’s something that’s grown with these cultures with the All Blacks in New Zealand, it really is very impressive and I’ve got no doubt that it has intended effects and that it does help the team. But again, I don’t think it’s enough to say, “Okay, New Zealand does that, we should start this as a team ourselves.” It has to be authentic, it has to be believable, it has to suit the team that’s showing it. And there’s all kinds of research showing that pre-performance routines can increase arousal, can increase performance. So I think teams are well advised to try to train something like that to, to engage in things like that. And if it’s something like the haka, it’s likely that it could also have the effect of scaring the opponent, intimidating the opponent, lowering their confidence. And we’ve done some research, or there has been some research that has shown that the way that for example, tennis plays into the court does affect confidence levels of the opponent if they come in very confidently. Also from my own sporting experience, I can remember looking at some teams, looking at some plays and thinking, “Oh god, how am I supposed to beat them?”

Zach: [chuckles] What do you think the intimidation– because it seems like there can be a few different routes of intimidation there. I mean, one of them is just feeling like, “Oh, the other team gets along better. They’re tighter knit.” And that can be intimidating. Do you think that this kind of social perception that they’re closer and have more in common, is that part of the intimidation?

Philip: Yeah, I think that’s an interesting point. I would believe so. There’s some very interesting research; I always wanted to try to sort of do something in sports with that that actually shows that things like having rituals where teams move together, that this increases team cohesion. That if they do engage in something like the haka, moving very synchronously, this in fact does lead to a bigger belonging to the team. Sort of less ‘me’ and less ‘I’ in team.

Zach: Like brainwashing. Kind of like group cohesion, actually. Yeah.

Philip: Yeah. I think it’s quite likely. I don’t think it’s been been shown but I think it’s a very feasible hypothesis that this would increase team cohesion. Again, if people actually feel that sort of, ‘I’m really proud of this team, I’ll do everything to help this team,’ I’m pretty sure opponents will notice that as teams that are very close together, functioning very well as a team. Opponents are bound to observe that.

Zach: So, you’ve gotten a good amount of attention for your football-related work, aka soccer-related work. Maybe you could give a summary of the most important work as you see that you’ve done the area of football.

Philip: Football, of course, is something that’s very big in Germany. Often the actual sport isn’t what I’m so interested in, but sort of using it to test theories in psychology. We’ve done a lot of research on football penalties, but mainly because this is a very good situation I find to study body language, study nonverbal behavior. First of all, it’s quite static. Environments are very controlled environments; two players playing against each other, but you can monitor both the goalkeeper and the penalty taker very closely. You can see what’s their facial expressions, the body language, and it’s got a very clear outcome. It’s a very easy-to-study environment, much easier than studying 11 on 11 soccer. So this is one of the reasons we’ve done so much research here. So we’ve looked at several things, so maybe I’ll stick with work on nonverbal behavior that we’ve done on body language. Here, in combined work with some other European scientists, we were able to identify one kind of nonverbal behavior that’s clearly related with being not so successful that shows that you’re anxious. And this is something that we’ve called ‘hastening and hiding’ behavior. You can see that quite often in situations where a lot of pressure is on the performer, and they show behavior of sort of trying to get out of this situation as quickly as possible. In the soccer penalty kick situation, you can see first of all before very important shots like in penalty shootouts when you have to score in order to keep your your team in the shootout, you find that you can monitor this hasting and hiding behavior. This usually shows in the penalty taker. When he’s placed the ball on the spot, he turns his back towards the goalkeeper and walks back and then turns around again. So he turns his back towards the goalkeeper, which we say he’s sort of hiding a bit in front of the goalkeeper, and then the hastening comes. That when the referee blows the whistle– so there’s always a signal in the penalty situation– then the player sees that a bit like starting shot in 100-meter dash, and they immediately initiate the run-up. And both of these behaviors-

Zach: So that’s hastening, as opposed to taking their time with the shot.

Philip: Exactly. Then sort of waiting a bit, looking at the goalkeeper… And you can find that both turning this back and initiating a run up immediately when the referee blows the whistle, this is associated with poor performance. We’ve also done more research that this creates negative impressions in observers, in goalkeepers, and has various ways of negatively affecting the performance. But maybe this hastening and hiding, we haven’t only looked at that in the penalty kick situations. We can find quite a few sporting situations like free throws in basketball, performance in darts has always been in these self-paced situations. This hastening usually leads to more negative performance. These are the two behaviors that you could show across a whole bunch of penalty takers, that this seems to be a general pattern that is negatively associated with performance. Often, you find that players show individual things that distinguish only within that player between when they’re performing successfully, as opposed to performing better. So we don’t find very many general behaviors that always are associated with negative performance. It’s something that’s quite individual, so it makes more sense studying that within a person. This is something that we are doing at the moment because we have been successful finding a facial expression of success, finding a body posture of success, or body posture of failure. This is something that seems to be quite individual and something that we couldn’t find. So in science, you’re always looking for these general laws, but this seems to be something that’s quite individual.

Zach: Yeah, I guess it gets into, you know, these things are often so much more complex. Like, there’s multiple ways to be anxious, there’s an anxiety that can cause you to rush something and then there’s the anxiety that can cause you to prolong something. There’s different ways it can play out.

Philip: Completely. This is something that was a bit frustrating at the beginning because that’s something that we were looking for. But just as you were saying, there are these well-known videos, at least in Europe with Zinedine Zidane actually throwing up before important penalty but then scoring an amazing penalty. Which is clearly a sign that he was feeling very anxious but he still could pull it together and perform well. So it’s not as easy as I would like to have it sometimes, that you can find, “Okay, this kind of behavior is going to lead to that.” That’s something that we haven’t found.

Zach:Yeah, that’s actually something I was talking about with Alan Crowley who helped me write these questions who researched some of these questions and was more familiar with your work. We were talking about some athletes, some high performers of any of area of sports or otherwise will be more likely to be very calm under pressure, but then there’s some people that the anxiety is what drives them to perform well. So the spectrum, like you said, it’s not easy to pinpoint like, what mental state will lead to what success or failure. But I’m curious, do you have a sense? Because I would guess that the people that are more unnaturally calm under pressure would be more likely to be overrepresented in high-performing sports, or athletes. But I’m curious, do you think that bears out? Or do you think there’s just as many people in sports who are successful that are anxious and driven by the anxiety?

Philip: Yeah, it’s an interesting question. I think it would be very similar to the normal population. At least this is something that one hears from applied sports psychologists that a lot of very high perfomers, they sort of dreaded very much important performances coming up. But they can still do very well in these situations. They do feel the nerves, they do feel this arousal anxiety, but can somehow keep it together. And some people in some situations can’t. I don’t think it’s something that elite athletes would be different to the normal population. Obviously, the ones that are the absolute best, they are at the absolute top because they succeed in the situations when it matters the most. But it’s hard to pinpoint by ‘that is the case’.

Zach: So when it comes to the hastening and hiding behaviors of, let’s say, penalty kickers, I’m curious, would that be a situation where you would advise avoiding those behaviors? Or is it maybe another case of where you know, those people are anxious so they’re probably going to have the outcomes of anxiety no matter how they pretend to perform?

Philip: Yeah. I mean, those are things that you also see a lot less now. The first person who actually spoke about that was Norwegian sports psychologist Geir Jordet who we’ve also done some research together with, we sort of followed up on his work. He also works with several national teams and since this has been published about 10 years ago, it’s become a lot less than you can see that in the top penalty shootout. So people seem to become aware of that and this is something that they train, that they try to avoid that this is something that is not beneficial to performance. So it makes sense to try to build that into your pre-shot routines, don’t show this behavior so you can control these things, and like that, you sort of have things you can focus your attention on when you’re in a very stressful situation that you can’t control and that have been shown to be negatively linked to performance.

Zach: So would that mean in the case of hastening, would that mean that players are no longer rushing as much and they’re taking their time more than they did before? And is that helping their performance?

Philip: Yes, this is something that you do see that people in these high-pressure situations, they do work on routines, that they’ve got a planned concept in their mind that they focus their attention on. And the good thing about that is that it focuses their limited attentional capacity on something that they can control. Put the ball down, face the goalkeeper, take five step back backwards, referee blows the whistle, take three deep breaths, and then strike the ball in a certain corner. These are things you can control as the positive aspect that you don’t sort of focus on what might happen when I miss the shot, on various ruminations, and it also helps to control these aspects of your nonverbal behavior. So it’s likely to have beneficial effects in these situations.

Zach: When it comes to goalkeepers, one paper suggested that staying in the middle is the optimum strategy, another article suggested that goalkeepers should distract shooters, and I think you suggested that waiting longer to react may be helpful. In your opinion, when it comes to goalkeeper strategies, do you have opinions on that area?

Philip: Yeah. Those are all strategies that have been published in good journals. I mean, that’s always what happens. Experiments, they focus on one or two variables, and then maybe lead to a recommendation that doesn’t take all the variables in play into account during an actual match. Staying in the middle, that’s, I think, a study of [Michael Bailey] a couple of years ago that shows that in the soccer penalty situation, goalkeepers show something like action bias. Because not acting in a situation like that would be something that is socially not wanted, so they tend to always jump into one corner. And that’s why penalty takers can exploit this by shooting in the middle, and you can increase your chances by waiting in the middle. So this can be a strategy that is helpful in some situations. It should certainly be part of the goalkeepers’ repertoire. You should not always dive, but sometimes also stand in the middle. I think that would be good advice. Then there’s a lot of other research. For example, we did some research that shows that drawing attention from the penalty taker towards yourself by waving your arms or doing some kind of behavior draws attention towards you. And then there are studies that show that when attention is fixed onto the goalkeeper, then the aiming behavior, the shots are also tended to be placed a little bit closer to the goalkeeper. So strategy where you draw attention of the penalty taker. Then it makes sense to wait a bit longer because it’s not so likely that a very accurate penalty is gonna happen right next to the goal posts, then you can increase your chances by waiting a bit longer and then trying to save the penalty like that. There’s also other research that was done that was initiated by Rich Masters who’s now in New Zealand, that could show goalkeepers can also stand a bit off centre, sort of they can move themselves a tiny bit off centre, so that it’s hardly perceivable by the penalty taker. And then they can’t really say that the goalkeeper’s off centre, but they implicit notice something. And yeah, statistically significant they shoot more towards the corner with more place, and then the goalkeeper exploiting that and the diving to that corner can be a good strategy.

Zach: That’s interesting.

Philip: So there are all these indications from research which goalkeepers can try to exploit in their behaviour. One important thing that one has to look at and we’ve also done some research in this area is that there’s two different strategies penalty takers usually take. The goalkeeper-dependent one, looking what the goalkeeper is doing and then shoot to another corner. Or the goalkeeper-independent one, sort of pre-determining where you’re going to shoot and strike the ball as hard as you can. And if you hit it properly, then the chances of the goalkeeper are not so good. So the goalkeeper has to try to identify which strategy the penalty taker is likely to take. First of all by studying this penalty taker, which is his preferred strategy? And then their behavioral cues that indicate which strategies he’s going to take. For example, run up speed, his run. If he runs up a bit slowly, then it’s more likely he’s going to do the keeper-dependent strategy. I mean, this is all something that goes very fast. But these are little bits of information that can sort of help to increase the chances of saving a penalty kick. So if you see that penalty taker is gonna take a keeper-dependent strategy, then it’s advisable to wait as long as possibly, get him nervous so the goalkeeper’s not deciding, and then trying to react to that. These are pieces of information that you can use and if you know a penalty taker usually takes a keeper-independent strategy, then you can try to do this off-centre technique. Stand a bit away from the middle, and then research shows he’s more likely to shoot to the open corner and then jump as hard as you can to the other corner. Like that, you might be able to increase your chances a bit.

Zach: Yeah. Regarding that, I wanted to read a quote from apparently the only goalkeeper that stopped a penalty from Messi during the World Cup. Actually, I’m not sure how you pronounce his name. Szczęsny, maybe. He said, “Now, I can say that I knew where Messi would shoot. But at the time, I wasn’t so sure. Leo looks at the keeper on some penalties and hits hard on others. I knew that if he was going to hit hard, it would be more to my left. I saw that he was not stopping so I went, I sensed, I defended.” End quote. So he had studied Messi and discovered a bit of a pattern there. But that was just interesting for being related to what you were saying about studying when you can, if you think there’s a pattern there.

Philip: Yeah, and I think that’s a nice anecdote, sort of speaking to that. I think you can find individual cues within a player that would point to likely behaviors he’s going to adopt. Like the one that the Polish goalkeeper recognized in penalties run up. And I think it makes sense studying videos of individual players and then trying to determine patterns in what they’re likely going to do. This makes a lot more sense than having a general strategy over all players. I think these nonverbal cues are much more likely tells if you study individual players. There’s also this nice story that I talk sometimes about when I’m lecturing on this to my students. I think it’s in the biography of Andre Agassi who said he found a tell in the serve of Boris Becker who usually pointed his tongue out before he served the ball. If he pointed the tongue out straight, then the serve was much more likely to go straight. Then when he pointed the tongue out sort of an angle, then he would more serve to the outside. And I think that’s also quite a nice example of how individual players study the mimics, the nonverbal behavior of opponents and can find patterns. But for years, researchers have found very little patterns that always point to a behavioral outcome following a certain number of verbal behavior.

Zach: Yeah, it’s complicated. I’ll throw in there too that I did a previous episode, I interviewed tennis coach Carlos Garfia and we talked a bit about that Andre Agassi-Boris Becker tell. I’ll just throw that in there. But yeah, it’s difficult because there’s so much variety and a lot of cases the practical approach is just to play the most very optimal approach, because all the factors that can kind of break down and you’re left with just, “Well, I should just do the best strategy for this moment, regardless of what the other person is doing or what I think.”

Philip: Yeah.

Zach: So there was a recent controversy over Argentina goalkeeper Martinez during the World Cup. What’s your opinion about– if you know about it– what’s your opinion about his verbal and nonverbal methods of distracting Netherlands and France’s penalty shooters.

Philip: He got a lot of bad press about it and players certainly liked him less. On the other hand, the main goal is to be successful, he was very successful. But this is something that I don’t like to see. It’s borderline unfair what he did, I think. He used behavior that was at the limits of what’s allowed.

Zach: What was he doing?

Philip: Well, he was trying to distract the penalty takers every chance he got. I mean, he did what I was talking about before. Sort of getting the attention of the penalty takers, trying to bring them out of their routines, and very vivid behavior that…

Zach: Was it offensive behavior, or was it…

Philip: It wasn’t actually offensive behavior. It wasn’t showing gestures that are actually offensive, not allowed, that have to be sanctioned. But it was the whole time at the border of what is allowed. Also, of course, when they received the award he was also behaving badly. In general, he performed extraordinarily well, but he’ll only be remembered for this bad behavior that he showed there. It would have been nicer to win without that, I would say.

Zach: It reminds me. In poker, there’s what they call angle shooting, which is a term for things that are not technically illegal in the game but are perceived as immoral by a good number of people and outside the realm of proper game. It sounds like it was in this kind of grey area of, “Yeah, sure. It’s allowed and you might do okay with it,” but people are going to frown on you and look down on you a bit.

Philip: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. That’s what it was. It was not gentleman-like behavior. And this is something that, obviously, sport is very competitive also at the highest level, but you don’t want people wining like that. I also don’t think that was the reason they won, but it was sort of a negative… I don’t know the English word. It had a negative connotation attached to it.

Zach: So in one of your 2016 study, you found that when the nonverbal behavior of the referee is perceived by viewers as less confident when they decide a foul, for example, players were more likely to argue with the referee in contrast with when he called a clear foul when is his body language is more confident. That would seem to say, maybe it would make sense to teach referees to have some confidence in their calls, but like we’ve been talking about, that could backfire because if you do that on a clearly wrong or close call, you might lose respect from people. Do you have thoughts on the practical benefits of that research?

Philip: Yeah. There was several experiments we did in this paper. The first we wanted to check, we thought referees would be a good group to do research on because they actually get trained in this facet of nonverbal communication. They get seminars and nonverbal behavior experts come to them trying to teach them to communicate their decisions in a confident manner. Part of this research was looking into, “Okay, how successful is this coaching?” And then what we did there is we recorded or we took television recordings of referees, and we knew of course the situations that they were communicating and so we could distinguish situations that were absolutely clear, so we tested that and situations that were not so clear. And what we did then, we had people rate the body language of the coaches. And there we found quite clear patterns that when they were communicating ambiguous decisions, difficult situations, the body language was less confident. Sort of speaking in the direction that we do have this automatic tendency when we are not so sure about something, that this shows in our facial expressions and this shows in our body language. This is something that people are equipped with and this comes with the evolution of people. We do communicate how we feeling inside even if you don’t want to. This was the instance of that in this first line of research.

What we then did is recreated a hypothetical scenario, again, then showed different videos of referees who’d just given a yellow card or red card or given a penalty. And then told players, “Okay, this was a 50/50 situation, how likely would you be to contest the call of the referee?” There, you could clearly see if a referee on one of these videos was communicating an ambiguous situation but the people in our study of course didn’t know, they were a lot more likely to argue, to debate with the referee; showing that, okay, we do have this natural tendency of showing how we are feeling inside and this can have negative consequences on the playing field so the referee might be more likely to lose control of the game. Again, I don’t think there are quick fixes for that, I think it’s interesting to understand that, and I do think that referees are well advised to work on this and I’m sure they do. And yeah, but does have to find ways of then interacting with the players even if you are not sure in this situation, by trying to communicate it in a confident manner, but also being authentic and then trying to create understanding in the players– maybe telling them, talking to them why you decided like that. Being human too. I mean, people come with this tendency that they do show that in their body language.

Zach: It gets back to the theme we’ve been talking about a few times where it’s like, you can use some of this knowledge to your benefit in various ways, but you also have to be aware that using it badly will have repercussions for you.

Philip: Yes. Yes. Exactly, because humans aren’t perfect. I mean, referees are getting assistance now from technology, which I think is a good idea. That you can’t see everything that’s going on the pitch, and then if you have methods of reinsuring yourself as a video assistant referee and things like that, that’s beneficial. That will help the referee and they won’t be so often in situations where they made a call that might have been wrong but then they can correct it later. This is likely to cause less friction on the playing field.

Zach: Would you like to talk about any other important work that you’ve done in sports behavior, or do you think we’ve covered a good amount of it there?

Philip: Yeah, I think we’ve talked about very interesting work. I can maybe talk a bit more about ongoing work that we are also doing. We also trying to use a lot of technology now to automatically trace facial behavior during sports competitions and trying to find contingencies between that, and working on automated ways of detecting certain behavioral patterns like posture during game situations. This is something that’s interesting that’s also a lot of fun, but we are still quite at the beginning of that. Also here, for example, I think you mentioned that you also have a poker background. Is that correct?

Zach: Yeah, I used to play for a living and I’m most well known for my books on poker tells and poker behavior. Yeah.

Philip: Exactly. We’ve also played around with that, for example. I mean, there’s so much interesting material you can use in this research. We fuse these facial emotion recognitions on thousands of images from poker players for example when they’ve got a strong hand and when they’ve got a weak hand. I haven’t found any contingencies there that there might be something that’s associated over the players when they are bluffing, in comparison to when they have a good hand from this facial recognition software. This is something that we’ve looked into. We’ve also tried to find facial patterns, for example if a penalty taker scores a penalty or misses a penalty. Also there, we haven’t found much.

Zach: How can people keep up with what you’re doing now?

Philip: I always try to publish the book that I’m doing. That’s always slow, scientific publishing always takes quite a bit of time. I upload all my studies on ResearchGate, at least if the journalists don’t get rid of the articles again due to copyright things. But people can also always send me an email if they’re interested in the research and I can send them copies of the papers.

Zach: If you do ever want any help on the poker-related research, I’ve written some critiques of past poker studies and I’ve also helped people who have done poker behaviour-related studies. So just throwing that out there if you ever just want some help on anything, let me know.

Philip: Yeah, that’d be actually really interesting because as I was saying at the moment was more playing around. We’ve got interested students who wanted to do that and it’s quite easy to get some of the footage. Yeah, I’d be very interested and I’m always looking for interesting avenues for new research.

Zach: Yeah, and one more. I’ve always been surprised that there aren’t more studies involving in poker, because it’s such an interesting and very formal environment to study some very specific behaviors. I think one of the reasons is it’s hard to set up the game and to do your own setup of a game is difficult, it has a few factors there. But yeah, I think it’s a great opportunity for studying very specific situations.

Philip: Yeah, especially the nonverbal behaviour. [chuckles] This is something of course that you link very much with poker. But I find great is that nowadays you’ve got all this video footage. And if you set that up… Well, it’s actually all there and we’ve got tools for analyzing facial behavior, we’ve got tools for analyzing body language. And it’s just interesting to gain a more systematic understanding. At the moment I’m quite confident that you don’t have these universal tells or something. But you can find interesting patterns within an individual depending on the situation.

Zach: I will say– do not want to get too much off on a tangent– but I will say the big challenge with using the footage that’s out there is that one of the most important places to find poker tells is when someone has made a significant bet. And in televised poker footage, the usual editing or directing approach is to cut away from the person who has just bet. So that’s one of the most frustrating things for me as someone who’s made videos. They always cut away at the most interesting part when you want to study the person who’s just made a significant bet, you know? Anyway, it’s not to get off on a tangent, but…

Philip: No, no, that’s good.

Zach: There can be challenges there. I actually said that in my Poker Tells video course because I use a lot of televised footage in that. And I say, “It’s frustrating because I would have a lot of things to show you here, but I can’t because they always cut away from the players.” Anyway, this has been great, Phillip. Thanks for coming on and I really appreciate you taking the time.

Philip: Yeah, thank you very much. It was a lot of fun. And yeah, very good questions.

Zach: That was sports psychology researcher Philip Furley.

This has been the People Who Read People podcast with me, Zach Elwood. You can learn more about this podcast at If you enjoyed this episode, just a note that I’ve done quite a few sports-related and game-related episodes. I’ve done talks on reading behavior in American football, in tennis, in mixed martial arts, and a couple episodes on poker tells. 

Thanks again to Alan Crawley, also known as Sin Verba, for his research and help with this episode. 

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