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About this podcast: why I do it and why I think it’s important

This is all about the People Who Read People podcast. Topics discussed include: what led to me starting this podcast; what my goals with it were and how they’ve changed over time; my approach to who I interview and the questions I ask; why I focus on polarization-related topics and why I think that’s important; details on audience numbers and financial stuff.

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Questioning if body language is useful for detecting lies, with Tim Levine

A talk with communication researcher Tim Levine about nonverbal behavior and deception detection. Tim Levine is the author of Duped: Truth-Default Theory and the Social Science of Lying and Deception. His work was featured in Malcom Gladwell’s book Talking to Strangers. Transcript is at bottom of this post.

Topics discussed include: what the research tells us about the usefulness of nonverbal behavior for detecting deception; why it’s so hard to find indicators of deception; common myths about nonverbal behavior; why we expect others to tell us the truth and why we tend to tell the truth; Paul Ekman’s work, including micro-expressions and “truth wizards”; the differences between analyzing verbal content and nonverbal behavior; the TV show Lie to Me; poker tells; and more.

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Zach Elwood: Welcome to the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zach Elwood. This is a podcast aimed at better understanding other people, and better understanding ourselves. You can learn more about it at If you’re interested in deception detection, I have several related episodes; for example, I have an episode where I talk to David Zulawski about interrogation techniques, and one where I talk to Mark McClish about analyzing statements for hidden meaning. And quite a few others that are related.

As humans, we tend to think that we’re pretty good at spotting when people are lying. But research shows that almost all of us are quite bad at telling when people are lying. The existing research shows that, as a group, we’re slightly better than chance at detecting deception.

We also tend to think that there are certain behaviors that are associated with lying; for example, not making eye contact and having shifty eyes, or being physically fidgety or stumbling over words. But research shows that there’s almost no reliable information in such behavioral cues; there’s a lot of variation.

Tim Levine is a communication researcher who has studied deception detection for more than 30 years. He has a book called Duped: Truth-Default Theory and the Social Science of Lying and Deception. In that book, he criticizes some of the more popular theories of deception detection – for example, some of Paul Ekman’s well known ideas – and he presents a new theory called Truth-Default Theory, which he says explains a lot of the findings in this area that other theories can’t explain.

To quote from his book Duped:

My objectives here are ambitious and radical. I want to start a revolution. I seek to overthrow existing deception theory and provide a new, coherent, and data-consistent approach to understanding deception and deception detection. For more than twenty-five years, I have seen a need for a new theory of deception and deception detection. Ekman’s idea of leakage was hugely influential, but the deficiencies were apparent almost immediately. His focus shifted over time from the leakage hierarchy to a focus on the face and micro-expressions. But my read of the ensuing literature reveals more excuses for why the data do not seem to support his theory than solid, replicated, affirmative scientific support. Interpersonal deception theory is even less viable. It is logically incoherent, and I knew it to be empirically false four years before it was eventually published. The new cognitive load approach in criminal and legal psychology does not seem to be the path forward either, for the theoretical reasons identified by Steve McCornack, as well as weak, inconsistent, and just plain odd empirical findings. The need is clear. Existing theory does not cut it. A new perspective is needed. [end quote]

If you’re someone interested in understanding behavior and detecting deception, I think Tim’s book is a must-read. If you happened to have read Malcolm Gladwell’s 2019 book Talking to Strangers, you might recall that Gladwell talks about Levine’s theories in that book.

A little more about Tim: he’s a Distinguished Professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and the Chair of Communication Studies. If you’d like to learn more about him, just search online for ‘tim levine psychology’ and you’ll find his website and his wikipedia page.

If you didn’t already know, my own main claim to fame is my work on poker tells. I’ve written three books on poker tells, and I have a video series. I’ve also worked at analyzing tells for several high-stakes poker players; two of them were World Series of Poker Main Event final table players who were playing for millions of dollars and wanted to look for behavioral patterns in their opponents or in themselves. And my work has been called the best work in this area by many poker players, and that includes some professional high-stakes poker players.

And some people might assume that, because I’ve worked on poker tells, that I’d disagree with Levine’s work, or find it disappointing. But I don’t: I’ve always been skeptical about the idea that there’s much value from studying behavior in real-world situations like interviews, speeches, and interrogations. When people have asked for my takes on such things, I will tell them I think that it’s mostly a waste of time to concentrate on such things, and that I have very few opinions on such things, because there’s simply just so much variance. There’s many reasons why, for example, someone who’s innocent might be or seem anxious. I do think there’s a lot of interesting patterns when it comes to verbal behavior, the actual content of what someone says, but I’m pretty skeptical about getting a lot of value from nonverbal behaviors, although I think there’s a lot more use for such things in games and sports.

And I also think that poker, and most competitive games, are completely unlike the scenarios studied in most deception detection setups; and also completely unlike interrogations and interviews. Many of the reliable tells in poker are not even related to deception detection, but more just related to the tendency people have to leak their level of relaxation when they’ve got a strong hand, which isn’t related to deception but more just about people sometimes feeling good and having fun, and not being as fully stoic and unreadable as they could be. To take another example: some tells in poker are related to being mentally focused or unfocused, and those kinds of tells are also not related to deception detection. And for another example: some tells in poker are about someone not wanting to draw attention to a strong hand, in a similar way that people in competitive situations don’t like to draw attention in general to their “treasure”, so to speak, and that can manifest as, for example, a player being less likely to stare at strong cards and more willing to look away from strong cards, things like this. There’s just a whole lot of differences I could name. And all that said, I always try to make it clear that tells are a small part of poker; I think they can add at most something like 15% to a poker player’s win rate, but for most people it’ll be significantly less.

In this talk, Tim and I do talk a little bit about poker tells, but if you’d like to hear more about that, I’ll add some more thoughts at the end.

Another reason I find Tim Levine’s work so interesting is that we are surrounded by a lot of bullshit when it comes to reading behavior. I’ll give a specific example, as I think it’s just such an egregious example; there’s a so-called behavior expert named Jack Brown, who’s main credential seems to be having a lot of Twitter followers. As I’m writing this, he has 167,000 Twitter followers. You can find him often making extremely confident claims on Twitter about people’s behaviors that are just so off-base from what real research and even common sense would tell us. And people eat this stuff up. He is regarded by many on Twitter as an actual expert in behavior, despite just being so clearly wrong and irresponsible in so many ways.

To take one example: Jack Brown promotes the very debunked idea that you can tell if someone’s being deceptive or not based on the direction of their gaze. So that’s a pretty big giveaway right there of the quality of his analysis. He also makes very confident pronouncements about what people’s behaviors mean, based on very ambiguous and high-variance behaviors that just simply don’t contain any interesting or meaningful information. To give one example: he once confidently proclaimed that Trump is quote “a severe, long-term drug abuser” end quote, and that he believed that Trump had a hole in his hard palate from cocaine abuse. He often confidently states that public figures are exhibiting signs of deception and shame and guilt in interviews, based on them exhibiting very common and very ambiguous behaviors. And the long story short of why so many of the behaviors he draws attention to aren’t reliable or interesting is that there are many reasons people can be or seem anxious that have nothing to do with guilt or deception.

So-called behavior experts like Jack Brown are basically trying to squeeze blood from a stone. They want you to think they have this amazing secret knowledge that gives them amazing insight into people’s motivations and what they’re hiding. If you’d like to read a piece I wrote about this guy and see some examples of what I’m talking about, just search online for ‘jack brown behavior’ and the piece I wrote should come up pretty prominent; you can also find it on my site, on my blog there.

And so Tim Levine’s work is important for making us more skeptical of such things, and drawing more attention to how little we’re able to read people. People interested in reading behavior should recognize the uncertainty present in these areas; they should avoid trusting the Jack Browns of the world. We should be skeptical of people who make confident pronouncements that, for example, public figures are lying or hiding something based on reading their nonverbal behavior. Because often those ideas, if we absorb them, will just be reinforcing our biases about people and actually make us worse at navigating the world. For example, when people listen to Jack Brown and think that they can now read these common and ambiguous behaviors and tell that someone is lying, people will use that to filter the world through their existing biases, while feeling that they’re doing something sophisticated and smart. It lends a veneer of respectability to our biases. And this stuff lends itself to, for example, police interrogators or job interviewers being highly confident about someone’s guilt or abilities when they really shouldn’t be; these things have real-world negative effects on people’s lives. And such things even add to our us-versus-them polarization, in terms of someone being more likely to see a political leader speak and think something like ‘oh, see, Hillary Clinton lowered her gaze at that question; I saw Jack Brown talk about that; I know she’s lying.’ These bullshit ideas lend themselves to what I see as one of our biggest problems: being too certain about others and too certain about the world. I think uncertainty and humility are needed more than ever.

I think combating bad and simplistic ideas about behavior is important. I think that drawing attention to nuance is important. And so I think Tim Levine’s work is important.

Okay, here’s the interview with Tim Levine.

Zach: Hi Tim, thanks for coming on.

Tim Levine: Oh, happy to be here.

Zach: So maybe we could start with how I first learned about your work which was a study you did about the show Lie to Me. Could you talk a little bit about what that study found?

Tim Levine: Sure, that’s a fun study. First to lay out just the general experiment, research participants come in, they do a standard lie detection task where they have to watch several interviews, some of which the people are lying, some of which the people are telling the truth. And those interviews are scored to see how well they do, scored just like a true/false test. In the experiment part of it, people either just did the task normally or one third of the people, based on random assignment, watch the TV show Lie to Me, which is about a psychologist who can detect lies based on nonverbal communication, it’s based on the work of Paul Ekman. And another control group watched a different crime show called Numbers in which people solve crimes through, it’s a math professor who solves crimes through math. And then the third control was just not watching any show at all. What the findings were is there wasn’t really much difference between the two groups. If anything, the people who watched Lie to Me were a little worse at detecting deception, and the show tended to make them more cynical, but it didn’t make them any better at lie detection. And the reason is because nonverbal things just really aren’t very useful in lie detection.

Zach: One of the things you talk about in your paper was the show makes a claim, I’m not sure if it made it once or if it keeps repeating in the show, I’ve only seen one episode of the show, but the show repeats the claim that people lie really often, I think it says three times in 10 minutes. And can you talk a little bit about that and what they got so wrong about that idea?

Tim Levine: Yeah, they actually used that in their promotional materials and it was on their website. And unlike some claims about how often people lie with the implication of people lie all the time, this particular claim actually has a basis in research, but totally taken out of context. So the experimented question was people had to come in and they were told to make a good impression on somebody else. People presumably took that instruction as make an unrealistically good impression on other people. So if you come into a lab setting and you’re told what you understand to be make an overly good impression, then people follow instructions and do that and as a consequence say up to three false things in 10 minutes. On the other hand, if you’re just normal… So in the first 10 minutes of this podcast, chances are there won’t be any lies probably during the whole thing.

Zach: Yeah. If you were to ask me how many lies I’ve told recently, I mean, I would be hard pressed to think of a situation where I lied recently. So yeah, I think it’s a very pervasive misunderstanding. It kind of reminds me of the common myth that’s so often repeated that nonverbal communication makes up most communication. For example, I was just Googling now and saw one of the top things was most experts agree that 70 to 93% of all communication is nonverbal.

Tim Levine: Oh, false. Oh, that is so wrong. I mean, it says that in books, it says that in textbooks.

Zach: Exactly, yeah. It’s wild. It’s just wild how pervasive these myths are. Do you see these kinds of things as related and are there other things in this area that you often see repeated even though there’s no good reason for them?

Tim Levine: Oh yeah. But before we get there, let me give your listeners a little background on where that most communication is nonverbal finding comes from.

Zach: Yeah, that’d be great.

Tim Levine: So the actual finding was when what we’re doing nonverbally contradicts what we’re saying verbally, then people will often believe what is done nonverbally over what people do verbally. But that most communication is nonverbal is just ludicrous because how could we possibly do this podcast nonverbally? I’m making all these great expressions, communicating very expressively and using all this body language, and you can’t see it. Now you can get the tone in my voice, but if we stripped out the content of the words and you’re just hearing the tone in my voice and you’re hearing me get a little bit excited about this topic, you could take that away, but that would be just a tiny, tiny, tiny little bit of the message. Most communication is conveyed through the words.

Zach: Yeah, and that totally relates. And I almost didn’t realize how much it relates to your truth default theory until talking about it now, and we’ll talk more about that later. But getting back to one very important point you make in your work is about how important it is that lies are rare and understanding that point. So when you’re trying to determine if someone is good or not at detecting deception, it matters a whole lot how many lies are in the mix. And I think you relate this to something you call the veracity effect, and maybe you can talk a little bit about that angle.

Tim Levine: Sure. So one of the oldest findings in lie detection research is something called truth bias. My good friend, Steve McCornack, coined the term in his undergraduate research. He now works with me at my university. The idea is that if you see a bunch of communication and you’re asked to guess, “True or false? Do you think they’re lying or telling the truth?” People guess true more often than lie completely independently of whether they’re seeing a truth or a lie. And so this is called truth bias, people guess true more often. So the veracity effect is an idea by a professor named Hee Sun Park, who saw rather obviously. But before she saw it, people didn’t really tune into this, that if you think most things are true, then you’re going to be right when they are true, but you’re going to be wrong when they’re lies. So for example, the average across hundreds of studies of lie detection is people are just 54%, a little bit better than 50/50. But if you break it out by truth and lies, people are better on truths. And the more truth bias, the more better they are in truths and they’re worse on lies, so accuracy is below 50% for lies. And the more truth bias, then the worse they are at detecting lies per se. And the veracity effect is simply the difference between your accuracy for truths and your accuracy for lies. The consequence of this is it the best predictor of whether you’re going to be right in deception detection is the honesty of the person you’re talking to. So if you’re talking to somebody who’s honest and you believe them, you’re going to be right. Not because you’re good at this, but just by chance. But if they’re lying, you’re going to be wrong about this. Well, now, if most communication is honest most of the time, then people are right most of the time. And lie detection experiments create a very unrealistic portrayal because lies are much more prevalent in deception studies than they are in the actual world.

Zach: Yeah. And to tie this back to your Lie to Me study, one of the points you make in your book Duped and elsewhere is that simply if you’re in a test situation or just the fact that we are so prone to believe people, if you give anyone any sort of education no matter how bad it is about deception training, it will make them detect lies more often simply because we are prone to believe people. So for example, if you watch Lie to Me, even if the information is bad, you’re going to increase your ability to detect a lie a bit just from being more skeptical. And maybe you could talk a little bit about that and how that ties into maybe the perception that doing any sort of detection training or education can make it seem like you’re actually becoming better at detecting deception.

Tim Levine: Yeah, but it almost always comes at the cost of getting more errors about–

Zach: Exactly, you’re not getting better, it just seems that way if you’re in an environment where you’re being made to find lies like in a study environment where they’re giving you more lies than you find in your everyday life. So it seems like you’re getting better at it, but you’re actually getting better at the cost of detecting accurately when people are telling the truth.

Tim Levine: Yeah. So cynicism only works well in an environment where there’s a big risk of being deceived about something important.

Zach: Right, which isn’t the case for our day to day lives, which is the basis of the truth default theory that there’s reasons for why we have a bias for finding things true. Maybe you could talk a little bit about what sets the truth default theory apart. That was one thing that was a little bit hard to understand how this was such a revolutionary idea differing from the previous ideas.

Tim Levine: So we already talked a little bit about truth bias and the veracity effect. So let me now talk about how defaulting to the truth is a little different. So in the standard deception detection experiment that’s done in the social sciences, people see some collection of truths and lies and then they’re asked, “Do you think this is lie or do you think it’s truth?” Now, the second I ask you to judge or to make that assessment, now you know this is a lie detection task. But in everyday communication situations like you’re just sitting around listening to a podcast, if the podcast isn’t about deception and maybe even if it is, is that true isn’t necessarily coming to mind unless prompted. So the idea of the truth default is unless there’s something to get you thinking about it, the idea of truth, falsity, honesty, deception just don’t even come to mind. So if I’m showing you now I do the study a different way and I’m showing you interaction between two people, and I’m just asking you open-ended, “What are you thinking about?” The idea that one of them might be lying to the other just doesn’t come to mind. People are thinking about what they’re wearing, they’re thinking about their mannerisms, their idiosyncrasies, they’re thinking about the content of what’s said, and they just kind of accept it at face value. It’s remarkably difficult in a lot of circumstances to knock people out of their just passive belief and get them to be skeptical. Now, there are times when we can be skeptical, we know somebody’s trying to sell us something, we’re hearing people we disagree with or unpopular ideas, then suspicion can be triggered. But in much of our daily life that just doesn’t happen. We’re on this communication autopilot where what we say is honest unless we have a reason not to be honest, and we believe people unless we have a good reason, strong reason not to believe.

Zach: So if I’m understanding it correctly, Hee Sun Park’s big contribution, big awareness, the revolutionary thing was that she realized that all of these studies that were being done were basically biasing the experiment by getting people skeptical from the beginning by the questions. So basically it was throwing off all the results. Is that accurate?

Tim Levine: I think the statement’s accurate, I think that’s more kind of a later implication of her idea. I think she had two really big ideas. First was the idea that accuracy’s different for truths than for lies, which is the veracity effect. Related to that, what matters is the ratio of truths and lies in the environment, that’s one of her really important things. And she had another really important thing which we haven’t talked about yet, which is that most lies are detected after the fact. So most of the times we do actually detect lies in real life, we’re not detecting them in real time based on how people are coming off, but the truth tends to come to light at some later point in time.

Zach: Yeah, it’s kind of you might have a suspicion once you get into the skeptical realm of thinking someone might be lying, but you’re not going to really know it’s a lie until you actually confirm it with real evidence or something.

Tim Levine: Yeah, exactly.

Zach: So let’s talk about the nonverbal behaviors, and you obviously take a very skeptical stance on the idea that there’s much relevant or reliable information to study when it comes to nonverbal behavior in the realm of detecting lies, detecting deception. Can you talk a little bit about the main reasons for why you believe that, for example, based on the meta-analysis studies and other things?

Tim Levine: Sure. Well, first off, my position is that nonverbal things are incredibly important in how people are perceived. What I doubt is the diagnostic value of nonverbal things, that is that they have a set fixed meaning, especially when it comes to truths and lies. So almost everybody everywhere believes that you can tell when somebody’s lying because of some set of nonverbal things. The most common belief, folk belief, is probably that liars won’t look you in the eye. And that’s been found pan-culturally.

Zach: That people believe that.

Tim Levine: Yeah, people everywhere believe that.

Zach: The shifty eyes thing.

Tim Levine: Yeah. It just has no validity at all. Last I saw almost 50 studies of this, and the average difference in eye gaze between liars and telling the truth is zero. So there’s been decades and decades and decades of research trying to find kind of the magic tell for deception and either linguistic behavior or more commonly nonverbal things. So there’s all these studies that look at what liars are doing and what honest people are doing and looking for differences in them. And a lot of studies find that this difference or that difference happens. The trouble is the next study finds the exact opposite thing or nothing at all. So when you plot out findings of all these studies over time, they just don’t hold up. And the more they’re studied, the less difference, the less the average difference between truths and lies. So you reference meta-analysis, for the listeners who don’t know, a meta-analysis is simply a study of studies, so we’re looking at trends across a whole bunch of different studies. And what I noticed when I was looking at meta-analyses of nonverbal cues and deception detection is that the more a given nonverbal behavior was studied, the less difference it made in research. Which suggested to me that the findings that were there were probably smoke and mirrors.

Zach: Right, it was reverting to the mean kind of idea.

Tim Levine: Yeah, where the mean was zero.

Zach: Another common conception or maybe it actually has some truth is the voice pitch thing, but it seems very slightly reliable or do you think that’s not reliable either?

Tim Levine: It depends on reliable in what sense. So if we analyzed a couple hundred people who are telling the truth and a couple hundred liars, on average liars have a slightly higher about two-tenths of a standard deviation higher vocal pitch. But to use it as a lie detection tool in any one person it’s just completely useless.

Zach: If it’s there, it’s just so small.

Tim Levine: Yeah. So maybe a baseball analogy, somebody who has a 0.3 batting average is more likely to get a hit than somebody who has a 0.2 batting average. But that doesn’t mean that the person with 0.3 average is going to get a hit and the person with 0.2 isn’t if that makes sense.

Zach: Yeah. And if I was understanding this correctly in your book, I think you were making a point about the difference between something… We talk about something being statistically significant, and sometimes that seems to be people will interpret that as being actually significant. Was I understanding that correctly that there’s some like confusion or language confusion there that people talk about things that are statistically significant as if they’re very meaningful or something?

Tim Levine: Yeah, that’s an unfortunate term. Statistically, what it means is that a finding of absolutely no difference across a large number of people would be sufficiently improbable to presume that there’s something there. So it’s a statement of probability, but it’s even worse than that because the math behind it presumes that you’re only testing one hypothesis. And the trouble that with modern research is people are using a probability statement for testing one hypothesis when they’re actually testing a whole bunch of things statistically. So that probability doesn’t have that meaning anymore. But that’s way too statistically nerdy probably.

Zach: Is it accurate to say that some people, say lay people, will see something about significance and think like, “Oh, it’s significant,” which might explain how some of these misperceptions about nonverbal behavior gets started in the common audience. Do you think that’s–

Tim Levine: Yeah, that’s accurate, I think, but it’s also accurate that 90% of professional researchers or 95% also think that.

Zach: Okay.

Tim Levine: So it’s not just lay people and it’s not just the media, these kind of misunderstandings are more widespread than that.

Zach: Does that get into the replication errors area of people interpreting the results of things too confidently or mistakenly?

Tim Levine: That’s my read on it. So social sciences are undergoing a huge replication crisis where findings in the best peer review journals just aren’t holding up at a really disturbingly low rate, and findings are almost always small. It is not just deception cues, findings are generally smaller when they’re studied again. My read on why that’s the case is this opportunistic use of statistics. They’re using this statistical idea of significance in a way that really is not justified probabilistically.

Zach: A small note here, if you’d like to learn more about what Tim was talking about, you can Google the research replication problem. Long story short though, what Tim was referring to was the fact that if you collect a whole bunch of data, you’ll end up finding some correlations in the data that may seem interesting, but may just be due to randomness and the fact that you’ve gathered so much data that some random correlations are likely to be present. And that aspect can help explain why some findings are hard to replicate later. I actually talked to a previous guest about this if you’re interested. I talked to Brandon Shiels about his poker tells research, and we spent some time talking about the problem of finding illusory correlations in data and how one way to combat that is with pre-registering your research, which requires you to write down your predictions beforehand so that any correlations found are things that were theorized about and less likely to be a random illusory thing. Okay, back to the interview.

So getting back to why it is so hard to find reliable nonverbal behaviors tied to deception, I mean, I think basically it’s not surprising to me because humans are just good at deceiving. I mean, it’s not surprising that we have control over our behaviors in a pretty good way most of us. So I think that helps explain it. I think the question that you sometimes see the question, well, why is it so hard to detect deception? It’s almost like, well, why would it be easy to detect deception? I’m curious if you have any thoughts on that.

Tim Levine: Yeah, I think that’s half the answer. So I think for most of us, but not all of us, by the time kind of we get through high school we’re pretty good about telling a lie if we need to. I think there are probably a few people out there who can’t lie well. I know just anecdotally if you ask people, some people say, “Nah, I can’t do this.” And I suspect they can’t and they don’t lie very much because they know they can’t. But I think there’s another reason too, and this really gets at the heart of the idea of the truth fault is that there’s probably no single thing more important to humans than our ability to communicate. Humans are able to share information and pass down knowledge which makes all our technological and scientific advances possible. We are able to cooperate and work together which enables all kind of modern production. And it enables us to make friends and form good professional, social, personal relationships, which is incredibly important to our wellbeing and physical health. Communication only works if you can trust what’s communicated. If you have to second guess everything, you can’t really learn anything because everything’s uncertain. You can’t work together because you don’t know that you can trust the other person you’re supposed to work with. You can’t form relationships because you can’t trust this person. So if we can’t trust other people and what they say, and if communication loses its functionality, and this is just way, way, way too important to us, we have to believe other people. Because if you did the kind of thought experiment of what it would be like if we didn’t believe anything we communicated, we would absolutely absolutely be lost. If you can’t trust, you can’t get on a plane, you can’t get in your car. You can’t drive through a green light if you don’t believe the people on the red light are going to stop. Functioning requires this. So I think it’s not only that people can tell good lies, but it’s that we have to believe them as the business as usual. It’s not that we can’t, suspicion can be triggered. But as our kind of business as usual default mode of working, we have to have to have to take things at face value because otherwise we just immediately get bogged down. It has to be this way.

Zach: To get off topic a little bit getting into the fake news and misinformation area, so many people focus on the idea that like, “Oh, we need to get people to believe the right things, the things that we believe.” And I think that’s actually a mistaken goal. I mean, for one thing, it’s never going to happen. But the second reason is I think we actually just need more people to be as equally skeptical of everything as they are of the things that they perceive as biased. For example, for people who doubt the mainstream media and think it’s mistaken and biased and corrupt or whatever, we need those people to not trust random theories they see on Facebook or whatever. We just need more skepticism and less truth default for things across the board. I’m curious if you have any thoughts on that.

Tim Levine: No, I could not agree more.

Zach: So to get back to the people who aren’t good at lying, which is a very important point in your work too when it comes to explaining the slight ability across meta-analysis, the 54% ability to detect deception in these studies, the general average, the slightly better than chance average, you point out that some of that is just due to some percentage of the population being pretty bad at lying, at deceiving. Would you say that’s basically because they’re portraying the stereotypical behaviors that we have that we associate with lying like not being good at eye contact or stumbling in their words, those kinds of things?

Tim Levine: Yeah, I think that’s exactly what’s going on. There’s also another group of people who just come off, what I would call the transparent liars. They’re transparent. When they’re telling the truth, you know they’re telling the truth, but they just can’t lie. So there’s some people who are kind of the opposite of poker face people, you know exactly what’s in their hand. And we tend to get those people right. But there’s this other group of people which is probably larger which I call the mismatched folks, and they come off differently than they are. So if you think about people who are perfectly honest but who have social anxiety or maybe they’re a little bit on the autism spectrum. So they’re doing these things that people associate with deception, but they’re honest. So people tend to systematically get those people wrong, and that’s part of the thing that pushes accuracy down towards chance. So there’s these transparent liars that makes accuracy better than 50/50, but then these people who are mismatched who keep us from being very good at it.

Zach: Yeah, and the interesting thing too is for the people that are bad at lying, that have the stereotypical behaviors and are more easily caught in these kinds of studies, it’s actually almost meaningless to judge them on a case by case basis because in a practical sense the only way you would actually be able to catch that person lying in a meaningful, reliable sense is if you studied how they behave when they’re telling the truth and how they behave when they’re telling a lie. So in other words, in a study environment, you might correctly guess that someone’s lying because they’re seemingly bad at lying, but that could just as easily have been a person telling the truth. So it’s almost meaningless in a practical sense.

Tim Levine: Yeah, and it’s even more complicated than that because then you have to have a lot of other people watching them lying and telling the truth over multiple instances to see that there’s regularity in how other people are seeing them.

Zach: Right, you really need a statistical sample size to know that like, “Oh, this person’s actually bad at lying, and I’m actually finding something,” versus like, “Oh, they’re just one of the mismatched people or just they have random variations that make some people think they’re lying when they’re not.” It’s so much more complex and requires more study than it seems on the surface. And we have these simplistic ideas of how this stuff works in the popular culture and in our minds about this stuff that’s spread through media and such. So one thing I wanted to ask you about was Ekman’s truth wizards thing, which seems to be another popular idea that’s in Lie to Me and other places that there are people amongst us who are exceptionally good at detecting deception. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Tim Levine: Yeah. So generally, if you don’t work with Paul Ekman, who’s maybe kind of the biggest name, most famous researcher in the topic area, most academic, modern academic, deception theorists and researchers are deeply skeptical of the idea of the wizards. That said, I’m not a hundred percent sure what to think about them. If the claim is that there’s kind of maybe one in a thousand people who can do this, modern social science isn’t very good at dealing with the super rare disease or the super fluky sort of person. It’s hard to study. It’s very hard to study kind of very rare events or very rare people, because how do you go about finding them? How do you know it’s not just kind of fluky? I will say I had one of Ekman’s wizards contact me one time, and I did test them on some of my deception detection materials, and they did amazingly well. But I don’t want to say because of this one person and this one instance that, “Oh, now they exist,” that wouldn’t be very good science of me. But at the same time, I’m reluctant to be as critical of it as some people are just because I think, it’s easier to test ideas that where you can find examples of them easier if that makes sense.

Zach: So one thing in that area, it seems like, correct me if I’m wrong, but someone can be… We’ve been talking so far about nonverbal behavior, and that’s a lot different from reading logical inconsistencies or what people call statement analysis, which is just examining language for evidence. And I’m wondering, could that have played a role, for example, in the test you did or was that only nonverbal?

Tim Levine: In the test I did, if you know what to look for, you can do better than 54% if you’re really familiar with the context. The content can help you, but it probably couldn’t help you enough to make this person as good as they were. On the other hand, somebody wins the lottery, so chance fluky things happen. I don’t think people appreciate how lumpy randomness can be.

Zach: Right. And then we form perceptions based on those outliers.

Tim Levine: Yeah. If we flip enough coins that really truly are fair, there’s going to be some point where long streak of heads comes up in a row. And it’s just hard to sort that out.

Zach: I’ve read that there hasn’t been much evidence for people being consistently truth wizardy over time. Am I wrong on that? And why haven’t people studied that more, that a person is consistently good?

Tim Levine: Well, it’s hard to do overtime studying. And you’re right, that is the evidence. My best thinking is there might be people who are good, but it’s because they know a whole lot about the particular circumstances. So my guess is that a really experienced financial forensic accountant is going to be much better at spotting lies about financial issues than you or I. Particular type of criminal investigators might know a whole lot about this particular genre of crime in this particular area, and that knowledge really helps them use what is said in a useful way. Similarly, people who have really good critical thinking skills are going to be better at spotting logical inconsistencies than people who are less critical thinkers. But if I’m right about that, what it means is the financial forensic accountant isn’t isn’t necessarily going to be good about detecting the honesty of their spouse about non-financial things.

Zach: So getting back to that idea of the nonverbal versus the verbal and the statement analysis actually analyzing statements and logical inconsistencies and sort of psychological aspects of people’s language, do you have much thoughts on… Because to me, for example, personally, I’ve read Mark McClish’s book, I Know You Are Lying, which is about statement analysis, and I’ve written a book about verbal poker tells called Verbal Poker Tells, and that stuff to me is so much more reliable because it’s about how people communicate. And there can be so much hidden information in how people communicate and what they avoid talking about, for example. So it’s not nearly as ambiguous as nonverbal behavior, it’s not to say it’s very reliable either, but it’s just to me so much more meaningful and so much more there than nonverbal. I’m curious if you’d agree with that.

Tim Levine: I’m not sure if I do or don’t. So one of Ekman’s ideas that I really like is the idea of the hot spot, which is something that doesn’t seem right. And hotspots could be nonverbal. So somebody might be reacting in a particular nonverbal way, or let’s say at the poker table, they might be doing something nonverbal that strikes you as off or might mean something or it might be verbal. So if we view these as not as, “Oh, they’re lying or oh, they’re bluffing,” but instead as, “There’s something that I need to dig deeper on or explain or pay attention to,” then I think these things have real utility. So in the statement analysis, if it is being used then to go into an interview and ask deeper questions about these areas, then I think that’s a fabulous idea. If you were saying that, “Oh, they seem to be dodging around this issue, that means they did it,” then I think that’s tenuous because it could mean a lot of different things.

Zach: Right. And to be clear, it’s not like you can ever, even if something’s seems very obvious in the verbal things, it’s not like you could ever be like, “Oh, I’m very certain about this.” I mean, you might feel you’re certain, but you’ll still need some evidence. Which gets into how almost unimportant some of these things are when it comes to interrogations. For example, if you’re bringing someone in for interrogation, you probably have a reason to interrogate them. And your approach probably won’t be that much different. You’re just going to keep plugging away at them using the traditional interrogation techniques and do your thing. You spotting some nonverbal or verbal thing that makes you think they’re guilty probably doesn’t make too much of a difference because you probably already have good reason to think they’re guilty anyway. So I think that gets into almost the practical low value of them in practical interrogation and interview situations. Would you agree with that?

Tim Levine: Let me phrase it a little differently. There’s actually two things I want to jump off on. First, I think the best practice in the interrogation room is what you try to do is if you don’t have evidence already, you want to ask questions where you can kind of nail them down in ways that you can go do more investigation and check if that makes sense. So what I’m trying to do if I’m trying to question somebody is I’m trying to get information out of them that I can then use later to investigate and that I can check. Because if I already have evidence, then I don’t need to be really talking to them. But I’m talking to them because I don’t have enough evidence right now. So I’m trying to figure out what I need to go investigate and what I can check. But about the earlier point, let’s say, so as a deception researcher, I notice perhaps to a fault when people are leaving things out or when they’re changing the topic on me, and I have this kind of ongoing debate with another deception researcher who does political deception. And so he’s thinking you got a reporter who’s talking to a politician, and the reporter asks a question and the politician goes off topic and talks about what they want to talk about. So the question is, is that politician, they’re definitely being evasive, but are they being deceptive? This other researcher thinks, “Yes, evasion is deception. They’re being deceptive.” And I want to say, “Well, wait a minute, who gets to set the topic of what we’re going to talk about? Why is it that the reporter gets to say, ‘Here’s our agenda,’ and the politician has to stick to the reporter’s agenda?” So to this point of you need to pay attention when things are being left out or topics being shifted or people are being ambiguous, but you also want to really contextualize that.

Zach: Yeah, to be specific about interrogations or even poker because I think that one of the most meaningful tells in interrogation and in poker actually too is the conciliatory behavior from people who are guilty or bluffing. So for example, one of the most prevalent things, one of the most telling things in interrogations is when the interrogator makes an accusation directly or indirectly, and the person being interrogated basically just acts neutral and acts conciliatory and is not. An innocent person would understand immediately that they’re being accused and would be defensive. But you see this kind of subdued conciliatory behavior from someone who’s guilty just because their instinct is to be subdued and not arouse anger or more anger from the interrogator. And similar in poker too, you can find these things of when someone’s bluffing, they’re less likely to act in an irritating or aggressive manner either verbally or nonverbally to their opponent. This is interesting because it’s kind of a mix of both verbal and nonverbal. It’s just a demeanor almost, it’s a collection of things. And so I wanted to throw that in there to say it’s not as if we can’t get information from these things, but I guess the real question is if you’re in an interrogation spot, for example, I guess that can be very valuable for the investigator to feel that they have the right person, but obviously that’s not evidence, it might help you in feeling like you’re questioning the right person. I wanted to throw that in there to say there can be meaningful things, I think, in these areas.

Tim Levine: Absolutely. But at least in the interrogation point of view, I really urge caution and jumping to conclusions based on that at least in my own kind of deception tapes I’ve created which mimic interrogation situations pretty well, I think. Honest people respond all different kinds of ways, and so do deceptive people. Some deceptive people definitely go figure best defense is a good offense. Not everybody responds the same. There might be these patterns over large numbers of people. And if you’re playing the odds, you’re more often right than wrong, let’s say in poker, but you’re going to get some wrong because not every person responds the same.

Zach: Right, for sure. And I guess that gets into the impractical aspects of it because if the only thing you have is your feeling based on this person’s conciliatory behavior that they’re guilty, unless you have much else, that’s not really a reason to follow someone as a suspect for very long if you don’t have much else going for you. So I think that gets into the impractical aspects of it. It’s like how much is it meaningful really when you get down to it?

Tim Levine: Yeah, there’s this huge, huge, huge variability in how humans respond in given situations.

Zach: Very high variance lot as humans, yeah.

Tim Levine: Yeah.

Zach: A small note here, one thing that stands out to me as being pretty consistently meaningful behavior in interrogation situations is the tendency of guilty people to answer pretty straightforward questions with long meandering stories with way too much detail and divergences when innocent people will tend to answer straightforwardly. And this can be seen to be related to conciliatory behavior because we can see that guilty people can have a motivation to attempt to seem likable and cooperative, whereas innocent people just don’t have that desire, they just want to answer the questions. I wanted to elaborate on that a little bit more as a way to emphasize the point that what people say and how they say it can be interesting to study and pay attention to, even if we can debate how meaningful or actionable specific situations really are. Okay, back to the interview.

So I’m pretty skeptical about microexpressions and I’m sure you probably are too. I see that people often bring that up, people ask me about microexpressions and poker and such, and I’ve basically never based a decision on a microexpression and I don’t find them generally in poker. And so I’ve always been skeptical of them in terms of genuine. There are some things where people do like weak means strong and strong means weak things in poker where they’re basically conveying the opposite of what they feel and sort of a duping aspect. But that’s different from the idea of microexpressions as a leak of genuine emotion or feeling. I assume you’d just be very skeptical about that too, but I wanted to ask about that.

Tim Levine: Yeah. So the research community is very skeptical of microexpressions, there isn’t strong evidence. I would guess that microexpressions if they even exist and if they are useful, they might be more useful in poker particularly among novice players than in lie detection. The reason is because the emotions you’re expressing, the link between those and truth telling or lying is pretty tenuous, but I could imagine, do you ever see somebody who’s got like a really good hand who just lets this little smirk out when they first look at their cards? I’m sure professionals have got this under control, but–

Zach: Well, I think there is something to that for the very beginner level people. And I think, interestingly, we could talk about that for a while, but the more experienced they are, the more the opposite things leak out where they’re slightly trying to convey the opposite of what they have. But I think you’re right, at the very beginner level stages, there are those kinds of genuine leaks.

A note here: when I was talking here, I was focused on microexpressions. There are larger macroexpressions of genuine emotion that occur pretty regularly from all types of players of all skill levels. For example, it’s pretty often a player who makes a big bet with a strong hand will have genuine smiles and things like that. I’ll talk a little bit more about that at the end. I just wanted to emphasize that I was attempting to talk about just microexpressions here. Okay, back to the talk.

Tim Levine: Yeah. So there might be a kernel of truth to the microexpression thing, but I don’t think they’re going to be useful at all in lie detection.

Zach: It’s so different, it’s just such a different environment.

Tim Levine: Yeah. And so poker, can people fake microexpressions?

Zach: Well, that’s a really interesting question because when I’ve thought about this in the past, and I should probably write something up about this, but the thing I’ve have seen is that there’s actually these small, what people might consider microexpressions, but they’re the opposite. So for example, someone who’s betting a strong hand would have a very quick expression just briefly pass their face of having like an irritated look or their brows would be furrowed, almost like a confusion or an irritation microexpression. But it’s the opposite because they’re strong, and it’s almost like they’re not even trying to purposely, consciously do that, which is the interesting thing, because I don’t think the people who do these things are always planning to fool their opponent. It’s almost like because you’re in such a deceptive realm, poker is such a deceptive realm and most games are, you’re automatically just trying to almost subconsciously convey the opposite of what you have. So it’s almost this instinctual trying to do the opposite of what you have, weak means strong, strong means weak, which is interesting because I think a lot of people would think like, “Oh, they’re trying to fool me.” But the fact that a lot of these things are microexpressions, they just briefly… And actually in my video series on poker, I have a lot of examples of this, and you just don’t find that from bluffers because bluffers are very much aware of what they’re portraying. So they’re going to have a much more neutral, stoic thing. So it means that you’re pretty unlikely to detect these things from a bluffer, detect meaningful things from a bluffer, because they are trying to be so stoic and so neutral and that’s how most people behave. But some people with strong hands will leak out these small, opposite emotion things that give them away really. They’re really highly reliable because a bluffer is not likely to leak out these small things of uncertainty or irritation, these small expressions. So yeah, it’s an interesting area and it’s very interesting. I should write something up about it more official.

Tim Levine: I’m not an experienced poker player, but so one strategy is to just be poker faced or stoic and be unreadable.

Zach: Right.

Tim Levine: So what I would call zero transparency, there’s just no signal there. The other strategy would be try to be very unreliable and throw other people off their games. So you mix in some real things and some false things and some stoic and just convince everybody else at the table that what they think they’re seeing could mean any number of different things.

Zach: Yeah, and the interesting thing about that is that that would actually be good, but in practice it’s like most people are afraid of looking stupid. And this actually plays a big role in poker, we could go on for a while about how poker and other games are so different from interrogations and interviews. But one of the things in poker is you might think that’s a good strategy, but in practice you’d be like, “Well, what if I do something and that person reads it as a weak hand and calls me and then I’d feel stupid for trying all these?” So in practice that explains why people just try to be stoic because it’s more effort, more conscious, mental load and thought, and you have to think about, “Am I being balanced on all these spots if I’m trying to be high variance, for example, and throwing out this noise?” So that just helps explain why the best approach is to just be as stoic as you can. We got a little bit off topic there, to get back to your work, one thing I heard you say in a talk, I think it was a podcast was the nuance you’re bringing to this discussion isn’t the most exciting thing because people do love the sexiness, the excitement of tells in general and the idea that we can read people. And I think the thing you said was you’re not likely to be invited to do a TED Talk anytime soon. I’m curious if you can talk a little bit about the public’s perception of we have this kind of love affair with behavioral cues, people love shows like Lie to Me or other shows or even poker tells. There’s this perception in the public eye that poker tells are really important and they play a big role in poker when I emphasize in my work they’re a very small part of poker. They come up occasionally, you might just use them once or twice a session that actually changes a decision. So it’s a pretty uncommon thing. But in the public eye, we have this kind of love affair with behavior and reading people. Do you have thoughts about what attracts us so much to those ideas that we can read people well?

Tim Levine: In part, people always like the little secret, get rich quick ideas. And to some extent maybe the idea of reading nonverbal communication is a lot like a little mini get rich easy solution. It has appeal. Again, getting into poker, I’m sure there’s all these little, “Here’s the secret to being a great poker player, and you’re going to learn it in 10 minutes.”

Zach: There’s a lot of bullshit, yeah.

Tim Levine: Yeah, but there’s a market for it. So I think there’s probably some of that.

Zach: Yeah, you’re right. It’s like if people feel like they have some secret knowledge that’s going to make them better at their jobs, make them better in their intimate relationships or whatever it may be, they feel like they’re getting an advantage on society. I think you’re right, there is some aspect of that.

Tim Levine: Oh, I just went through a job training thing where the consultants come in and they’re going to teach us how to do difficult communications, and they’ve got their little consultant soundbites. I don’t know how much money they soaked out of my university to do this, but it was just all junk. They would never let them in the classroom teaching real communication skills to real tuition paying young adults. But there’s a market for this and they’re selling it. People want the easy path to something that takes a lot of skill and learning and practice.

Zach: Yeah, there is just so much junk out there to name a couple examples. I was watching some podcast where they were having an FBI behavior expert weighing on things, the behaviors in interrogation. I just thought most of the things he was saying were just so not meaningful and just could easily have been found in an innocent person. And compared to the things the person was saying, it was just like, “The nonverbal stuff is just so uninteresting and non reliable.” I’m just like, “Why even focus on that?” Just watching interrogations in general, I’m like all the things that stand out as interesting are just based on what the person is actually saying, not the non-verbal stuff. But let me change direction, I think one really interesting thing to me, one surprising thing to me is just how much people dislike lying. We have a real aversion to directly lying to people. And this helps explain some of the verbal behaviors, verbal indicators in interrogation situation and in games like poker. For example, even someone who’s murdered someone often doesn’t seem like they want to come right out and say, “I didn’t kill that person,” or directly lie, and they instead use hedging language or avoid making a direct statement. And you can see some of that in poker too, people don’t like to directly lie about their hand strength when they know it might be exposed later. For example, someone who actually has a pocket pair of eights is unlikely to say, “I don’t have pocket eights,” they’re unlikely to make these direct statements, it’s just very rare. And so it’s kind of been wild to me that in areas where you think lying would be completely understandable considering the situation, whether it’s poker where you’re allowed to lie or when someone’s committed a serious crime, you’d think they would have no problem lying, but it seems like people still don’t like to lie. And I’m curious, do you see that? If you think that is there, that tendency to avoid lying, is that related to the truth default idea and is it possible that the reason that we so instinctively trust others is that there is some serious deep down aversion for us as social creatures to lie? Is there something to that?

Tim Levine: Yes and yes. So part of the truth default is that we are honest. Most of us are honest unless we have reason not to be. Because most people are honest, then this makes believing other people very functional adaptive. But the thing to remember too is that lying behavior is not normally distributed across the population. There are people out there that lie a great deal and seem to have no problems with it at all. I’m currently working on an essay on something I call bold and shameless lying. So bold lying is when I lie even though I know the truth is easy to check. And shamelessness is when you call me out on it, I’m going to double down and just keep asserting the falsehood. And maybe we can think of people in public life who do this, but they are out there. So I think your observation is true for the vast majority of people, but there are a few people out there that just are not tied to the truth at all and seem to have absolutely, absolutely no problem saying complete obvious falsehood and are completely without shame when people try to call them out.

Zach: And presumably those would be people with the more narcissistic or psychopathic traits, is that fair to say?

Tim Levine: Yeah. I think both of those could account for that, maybe some Machiavellian traits too could produce something like that.

Zach: And probably the context and the motivation for lying would… Well, I guess that wouldn’t explain why they’re lying frequently. Yeah, nevermind.

Tim Levine: So when I teach deception classes, people keep a deception diary, and I pay attention to my own too. But what I’ve discovered in these diaries is some people who lie a lot do it in a particular situation. So they have a particular job that requires them to tell a particular lie in a particular circumstance. And they do it a lot, but this is the only time they lie. They don’t lie to anybody else in their life, it’s just this kind of one place where the truth doesn’t work. Then there’s this other group of people who just lie a lot. In the extreme case, we’ve got the pathological liars who lie when the truth would work better for them. And there’s not many of those people out there, but boy, if you meet one, once you figure out what’s going on and that there’s just no pattern to their honesty or deception, it’s really unsettling.

Zach: Yeah, it is. I think it’s so unsettling for the fact that we do have such a tendency. The truth default, it’s like if that’s our logical default stance to the world and then we stumble across people that just have no problem lying, that is disturbing at some existential level, I feel.

Tim Levine: Yeah. And I think this is why bold and shameless lying actually works because most people think nobody would do that.

Zach: Yeah. They’re like, “It can’t be happening. No, it can’t.”

Tim Levine: Right, it doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense.

Zach: Yeah, exactly. No, that explains a lot I feel like of people’s trustworthiness. So one thing I had a question about, I haven’t delved into the research enough to know this, is it common to set up a study where someone rates not just whether they think someone is lying or truth telling, but also rates their confidence in whether they’re correct?

Tim Levine: Yes. I wouldn’t say it’s super common, but it happens enough that there’s a good amount of research doing that.

Zach: Okay. I might ask you afterwards if you have examples of that, because the thing that strikes me there is say if you forced me to guess a bunch of poker spots, for example, if you put a bunch of different poker behaviors in front of me and said, “Guess all these things,” I think I would have a very low ability to tell bluffs from value hands from strong hands. And that’s in fitting with how I say the times you’ll actually spot something that’s meaningful, that is reliable are actually pretty rare. So in other words, if you put all these spots in front of me, I would have low confidence for most of them, but occasionally I would have very high confidence. And then if you just judge me on the ones I was highly confident on, I think you’d see a significant difference. I’m just curious, it seems like such a rather obvious way to try to detect the people that are good at detecting deception in whatever situation. And I’m curious if you think is that a good idea and maybe people should do more of that in these kinds of tests?

Tim Levine: I think it is a good idea when people have some degree of expertise in the context and when there might actually be kind of real tells or real signal there in some proportion. So when there’s signal variability and when there’s expertise, then that can help. So in the literature as a whole, there’s really no correlation between how white people are and how confident people are. But those generally come from your standard deception to text experiment where there’s no real signal there.

Zach: Yeah, there’s no signal if they’re just saying, “Yes, I did this or no, I did this.” There’s not much signal to these very simplistic ones. It’s like the more context there is, the more verbal stuff there is, whatever. The more signal there is, the more likely you are to get something.

Tim Levine: Yeah, so when there’s a variable signal and you have enough expertise to kind of understand that, then I think confidence becomes very important. So my colleague, Pete Blair, and I designed this lie detection task and we had it run, and we didn’t know who was lying and who was telling the truth. But we built it, so we thought there would be a signal there. And so we’re both trying to do lie detection in this with this new set of materials, it was a few years back. What we found is we both got 86% on them. The ones we missed were different, but we were sure about the vast majority of them, but there were four particular interviews that we were uncertain about. And we went exactly different ways on the ones we were uncertain about, but we agreed a hundred percent on the four we were uncertain about if that makes sense. And it was absolutely what you were saying. We knew the ones we might be missing, and we knew the ones we were probably right about, and we were absolutely chance at the ones we just didn’t see a signal or we saw mixed signals. But where the signal we were looking for was there, kind of we knew it and we got all this right.

Zach: So is there anything you’d like to add here that we haven’t touched on that you think would be interesting to throw in?

Tim Levine: I think we’ve covered a lot of ground.

Zach: Yeah, this has been great. Thanks a lot, Tim. And thanks a lot for your work, very interesting. Your book Duped was great, and you were mentioned in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Talking to Strangers, which must have been good for you to get some extra attention. That must have been exciting.

Tim Levine: Yeah, Malcolm Gladwell’s been very kind in dropping my name around.

Zach: Okay. Thanks a lot for coming on, Tim.

Tim Levine: My pleasure, I really enjoyed it. Thanks for having me.

Zach Elwood: That was deception detection researcher Tim Levine. He’s the author of Duped: Truth-Default Theory and the Social Science of Lying and Deception. I highly recommend that book if you are interested in behavior and deception detection. 

To come back to the discussion of how poker tells differ from general deception detection scenarios: one anecdote of mine can help us see how different these areas are. In 2013, I was watching the final table of that year’s World Series of Poker Main Event as it was being broadcast. I was live-tweeting it. These were players playing for millions of dollars; they’d outlasted thousands of other players. First place was $8 million. At one point, a player made a big bet and another player was thinking for a long time. Based on the bettor’s demeanor, specifically their genuine-seeming smiling and laughter, I was very confident they had a strong hand; bluffers can smile but it’s rare for them to have more exuberant and genuine-seeming smiles; these are smiles that affect their eyes and that are more dynamic with more movement and looseness. I was so sure about this that I tweeted “If Jay is bluffing here, I’ll eat my hat. No way.” His opponent ended up calling. He was wrong and I was right; the bettor did have a strong hand. 

Now clearly, with my poker tells books and work, I have a lot at risk to make a public guess like that. And it’s seldom that I would make such a pronouncement. As I emphasize in my poker tells work, it’s seldom that you can be very confident in a tell. But sometimes I will see spots where I’m highly confident, almost certain, that someone is strong or weak. Some of these can be cold reads; some behaviors are very unlikely with certain hand strengths, even not knowing anything about a player. In other cases, the confidence might come from seeing how someone behaves over several hands, to have more player-specific knowledge.

And so for this example of me correctly and confidently reading that player in the World Series of Poker, we can see that it doesn’t have much to do with deception detection. A lot of tells from players making big bets have to do with them leaking information about how relaxed they are, and some of that has to do with the fact that players who have a strong hand can just be feeling really good about things; they could be savoring the moment; they could even have some tendency to goad their opponent a bit, which can manifest verbally or even with just more direct eye contact, or with more irritated or belligerent-seeming facial expressions. But these behavioral patterns are not about deception. And there’s no equivalent to this in an interrogation or interview scenario; most people being interrogated don’t suddenly feel great about the situation and happy to be there, whether they’re innocent or guilty. 

To take another example: another class of tells in poker are related to a player’s level of focus or lack of focus. For example, early in a hand, a player who gets a strong hand, let’s say pocket Aces, will have a tendency to be more mentally focused, because they seldom get a strong hand and because they don’t want to waste it; they want to play it as well as they can and know they’ll be in the hand for a while. But a player with a weak hand who makes a bet or raise early in a hand, is often less mentally focused. They know they have the option to fold if someone raises them; they know they can always check and fold; basically they haven’t invested much in the hand yet. And these dynamics means that the more loose and ostentatious behavior, whether verbal or nonverbal, early in a hand when the pot is small, will be more linked to weak and medium-strength hands and not to strong hands.

And those are tells that also are not really related to deception; they’re just tells of focus versus lack of focus. 

And another different thing about poker is that players are constantly going into and out of these highly emotionally polarized but also short-lasting situations, and that means there’s a chance to look for imbalances over time. And a lot of people just aren’t that good at being balanced and aren’t even trying that hard, especially when it comes to doing that over many situations over many hours, or even days or weeks or months when you play with someone regularly for a long time. 

And finally, in poker, behavioral information can be valuable even when it’s slightly reliable. In poker, you’re often put in spots that could go either way from a fundamental strategy perspective. In other words, leaving aside any behavioral stuff, it’s often a toss up whether to call a bet or fold to it. So if you see a behavior you think is slightly more likely to mean one thing than another thing, that can be valuable in the long term, because you’re making so many small decisions in poker. So small edges can be valuable. And there’s just no equivalence in interrogation; interrogators aren’t going to change big decisions based on one small behavior they spot. And this aspect of poker doesn’t even map over to most other games or sports, and that’s because poker involves so many decisions that are based on low-information; for example, in chess, there’s no equivalent to this, because all information is on the table and is known, whereas in hidden information games, especially versus skilled players, you’ll often be put in spots where your decision could go one of two or even three ways. And that’s one big reason skilled poker players find tells valuable; the cumulative effect of small edges over time.

I could talk about this for a while, but I just wanted to help make the case that reading poker tells is quite different than deception detection and real-world situations like interviews. And part of the reason I wanted to do that is to encourage any behavior and psychology researchers listening to do more studying of poker tells, to show that there is still much to study in poker that hasn’t yet been studied.

If you find this stuff interesting, check out my poker tells site, I also have videos on youtube on my Reading Poker Tells youtube channel. You can sign up for a free email series on verbal poker tells at 

I wanted to give a shout-out and thank you to Alan Crawley, who goes by the online handle SinVerba, which is Spanish for nonverbal. Alan does youtube videos and classes on behavior. I was recently talking to him and he got me thinking again about comparing interrogations and poker and that was what led to me finding Tim Levine’s work and what led to me doing this podcast. So thanks for that, Alan. 

This has been the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zachary Elwood. If you like this podcast, please leave it a rating on Apple Podcasts. That’s a great way to show your appreciation. And of course please share it with your friends if you’ve liked it; that’s also hugely appreciated. 

Okay thanks for listening.

Music by Small Skies.

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Reading and predicting jury behavior, with Christina Marinakis

This is a reshare of a 2018 talk with Christina Marinakis about reading and understanding jury behavior. Marinakis works for the firm Litigation Insights; you can see her bio here. There’s a transcript of the talk below.

Episode links:


Zach Elwood: Hello, and welcome to the People Who Read People podcast with me, Zach Elwood. This is a podcast about understanding other people and understanding ourselves. You can learn more about this podcast and sign up for updates at If you like the podcast, I ask that you leave me a review on iTunes, that’s the best way you can show your appreciation and encourage me to do more. I’ve been pretty busy working on my book aimed at reducing American anger and political polarization. So I’ll continue re-sharing some of my early interviews. This one will be a talk from 2018 with Christina Marinakis, a specialist in jury selection for the organization Litigation Insights. In this talk, I ask Christina about some of the more psychology and behavior-related aspects of jury selection.

When it comes to how people in serious high pressure jobs make use of psychology and behavior, I think it’s one of the more interesting talks I’ve done. It was my original goal with this podcast to talk to people from a wide variety of fields about how they read and make use of people’s behavior. Because I think there’s all sorts of interesting domain-specific knowledge out there that we just don’t hear much about unless we’re in those niche areas. And I think some of that knowledge can be valuable to people who work in other fields or even just in our personal lives by increasing our empathy and understanding of other people. I’ve been a bit distracted from that original goal due to my interest in political polarization, hopefully I’ll get back to that original focus as I have a long backlog of ideas for guests from various fields and pastimes that I’d love to interview. And if you ever have ideas of interesting people to interview or subjects to tackle, feel free to send me your thoughts via the website which is

One interesting recent thing about Christina Marinakis, she was a consultant for the prosecution in the case against Derek Chauvin in Minnesota. If you search for her name and Derek Chauvin, you can find some pieces about the jury consultancy work she did for that very high profile case. Okay, here’s the talk with Christina Marinakis. 

Today is September 24th, 2018, and today we have Dr. Christina Marinakis joining us. Dr. Marinakis’s education includes an undergraduate degree in bioscience psychology, a master’s in clinical psychology, a doctorate in psychology, and a law degree. She’s currently the director of jury research at Litigation Insights, a national trial consulting firm, and she has 17 years of jury research study and applied practice in law and psychology. Her case experience includes but is not limited to product liability, antitrust litigation, class action, legal and medical malpractice, contract disputes, patents, securities, fraud, and criminal work. And she does this work for both prosecutors and defendants. Dr. Marinakis contributed to a new edition of the book Pattern Voir Dire Questions, a compilation of tips for voir dire strategy. And that book includes over 2000 questions for investigating and a listening bias from potential jurors. Besides jury selection work, she also is hired for witness preparation and communication training, and that involves giving feedback to witnesses who are preparing to testify to make sure they’re perceived well by the jury. So today Dr. Marinakis and I will mainly be discussing jury selection, the basics of how the process works, how strategy and game theory can play a role in the process, and how an understanding of psychology and behavior can impact jury selection. So without further ado, welcome to the podcast Dr. Marinakis, thanks for coming on.

Dr. Marinakis: Thanks so much for having me.

Zach Elwood: So we’ve got a lot of interesting things to talk about today, and a lot of questions people will find interesting I think. So let’s jump right into those questions. Could you give a simple explanation of how the voir dire process works for people who don’t know much about that process?

Dr. Marinakis: Sure. So a lot of people refer to what we do as jury selection, but the more accurate term would be jury de-selection. We’re not really picking who we want on our jury, it’s more of an elimination process of picking who we don’t want on the jury. So there’s essentially three ways that you can get a juror off the panel. And the first way is through hardship. And so if a juror says that they have an extreme financial hardship or a personal hardship such as they are caring for a young child at home or caring for an infirm adult, the judge decides whether those people meet the statute for whether they should be excused for hardship. And the attorneys can often comment on that and can make arguments whether a juror meets that statutory hardship language, but that’s really a decision that ultimately rests with the judge. The second way that people can be removed from the jury panel is through what we call peremptory strikes or peremptory challenges. And in every case, both sides are permitted a certain number of what we call strikes, meaning that you can remove people from the panel for no reason at all, any reason, and you don’t even have to tell the other side or the judge what the reason is. Now there is an exception, and you can’t remove someone based on race, gender, or in some state’s sexual orientation. That is against the law. But other than that, you can remove that person from the panel and you don’t have to give a reason why. There’s a balance number of strikes per side, and that varies by jurisdiction. Most of the time in state cases and civil cases, it’s anywhere between three strikes per side to about six strikes per side. In some cases, if you have more than one defendant who has adverse interests, the judge might decide to allow you to have eight strikes per side if that’s what you want. But it’s always balanced. In criminal cases, it tends to be more, you might have up to 20 strikes per side, but that’s what we call peremptory challenges. And they usually alternate. So once you have a panel of jurors, usually the prosecution or the plaintiff will strike first and they’ll say, “We’d like to thank and excuse juror number four.” And then the defense goes and they say, “We’d like to thank and excuse juror number 12.” And it goes back and forth until both sides pass. So you can pass and try to save up your strikes. And so you might say, “We pass, we accept this panel,” the other side then makes a strike. Now you get to go back and make another strike. Now once both sides pass and they accept the panel, that’s your jury. So that’s the second way. And then the third way, which is really where a lot of the psychology comes in, is what we call cause challenges. And there’s an unlimited number of cause challenges. And what that involves is each side is trying to get the jurors that they don’t want on the panel to admit that they can’t be fair. There’s statutory language that differs by state in terms of what you need to get the jurors to say. For example, in California, there’s a number of ways you can get a juror, what we call, kicked off for cause. If they evidence enmity against or a bias in favor of one party or the other, that’s enough reason to get them off the jury panel. In most states, it’s whether they can be fair and impartial, but there’s certainly some differences. Again, in New York, they have to give an unequivocal assurance that they can be fair. If they can’t do that, they get kicked off for cause. So each side gets to question the jurors, and that’s what we call the voir dire process or if you’re in the staff they call it voir dire. And it’s a process where each side gets to ask jurors questions and ask follow up questions. And the ultimate goal is to identify the people that you don’t want on your panel without exposing the people that you do want, because if you expose those good jurors, now the other side is just going to be able to identify them and get them kicked off for cause or they might use one of their peremptory challenges if they can’t get the juror to say they can’t be fair. And so since there’s an unlimited number of those cause challenges, that’s really the end game, is the side that gets the better jury is really the side that is able to get as many of their bad jurors off for cause which gives you a leg up on the other side.

Zach Elwood: So how many people are typically starting out in a jury pool, jury selection pool, before the process starts?

Dr. Marinakis: It varies a lot by jurisdiction, but in general, I’d say you’d need anywhere from fifty to a hundred jurors. And sometimes it just depends on how many jurors sit on the final panel. So although many states have juries of 12, there are certain states like Maryland and Florida where you’re only sitting juries of six. So obviously you don’t need as many jurors. So the way they decide how many jurors we need is you take the number that are finally seated, whether that’s six or 12, and then you add up the number of strikes that each side has. So again, that could be anywhere from three to six. So just for example, if you have a jury of 12 and then each side has six strikes, that means you’re going to need at least 24 jurors, 12 for the box plus the 12 that are stricken. And then you want to have a couple extra jurors because you anticipate that some of those jurors are going to be gone for cause. Now the longer the trial is, the more jurors you need. Many of my clients have trials that run 5 to 12 weeks long, there’s going to be a lot more jurors who will have financial hardships. And so if you know your trial is going to be a longer trial, you might need to start with 200 jurors to get enough jurors for the final panel. If it’s only a three-day trial, you might be able to start out with 40 jurors and be just fine. Now, same thing goes with whether it’s a high profile case or involves some really sensitive issues. Clearly if you’re trying a case for Bill Cosby, there’s going to be a lot more jurors in the audience who have already formed an opinion about his guilt or innocence, and so you’re going to lose more jurors for cause.

Zach Elwood: Right. So when you ask the questions of the potential jurors, can you ask anyone questions or do you pick one person at a time or do you ask it to the group? How do you decide answers to those kind of questions?

Dr. Marinakis: Again, it varies by jurisdiction. Each state has different rules on how they conduct voir dire. The states that are in the northeast like New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New York, they question the jurors individually. So each juror comes back into the room, into the chambers, sometimes the judge is present, sometimes the judge is not present, and the parties ask the questions individually of each juror. Because of that, the jury selection process in those states can take several days up to several weeks in certain trials. Other states like Texas do a panel. So each person in the veneer, people that are sitting in the benches, will have a paddle almost like an auction that has their juror number. And then the attorneys have to ask the question of the entire group. “How many people feel like corporations put profits over safety?” Then people who think, “Yes,” they raise their panel, and you jot down their numbers and then you have to follow up with them. Most of the time the follow up is done in open court. There are some jurisdictions where you ask the questions of the entire group, but then any juror who raises their hand or raises their paddle then comes up to be questioned individually. So it just really depends on the rules and the court system. But usually the jurors are in a certain order. In the field, we call it a random list. Now the jurors may not realize what order they are in. Sometimes they’re seated in order in the courtroom, and sometimes they’re not. But the attorneys always have a list of who’s first and who’s coming up because the jurors they’re seated in an order or they’re in an order in a list. So if we have a list of 50 jurors and I know that we only need to get 24 to sit the jury, I’m only going to focus on those first 30 people on the list. There’s no point in me asking questions to the juror who’s seated in seat 60 because the chances that we’re going to get to that juror are very unlikely. Now once we start losing jurors for cause and losing jurors for hardship, we can calculate how deep into the panel we will get and know who we need to ask questions of.

Zach Elwood: But you know the order, so there’s theoretically some reading ability that you could base on how a person acts or looks theoretically to know something about what some of their stances might be theoretically if you know the order.

Dr. Marinakis: Certainly. I’d say we know the order at least 90% of the time. And so we’re looking at who are those people in the first group of 30. And many times we get a little bit of information about those people. It might just be a card that has their occupation, their marital status, maybe the ZIP code where they live, their age, or sometimes we get a huge questionnaire where they filled out several pages of questions. Now, the other thing and I anticipate we’ll get more into this that we do is we’ll look up these jurors, we get the list of names and immediately start looking up folks LinkedIn profiles, their Facebook, their blogs, their public records. So we have an idea of who is on our panel. And then there is a little bit of stereotyping. So if I’m representing a corporate defendant, most likely people that are wearing business suits are going to be good for my side. I’m not going to start off asking those folks questions. I’d probably start off asking questions of people who might look to be more blue collar or maybe aren’t dressed as sharply, maybe look like they’re of a lower economic status who are more likely to identify with a plaintiff who’s suing that large corporation. I’d target my questions to those people first. Now the other thing we do is we’d ask one of those general questions again, “How many people think corporations put profits over safety?” If 10 people raise their hand to that question, I’m going to go to those 10 people first to do the follow-ups.

Zach Elwood: Got you. So the legal process often seems like a game with its team versus team nature and its sometimes obscure roles that can lead to complex strategies. And this seems especially the case for the voir dire process. Is there a lot of strategy and game theory involved? I guess you’ve already answered a little bit of this, but…

Dr. Marinakis: Absolutely. The best jury consultants and attorneys who participate in voir dire are able to anticipate the next side’s move and what the consequences of that move will be. So when I’m trying to decide who we want on the panel, the only way we can do that is through the striking process. I have to think about if I strike this juror, who’s going to take their place? So if there’s 12 jurors on the panel, I strike juror number four. Now juror number 13 is going to move into that seat. Well, now the panel composition has changed, and I have to think about now who is the other side going to strike. If the other side strikes juror number nine, now juror number 14 is going to move into that seat. And you have to be able to anticipate who is the other side going to strike and who is going to move into those seats and how many strikes do you have left. If you use your strikes on someone who is a juror you might not want but not the worst juror, well, if someone worse takes their seat and you run out of strikes, now you end up with a undesirable jury. The other thing that I mentioned was the passing system. So I might strike a juror, if the other side passes, they could pass because they think that there’s someone on the panel that I must strike, a juror that I cannot have on there. So they would pass in order to start saving up their strikes because ultimately that gives you an advantage. If you’ve got four strikes left, the other side only has two strikes, now you’re able to control the panel easier. However, you can call the other side’s bluff. And if the other side passes and you pass, now you’re stuck with that panel. So there could be someone on the panel that they don’t want and they’re passing because they think that you need to strike somebody and then you pass, now you’re stuck with the panel. So it absolutely is a game of chess. And because it moves so quickly, it’s really a game of speed chess.

Zach Elwood: Right. You said for a lot of them they can be only 30 minutes long.

Dr. Marinakis: Right. And really that’s the process for asking jurors questions, when it comes to doing your strikes, it’s right there in court. The judge usually won’t even give you time to confer with your co-counsel. They’ll just say, “Okay, plaintiff, what do you want to do?” And then you make your strike immediately.

Zach Elwood: So it goes very quick?

Dr. Marinakis: Yes. Immediately the defense says, “Okay, plaintiff, who do you want to strike?” And the actual striking process can occur within a minute.

Zach Elwood: And are the potential jurors in the room at that point too?

Dr. Marinakis: Depends on the state. In California, you say, “We’d like to thank and excuse juror number four.” And the juror number four gets up, they leave the courtroom. The next juror the judge will say, “Okay, juror number 14, now you take their place. Now the other side, you strike,” and it works like that. In other jurisdictions, they say, “Okay, attorneys, you’ve got one minute, write down the six people you want to strike.” Other side does the same. And then you submit the list, the judge cuts those people, and you’re done. And you don’t get to see the other side, it’s not a back and forth process. The funny thing is sometimes when you do that, both sides end up striking the same person which is interesting. Either they’re concerned that they don’t know that person well enough and they’re afraid to leave them on the panel or sometimes one side or the other just gets the juror wrong.

Zach Elwood: Oh, that’s interesting. That sounds like a very stressful process for having to be done so quick. I mean, it sounds like that could easily lead to some frayed nerves.

Dr. Marinakis: Right. The jury selection process isn’t for anyone, there’s a lot of different consultants who work with attorneys, and some of them just do the witness work that you mentioned earlier, where you’re working directly with witnesses, working on their communication strategy. And some consultants just do the jury selection piece, because they really require two different skill sets. And it’s not for everybody, you really have to be able to have calm under pressure, to be able to think quickly, anticipate the other side’s moves, and really just having an excellent memory and being able to remember exactly what each juror said and having great organizational skills, being able to keep track of who’s on the list, who’s coming up next, what did they say.

Zach Elwood: Right, that’s a lot of factors, yeah. So considering all that work and complexity, how much influence do you think voir dire strategy has on a case, in your opinion?

Dr. Marinakis: A lot. It’s almost sad to say, but I think the composition of the jury has a bigger influence on the outcome of the verdict than the facts of the case sometimes. The other piece of my work is performing mock trials. So before a case goes to trial, we will present the case to people in the community, many people, sometimes up to 60 people. And test the case with them to see what the likely outcome is and what the strengths and weaknesses are of the case. I can tell you in the many, many years I’ve been doing this, I have never had a case where all the people agree on the verdict, never. Yet they’re hearing the same exact evidence, hearing the same exact arguments, and yet they view the evidence differently. And that’s because each of us has our own experiences and our attitudes and our history that creates a lens. And we view the facts of the case through that lens. And because of our backgrounds, we either accept and remember the things that are consistent with our preexisting beliefs or we reject, we forget, we misinterpret things that don’t correspond with our preexisting beliefs. And so the same piece of evidence is going to be viewed differently depending on your outlook. And so you can’t necessarily change the facts of the case, but you can change the lens that it’s going to be viewed through. And so ultimately the jury selection piece and deciding who’s on the jury will decide how the facts, the evidence, and the arguments get interpreted.

Zach Elwood: Yeah. That can give you a sort of pessimistic view of how likely a defendant is going to get a fair trial, just makes me think of that. And so I’m wondering, how much do you see jury selection as working on behalf of your client and how much of that process is a collaborative attempt from both sides to make a jury most fair? Or is it, I guess, one could lead to the other?

Dr. Marinakis: Well, really our system in the United States is based on an adversarial system. There’s other countries out there where they have a single judge or a panel of people who are supposed to be neutral and who decide the case and decide the legal issues. And I think the great thing about our system is it is adversarial, but I think that leads to better, more accurate results. If you have one person like a judge or a supposedly neutral panel deciding the case, who’s going to challenge that panel when they make mistakes? Who’s going to challenge that panel’s bias? Because people are still people. And so someone may be a neutral moderator or a neutral panel of observers, but even those people are going to have their own biases. And if there’s not an adversary or someone on the other side pointing out those mistakes or those flaws, that’s going to lead to a flawed system. Now because our system is adversarial, we are pointing out the mistakes in the other side’s case, the holes in the other side’s case, the injustices in the other side’s case. And ultimately that leads to a better truth. If you’ve got two people arguing and really fighting for their position, that helps weed out the truth for a neutral fact finder. And the same thing is true of jury selection. So while I’m doing that for my client and trying to get off the jurors from the panel that are the worst for my case, the other side’s doing the exact same thing and they’re trying to get off their worst jurors. The end result is really to get a fair and impartial jury, but honestly, that’s not my goal, my goal is to get the best jury for my client, the other side’s jury consultant, that’s their goal to get the best jury. And maybe the person who’s more skilled will get the better jury in the end, but most of the time you end up with a fair panel.

Zach Elwood: Got you. Let’s move on to the behavioral psychology part of the interview. And I’ll ask you, what role does physical behavior play in a typical jury selection process?

Dr. Marinakis: Sure. There’s really two things that we’re looking for when we’re observing people’s behavior. And one of them is to identify how they’re answering the questions. Because whether a juror is a good juror or a bad juror or even if it’s just the difference between a bad juror and a very bad juror, sometimes depends on not what they say, but how they say it. So for example, there may be many people in the audience or in the, we call them the veneer, who have had maybe a negative experience with something, maybe this is an employment case. Let’s pretend it’s an employment case, I’m representing a company who’s being sued because they discharged someone and they’re being alleged for wrongful termination. So there may be multiple people there who have been fired from a job, but how they respond to that situation will determine who I get rid of on the panel. I might say, “How was that experience when you lost your job?” If one person says, “That was a tough experience,” another person says, “I was devastated,” there’s a difference. And if I only have one strike and I need to exercise it, choose between those two individuals, I’m going to strike the person who says they were devastated and they say it with a sigh, and you can see the pain in their face as opposed to someone who says, “Yeah, it was tough.” To me the person who says, “Yeah, it was tough,” they say it quickly, they don’t seem upset, they were able to move on versus someone who might still be clinging on to the pain of that experience. So I’m looking at their facial expressions. Do they look pained? Do they have a furrowed brow? Are they hesitant? Is there a quiver in their voice? Their body language, do they look sullen and sulky? Or are they confident and able to move past it? Same thing goes in cases where maybe we’re dealing with a cancer case and the plaintiffs are alleging that my client corporation’s product cause their cancer. A lot of people have had losses due to cancer in their life, but it’s how they dealt with those losses and how it still affects them today that determines whether they’d be a good juror or not. So again, I’ll ask them, “Tell me about that experience.” And if they look like they’re on the verge of tears and they’re having a hard time talking about it and then they say, “But yeah, I can still be fair to your client,” I’m going to have a hard time believing that they can really be fair to my client versus someone who says, “Yeah, it was really tough when we lost our mother, but we enjoyed our time that we had with her.” How that person dealt with that situation will determine how they view the evidence and that filter and that lens that they see the evidence in your case. Go ahead.

Zach Elwood: Yeah. I was going to say, one of the things that I was remembering from the voir dire book is looking for reactions, when someone’s being questioned, someone else might have a reaction like shaking their head slightly. You had one example of someone shaking their head in what they thought was probably a very subtle, minor reaction to a question someone else was asked, but that enabled you to say, “Oh, this guy probably has some anger and some bias on this issue.” So looking for reactions like that.

Dr. Marinakis: Absolutely. It’s interesting because we ask these questions, how many people feel this way? And there’s always people who don’t raise their hand. Usually they just don’t want to speak in front of a hundred strangers and talk about their biases in front of a bunch of people or they’re shy or they just don’t like public speaking, which is most people. So if I’m talking to someone who did raise their hand and I see someone else who’s making faces, who’s nodding along or maybe disagreeing, maybe I’ll follow up on them and I’ll say, “Mr. Smith, I know you didn’t raise your hand to that question, but I saw you nodding along, do you feel the same way?” And then that juror might now open up that, yeah, they probably should have raised their hand. And so each person shows their emotions differently. There are some people who wear their emotions on their sleeve, and they’re nodding along and they’re making facial expressions and they’re wincing or they’re furrowing their brow or they’re scoffing or laughing, and then other people are very stoic. So certainly some people are more difficult to read than others, but those are all cues that I’m watching for when both my client is asking the questions and when the opposing counsel is asking their questions. If they’re asking questions and I see folks in the audience who are either agreeing or disagreeing with them, that gives me some insight into whether that juror would be good or bad for my client.

Zach Elwood: How often would you or how often in general will lawyers face decisions or follow up questions on the physical behavior or behavior in general of potential jurors? I was just wondering how often it played a role, many times or seldom?

Dr. Marinakis: For me, it plays a role every time. Most of the time my clients are focusing on the conversation, and they need to do that. They need to be tuned in to what people are saying. They can’t both watch the audience and question jurors at the same time. That’s why it’s important to have a consultant or someone else there who can do the watching for you. So they might not even realize the different body language and reactions that people are having or they just don’t have the experience to identify what that means. And it’s very easy to misinterpret body language if you haven’t seen it over and over and over again. But for every person, I’m looking at them, seeing how they respond to questions. And then I didn’t get to the second thing that I’m looking for, which I think is even more important, is signs of group dynamics. And ultimately a jury decision is a group decision, whether it needs to be unanimous or whether it’s 9 out of 12 or something similar, it all depends on who you have on the jury and what are their personalities. So I’m not just thinking about who’s going to be a good or bad juror for my case, but who’s going to be a leader in the deliberation room, who’s going to be a follower, who’s going to be what we call a consensus builder, someone who’s going to try to get everybody to agree. Oftentimes you think teachers, they tend to be consensus builders. They try to get people to negotiate. You’re also looking for people who are what we call contrarians. A contrarian is someone who will always challenge the status quo. They like to play devil’s advocate. And then you’re also looking for people who might alienate others. Someone might be a great juror, but if they’re kind of a unique individual or maybe a little weird or maybe they just smell bad, are they going to alienate the rest of the jurors and people aren’t going to want to agree with that person? He might be a great juror, but I’m not going to want him on my jury if I feel like he has a possibility of alienating others. So I’m looking at how jurors interact with one another, who’s having lunch with who, who’s talking with whom in the hallways, who’s opening the door for everybody, passing out pens, that person’s probably going to be someone who’s a consensus builder. Or people who are making jokes who other people are laughing, that person has a possibility of being a leader, who respects whom? So you’re really looking at the jurors and how they interact to determine how they’re likely to interact once they get in the deliberation room. And that plays a huge role in determining how I’m going to exercise my strikes.

Zach Elwood: And there’s different applications for recognizing there’s different types of people. For example, we might talk about this more later, but one example you gave was when there’s a contrarian in the group, you might want them on the panel if you think that they might lead to a hung jury in your favor, right? You might want that kind of person in there.

Dr. Marinakis: Right. So it depends on the facts of your case, your client, your attorneys, what kind of group dynamics you want. And it also depends on the jurisdiction. There’s some jurisdictions and some cases that require unanimous verdict, and other cases you only need 9 out of 12. So I think you’re referring to I had one criminal case, and I don’t do that many criminal cases, but we do a few a year. And in this criminal case, the evidence was really stacked against my client for the most part. It was a murder case that involved a strangulation, and my client’s DNA was found on the murder victim’s neck and cell phone and then also on the knob of a stove, and the gas on the stove had been turned on all the way up, and a candle had been placed next to it, presumably so that they could blow up the crime scene. So we thought this would be a very challenging case given the popularity of DNA evidence in shows. At the time CSI was really big or Criminal Minds. And so we had some serious concerns that we would lose the case for our client, who we believed was innocent. And so we thought that probably the best we could get was to get a hung jury. And so we were looking for a contrarian who would be able to challenge no matter what the group thought, would always play devil’s advocate, would stand his ground and be a strong voice and ultimately hang the jury. So we looked for someone who in the process, the jury selection process, was challenging everything. The judge says, “Sit in this order,” “Well, why do I need to sit in this order?” “Here’s a piece of paper, call this number.” They’re just always challenging the bailiff, the other jurors, the judge even, and really are expressing unique views. So any time an attorney would ask a question, they might say, “Well, yeah, that’s true most of the time, but other people, other times this happens.” And so immediately we were able to identify this juror as a contrarian, and I don’t think the other side really did. This contrarian was dressed well, he was a successful banker, and so I think the prosecution thought he would be a good juror for their case. Usually people that are higher SES, Republican tend to be more likely to decide for prosecution in criminal cases. So they left him on the jury. We left him on the jury because he was contrarian, and ultimately he was the one that fought on behalf of our defense. Just briefly, our defense was DNA transfer, that our client had used a towel in the victim’s apartment, and that the murderer, the true killer, used that towel to then clean the crime scene to wipe the victim’s neck, to wipe the knob, and he transferred the DNA from the towel to the crime scene. And it’s a very unconventional defense, there is scientific basis to it, but it’s not well known. And so this juror who was the contrarian was able to argue that, and ultimately we ended up not with a hung jury, but with a full acquittal for our client.

Zach Elwood: Oh, wow. Okay. Let’s talk a little bit about some specific behaviors from the potential jurors. Does eye contact tells come into play at all? How they look at you and you can read maybe some anger, frustration from the questions you’re asking, does that play a role ever?

Dr. Marinakis: It does play a role, but I really caution against trying to, what we call, reading tea leaves. Because oftentimes the signs of nervousness are often the same signs as someone who might be lying. And so this is what we work with our witnesses a lot with in terms of building their credibility. So someone who’s not making eye contact, it could be that they’re just nervous, especially jurors. I mean, being asked questions in front of a group of people by lawyers and judges is very unnatural for them. And so most of the time there’s a lot of jurors who are nervous to do so. And they might not be making eye contact because of that, not because they’re not telling the truth. So you really have to be cautious. Same thing with people whose arms are crossed. There’s sometimes lawyers or clients or jurors who feel like if someone’s arms are crossed, they’re being standoffish, they don’t like your position. Well, maybe that person is just cold. Or sometimes if someone has a big belly, it’s comfortable to put your arms on top of your belly.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, exactly. You always hear that stereotype about the arms crossed being standoffish. Just because of that, even though I know it’s often untrue, but I find myself uncrossing my arms in groups just because I don’t want people to think I’m standoffish, even though I’m not. So yeah, it’s like everything, it’s often ambiguous and doesn’t give you as much information as some people think.

Dr. Marinakis: Exactly. And so that’s when we work with our witnesses, we work with them on things, uncross your arms, make good eye contact, because we don’t want their nervousness or personal ticks or habits to be misconstrued as untruthfulness. What we do look for though is inconsistencies in how someone is reacting depending on who’s speaking. So for example, if someone has their arms crossed both when the plaintiff is asking the questions and when the defense attorney is asking the questions, it probably doesn’t mean anything. But if their arms are always crossed only when the defense lawyer is speaking and yet they’re sitting forward and they look more attentive and they’re leaning in when the plaintiff attorney is speaking, I might take notice of that and then try to make an interpretation from the differences in their behavior. So it’s not the behavior themselves, but how it differs between who’s speaking and what evidence is being shown.

Zach Elwood: Looking for those imbalances in behavior, as we sayin poker a lot imbalances.

Dr. Marinakis: Exactly.

Zach Elwood: Yeah. So let’s see, what else do I have on this list? Are there certain things that prospective jurors often lie about such as knowing how to read or using drugs in the past, things like that?

Dr. Marinakis: I think more often than not people are honest. I mean, most jurors are told they have to swear to tell the truth, and I think most people do take that very seriously. Certainly you hear stories about people trying to get off of jury duty maybe pretending that they can’t speak English or that they can’t read or write or the big thing is pretending that they’re racist, even though it’s often silly, because race rarely plays a role in these cases. But more often than not, I think people are trying to be honest. The bigger issue is that most people are unaware of their own biases. People want to think of themselves as good people, fair people. And so regardless of their backgrounds, most people will say, “Yes, I can still set that experience aside and be fair and impartial.” But usually they do have biases, in the industry we call them implicit biases, that people are unaware of, but that will influence how they view the evidence in the case. And so my role is not to necessarily detect lying, but to detect these implicit biases and get the juror to ultimately realize that they can’t be fair. And we have a number of techniques that we use to do that to try to get a juror to realize that maybe this isn’t the case for them, and they actually, despite their best efforts, can’t be fair to my client.

Zach Elwood: That was an interesting thing in the book with the voir dire suggested questions. The book was aimed at trying to get strategies for getting potential jurors to admit, verbally admit, their bias and walk them through. Once they started to show bias, get them to verbally admit in a clear way, “Yes, I’m biased. I can’t be unbiased on this.” So that was interesting seeing those strategies in that book.

Dr. Marinakis: Yeah. It’s a difficult thing to do, again, because most people feel like they can be fair. So you really have to get the juror to feel the bias. So here’s just an example, instead of just coming right out of the gate and saying, “Who here is going to have a hard time setting aside sympathy for this person with cancer?” You can’t ask that question right away because not that many people are going to raise their hand. But if you preface it with, “Mrs. Smith has been through dozens of surgeries. She’s spent months in the hospital. She can’t breathe because of this illness, it’s like suffocating.” And you start to describe it that way. “Her family has had to quit their jobs. They’ve had to put their house on the market to pay these medical bills.” Now all of a sudden you start to conjure up these images and these emotions, and now the juror can really start to feel in the gut of their stomach that sympathy and emotion. So I’m going to build that first, and then I’ll say, “Okay, given all that, who’s going to have a hard time at the end of this case looking at Mrs. Smith and her husband and her children in the eye and telling them, ‘You know what, we can’t give you any money because you didn’t prove your case.’ How many of you think you’re going to have a hard time doing that?” So now they felt that emotion, and you’re going to get more people that raise their hand to that question than you would have if I came right out of the gate and asked it.

Zach Elwood: And you would be asking that from the other side, you wouldn’t be asking that from the plaintiff’s side?

Dr. Marinakis: Exactly. And I should have brought this up in the beginning, my firm, we primarily represent defendants in civil cases. So we might work for plaintiffs every now and then, but probably more than 90% of the time we’re representing the company, the corporation or the manufacturer, the employer, we’re usually on the side of trying to identify people who are going to have a hard time setting aside their sympathies.

Zach Elwood: Right. We’ll talk more about that later about some specific strategies. So my next up question is, how many of the decisions you make are based on quick read kind of stereotypes? For example, this person’s an older blue collar woman, she might have certain stances, or this person’s piercings and tattoos would make them more likely to side with the underdog, the plaintiff. How much do those kinds of stereotypes play in general would you say?

Dr. Marinakis: It depends on the jurisdiction and how much you can question the jurors. What we like to say is that a juror’s attitudes are the most predictive way of how they’re going to view the evidence, but there are some states and some judges that won’t let you ask about the juror’s attitudes, you can only ask about their experiences. Now, sometimes experiences correlate with attitudes. So the fact that someone maybe has had a relative with cancer might mean that they’re more empathetic. Now it might not, but it could. There’s some jurisdictions where you don’t even get to ask about that. You might only get to see their demographics. And if a juror doesn’t raise their hand, there’s no opportunity to ask follow up questions and yet you need to make a decision whether to keep or to strike that juror based on someone that you’ve never even spoken to. And unfortunately, you have to rely on stereotypes because the truth is stereotypes are a statistical advantage. I gave an example that I’m a white woman, and if you went to Starbucks and you didn’t have time to call me to ask me what I wanted from Starbucks, and you ordered me a pumpkin spice latte. Now more often than not, you would be right that a white woman would enjoy a pumpkin spice latte. Now, me personally, I hate them, so you would’ve been wrong. But even if it’s just 6 out of 10 white women who like pumpkin spice lattes, you’ve now increased your odds of getting the right answer. And in my field, it’s all about increasing odds. You will never be able to 100% predict anything, but if you can increase your odds of getting the right person, that’s the end game. And unfortunately, it’s awful that sometimes you have to use a stereotype because it’s not going to apply to everybody, but it’s a statistical advantage.

Zach Elwood: You’re kind of forced into it. I mean, you have a very limited amount of time to make decisions on very limited information. So you’re just trying to pull information from wherever you can, even if it’s not the greatest information.

Dr. Marinakis: Exactly. So if 6 out of 10 times a blue collar worker is going to side with the plaintiff and all I know about this person is that they’re a blue collar worker and I have to decide between them and a white collar worker, you’re right, I would probably strike the blue collar worker if that’s all I had to go on, because that’s the best chances that I have. So that’s why we really advocate to judges, “Please let us talk to individuals, let us get to know them,” because otherwise we’re left making unfair and quite frankly, unconstitutional, if we’re basing our decision on race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other what we call cognizable group, that’s unconstitutional. But if a judge doesn’t give us an opportunity to ask questions, then that’s all we have to go on.

Zach Elwood: Right. It does seem strange considering what you’ve said, and it does seem logical that the voir dire jury selection process is very important. I’m surprised that the time limits given are so short.

Dr. Marinakis: Yeah. It just really depends on the judge. And some judges don’t see the value, and they feel like, “Well, people can be fair and impartial, the case should rest on the evidence.” But I don’t think those judges have sat in on all the mock trials that we have to see how much the juror’s background really influences the verdict.

Zach Elwood: Yeah. It’s a very optimistic view of the average jury I feel like. That stance that, “Oh, it’ll all be the same probably.” So are there laws pertaining to researching jurors like looking at their social media accounts? You had mentioned that, and I was just wondering if that was always allowed or not sometimes.

Dr. Marinakis: Presently there are no laws that prohibit researching jurors. There are however ethical rules for attorneys and for people who work for attorneys about contacting jurors. So what constitutes contact can often vary, and there’s an opinion out there that basically says that even if you don’t initiate the contact but you cause a contact, that could be an ethical violation. So here’s an example. If you look at someone’s LinkedIn page and you are not logged in the privacy settings, that person will get a notification that says, “Christina Marinakis viewed your page.” Under certain court rules, that’s a violation because that is a direct contact between the jury, even though I never sent the juror a message, I never tried to request them, to connect with them, because now they know that I looked at their page, that’s a violation. So really if you’re doing research on jurors, you need to understand the applications and the platforms that you’re using and the settings to ensure that there’s no unauthorized contact.

Zach Elwood: So you got to be very sneaky.

Dr. Marinakis: And just ethical. You can’t go around the rules and say, “Okay, well, I can’t friend request you, but I’m going to have my secretary friend request you so I can see your private page,” that is against the ethics rules. And I say ethics, but ethics rules are also actual rules. If you violate those, you could lose your license and you could lose the case. So those are the rules and laws that pertain, but there’s really no limit unless a judge has particularly said, “In this case you cannot search the jurors.” So it’s really more judge-based, but in my career I’ve only had one judge who ever did that. And that’s because the jury consultant for the other side had her laptop up and was looking at jurors pages, and one of the jurors saw it and reported to the judge that it made them uncomfortable when they saw their Facebook page on the…

Zach Elwood: That would not make you feel very safe.

Dr. Marinakis: Right. But everything that we do search, and this is unlike probably what you’ve seen in TV or movies, everything is public records. We do not search anything that is private. So, yes, we might look at property, deeds or vehicle registrations, history of bankruptcies, liens, criminal records, these are all public documents that anybody could find if they had enough time.

Zach Elwood: You’re not hiring a private investigator, it’s open source. Got you. How often is your read of a juror accurate?

Dr. Marinakis: It’s hard to calculate, but it’s something that I do keep track of because I always feel like… People ask me, “How many cases have you won?” And I don’t feel like that’s a good indication of whether you’re a good consultant. Sometimes the facts of the case are bad or you can only control who’s on the jury panel and you only get so many people to strike. But what I feel like is an indication of whether you’re a good jury consultant is what you say, how often do you get a person right? And so I’ve kept track of it, and I feel like overall it’s about 10 out of 12 that I’m able to identify whether they’d be a plaintiff juror or defense juror. And we often try to predict who’s going to be a leader versus a follower, and I think about 10 out of 12 times we’re right. Sometimes it’s 12 out of 12. I think that’s pretty good. I don’t know what other people’s stats are, I’ve never compared it with anyone else, but me personally, I have kept track of that.

Zach Elwood: That’s interesting.

Dr. Marinakis: And some people are more difficult to read than others certainly, so it does vary from case to case. Sometimes I’ll get all 12, sometimes it might only be 9 out of 12, but I usually say there’s always one or two that surprise you.

Zach Elwood: Are you able to say or see after the trial is over what every juror voted or how it worked, what the breakdown was, if that makes sense?

Dr. Marinakis: Yes. So in every case, either the jurors have to sign the form. So say there’s 12 jurors, and we’ll say, “Okay, everyone who agrees with this verdict must sign the form.” So you’ll get to see the names of the people who signed it versus the people who didn’t. There’s also something called polling the jury. So the jury foreperson might say, “Okay, we the jury find the defendant liable, not liable.” And then counsel can request to poll the jury. And they’ll say, “Juror number one, is this your verdict? Yes or no? Juror number two, is this your verdict? Yes or no?” I think you might have seen that if you watched the OJ Simpson or one of those documentaries, that they poll the jury to see. And then oftentimes we interview the jurors afterwards. We talk to them individually, we do interviews, we take them to lunch to really find out what they thought of the case, what were the strengths and weaknesses, and how can we improve for other future cases?

Zach Elwood: Yeah. I would think that would be very interesting just to break down how these people you chose at the beginning of the process went through the whole process and what their thought processes were along the way. It seems like that would be very interesting.

Dr. Marinakis: Oh, absolutely. One of my favorite things to do is if I’ve been involved in the jury selection is then to interview folks afterwards. And it’s funny, because almost always I finish the interview and I say, “What questions do you have for me?” And inevitably they say, “Why did you pick me?” I don’t go into this entire podcast, but we talk about how people’s backgrounds can influence how they view the evidence, and really it’s not that we pick them, it’s just we didn’t pick to get rid of them.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, you didn’t not pick them. You didn’t strike them. Let’s see what else we have here. How often is it that potential jurors act angry or aggressive or act out in order to give the impression that they really don’t want to be there? And does that make them more likely to be rejected by acting that way?

Dr. Marinakis: I don’t think people are acting when they do that, I think they’re legitimately distressed, especially a lot of the cases that I do are multiple week trials, and it is very nerve-wracking for most people to even think about having to miss six weeks of work or having to miss a vacation if that’s what they think or not being able to pick up their child from school every day for the next six weeks. That is very anxiety provoking. Some people handle it better than others, but I have definitely seen people break down, cry, throw a temper tantrum, and I don’t think they’re acting, I think they’re really in distress when that occurs. And ultimately this goes back to the hardship issue, and so it’s the judge’s decision whether to let that person be excused or not. But there are certainly times where someone is so distressed and maybe they don’t meet the statutory requirement to be excused, and the judge will kind of look at the attorney and say, “Well, what do you guys think? Do you want to agree to let this person go or not?” And sometimes we’ll look at the other side and say, “Do we really want this kind of bad karma? Is this good for either of us?” Probably not, because that juror might take it out on one side or the other. They could take it out on the plaintiff for filing a frivolous lawsuit or they could take it out on the defendant for refusing to settle what they see as a legitimate lawsuit or it might not bother them at all once they get seated.

Zach Elwood: Wild card.

Dr. Marinakis: Exactly. And usually neither side is willing to take that chance and will agree to excuse the person. But again, it ultimately rests with the judge. And if the judge says, “Look, they don’t meet the statute.” Say for example, they say they have an extreme financial hardship, but the truth of the matter is they actually get paid for a lot of the days of jury service or they’ve got a savings account, and it’s not as extreme as someone who doesn’t get paid at all. That judge might refuse to let them go. Personally, I wouldn’t waste one of my precious strikes on someone like that.

Zach Elwood: That’s what I was going to ask, is if you have someone who both sides suspect they want to get rid of, because somebody has to strike that person and you don’t want to waste strikes, and so it seems like there’s not a good way to collaboratively strike a person. So it’s kind of wasting a strike if you do it.

Dr. Marinakis: Exactly. And neither side will be willing to do that, usually the judge will. If someone is truly, truly that distressed, most of the times most judges will let the person be excused. Or the other thing is if the juror gives a hint of a cause challenge. Maybe it’s a cancer case and their mother just died of cancer, we could say, “Okay, plaintiffs, you agree that this juror probably couldn’t be fair, right?” [wink, wink] And we agree to excuse the juror on cause basis, but it’s really truly because we just think the juror’s going to be disrupted

Zach Elwood: Not using the strikes, right, yeah. So you can still find a cause that you don’t have to use strikes for. I was wondering about, I don’t think we’ve talked much about those initial questionnaires, and when do you use those written questionnaires versus doing them more in person?

Dr. Marinakis: We almost always suggest to our clients to submit a questionnaire. And that’s just because people tend to be more candid when they’re writing something down versus in open court in front of a bunch of strangers. But especially in cases that involve sensitive issues. So I’m involved in a rape case that’s coming up, and this judge never uses questionnaires, but we feel strongly that it is to the disadvantage of everyone in the courtroom to try to ask questions about people’s abuse history in open court. That puts everyone in a bad position, the judge, the lawyers, the juror. But we need to ask those questions because it’s important to know their background and history. So we’re going to advocate strongly to this judge like, “Look, this case is very unique. We don’t want to embarrass jurors, but we need to get these questions answered. So pleas allow us to use this questionnaire.” And we present the questionnaire to the judge in advance, and hopefully the judge will agree to that.

Zach Elwood: You wrote a piece on the TV show Bull, which I’ve never seen, but that show is based loosely on Dr. Phil McGraw’s jury consultancy business. It seems quite exaggerated from what you wrote of it, which is not surprising considering it’s a TV show. One of the things you wrote about it was in the pilot episode, Dr. Bull shows his client an ultra high-tech jury monitoring system complete with over a dozen flat screens and devices that monitor mock jurors physiological reactions through palm reading devices. It claims to have a system exclusively used by Homeland Security to collect a wealth of information about jurors and their family members that cannot be obtained elsewhere. So can you talk a little bit about how unrealistic and exaggerated that is?

Dr. Marinakis: Yeah. And I think I already touched on that. He talks about using Homeland Security to get private information. That’s not something that we could do. Even if we had the technological capability to do it, ethically, legally, that’s not something that we would do. And the biggest thing I’ve noticed about the show, and I’ve only seen a couple episodes, is they talk about it in terms of a 100% guarantee. “We can 100% predict whether someone will be a plaintiff juror or defense juror based on their physiological responses or their responses to questions,” and it’s never 100%. My whole occupation is based on increasing the odds, increasing the odds that this juror will be favorable. And in the show they use what they call mirror jurors, in our industry we actually call them shadow jurors, where we try to find people who are similar to people who are on the actual jury. And they sit in the audience during the trial and watch, and we talk to them at the end of the day. The value in that is not being able to predict exactly what the jury’s going to do, the value is in learning what are the strengths and weaknesses of our case. What is confusing? What do we need to clear up on? What are some things that might be bothersome? It’s more of that qualitative feedback than a quantitative statistical prediction of what the actual jury’s going to do. And that’s because no two people are alike. You can find a mirror juror or a shadow juror who’s very similar to someone, but surely they haven’t had the exact same life experiences. You never know how someone’s experiences are going to influence how they view the evidence.

Zach Elwood: Right, you’re just trying to get another set of hopefully somewhat similar eyes to give you different points of view and feedback. So in the voir dire questionnaire book that you helped write, you had some strategies for listening bias from potential jurors. And I really like this strategy that you talked about in there of downplaying the strengths of your case during voir dire, in essence drawing jurors out to reveal the strength of their prejudice. And in the book, there’s an example where by giving a very simple synopsis of their side’s case, the jury then let its biases be known, was more willing to let its biases be known by seeing the weaknesses in that case. And the most prejudiced people, most biased people were more easily exposed. And doing that too, the other side of the case was not able to know who to strike because most of the potential jurors were focused on the weakness of one side of the case. So that strategy made a little bit of sense, and I wonder if you’d talk about that a little bit more and I’m wondering, is it a pretty well known and standard strategy?

Dr. Marinakis: So this is what I like to call throwing your mini opening. I should start off by saying in most jurisdictions the lawyers are allowed to give a little synopsis of the case before they start questioning jurors to help orient the jurors to what is the case about and what is each side’s main arguments. And this is a very counterintuitive approach, and I’ve actually never seen it done before. I don’t want to say I invented it because I don’t know what other jury consultants are doing. But I had noticed that when my clients were giving very strong mini openings and coming right out of the box and saying, “You know what, our product was approved by the FDA, the plaintiff who is alleging it caused her cancer has a family history of genetics, and we firmly believe that our client did not cause her cancer.” They open up with that type of what we call mini opening, now all of a sudden you start getting jurors raising their hands who are saying, “Well, wait a minute. If your product is approved by the FDA, then I’m already on your side. If she’s got a family history of cancer, then no way your product caused her cancer. I can’t be fair.” And now we’ve just lost our best jurors in the case are now gone for cause. And so I noticed that was happening, and I thought there’s got to be a better way. So I then recommended to a client who trusted me, I’ve worked with him a lot, we’ve never had a bad verdict ever. And I said, “You know what, I think you need to throw your mini opening. Don’t get up there and tell them this stuff.” And said, “Give the bad parts of your case. Let them know that there’s 50 people out there who used your product and all 50 of them got cancer. Put that types of facts out there. Talk to them about how your CEO doctored a piece of evidence. Put the really bad stuff out there.” And so he thought, “Oh, no, I can’t do that. We’ll lose the case. My client will kill me.” And so we did that, and the other side came out really strong and they put all that strong evidence on their case. And what happened was the jury started saying, “Well, obviously I’m going to side with the plaintiffs. Your CEO already admitted wrongdoing and your product, clearly a lot of people have died from your product or gotten cancer. I can’t be fair to the plaintiffs.” We got rid of 27 jurors in that case for cause, which is unheard of really to get rid of that many people who said they couldn’t be fair to the plaintiff or couldn’t be fair to the defendant, my client. And now my client’s sitting in the courtroom and they’re like sweating bullets thinking about, “Wow, these people really hate us.” Well, you know what, all those people who really hate us are off of the panel now.

Zach Elwood: You’re really drawing people out. It’s like putting a trap in the ground and people are just falling into it exposing their biases.

Dr. Marinakis: Right, and so we got rid of all those people. Now, who are the people that are left? Now, the people that are left on the panel are the people who heard all of those terrible things about my client and about the company and who nevertheless still kept an open mind and were still able to be fair. Now those are the jurors that are truly going to be fair and impartial. And now the other side, they didn’t identify any people who might be for the defense, who might say, “Well, I think corporations are good. Corporations employee people. Plaintiff lawyers are always chasing ambulances.” Nobody said that because they were so focused on the bad conduct.

Zach Elwood: Yeah. And I’m sure the other side, if this isn’t a very common strategy, the other side was like, “Oh, this case is going to be so easy. Everybody hates this company.” And then you are left with weeding out the worst potential jurors and left with a more analytical group of people.

Dr. Marinakis: Yeah, they never saw it coming. I’ll tell you, in that case, we took a lunch break, and they were high fiving each other, they thought, “Wow, wow, all these jurors hate these people. We’re going to win the case.” And then as the judge excused, “You’re excused, you’re excused, you’re excused,” you could see the smile on their face just all of a sudden turn to severe panic. And they got no cause challenges, we had 27, and they had no idea who to use their strikes on. We ended up with an amazing jury that they just settled the case at that point because they knew that there was no chance of winning. So it really is counterintuitive. But I tell my client, “Look, voir dire is the time to identify those people. Do you want those people to say those horrible things about you now in voir dire or would you rather have them say that in the deliberation room when they’re trying to come back with a verdict?” It’s like get rid of them now. And then you know what, now that you’ve got your jury seated, now come out with a really strong opening statement. Now that you’ve got your 12 fair people you say, “We’re approved by the FDA, and this woman had a history of cancer, and all those other 49 women, they too had a history of cancer in their family and they use these other products or whatnot.” Convince the jury of your case during openings not during voir dire.

Zach Elwood: Yeah. It’s also interesting too because that process of getting them all talking and on the same side in the very beginning draws people out too, because other people are talking about it. If the group was talkative like that, it seems like it would lead to more volunteering of bias basically.

Dr. Marinakis: You’re absolutely right about that. Once one or two people start opening up, other people feel more comfortable opening up. And a technique we’ll use too is say Mr. Jones just voiced that he hates corporations, I might say, “Okay, Mr. Jones said that, how many people feel like Mr. Jones?” And then people start raising hand. “Okay, Mr. Jones said he couldn’t be fair, do you kind of feel like that too?” They say yes. Okay, now I just got two jurors off for cause very quickly.

Zach Elwood: Right. And I also like something else you talk about in that book was using your own body language to encourage people. Like that question you just mentioned, how many people, you’d be raising your hand too to kind of show that’s socially acceptable or to encourage them to express their bias.

Dr. Marinakis: Exactly. That’s all part of getting people comfortable opening up, and almost subconsciously, if we see someone doing something, we want to emulate it. You almost say like monkey see, monkey do. And I don’t want to imply the jurors are monkeys, but personality-wise and behavior, if I’m raising my hand when I’m just asking the question, “How many people feel this?” And I raised my hand, that’s almost subliminally sends the message to the jury like, “It’s okay, raise your hand.” And it also goes to the way that I ask the question. So instead of saying, does anyone, if I say, does anyone feel that way? It almost implies that this is an unpopular belief or an unacceptable belief versus when I say how many of you. How many of you implies that this is a common belief, and certainly there’s going to be people in the audience who feel this way. So how many of you feel this way? Using that body language and the wording of the question together gets people more likely to raise their hand to those types of questions. Another example is just nodding my head slightly. Someone is telling me about their experience with cancer, I’m nodding along very, very, so slightly or I have my client do this. You can’t even notice that they’re nodding along, just very slowly nodding, “Yes, I’m following you, I’m feeling you.” Match the juror’s facial expressions. If the juror’s wincing, the attorney should be wincing. If the juror is smiling, the attorney should be smiling. These are all techniques that I’ve learned in my experience as a clinical psychologist doing therapy, it’s about matching a person’s emotions and getting them to tell me more about that and reflecting back. A juror says, “Yeah, it was a tough experience.” “Wow, that sounds like that was a really tough experience for you. Tell me more about that,” and reflecting back to the juror what they said.

Zach Elwood: That reminds me of a popular interviewing technique where you ask someone question and then they answer it, and then you give a little pause. And the person being interviewed or asked questions will sometimes fill in that slightly awkward silence, they’ll volunteer something even more meaningful at the end. Does that ever come into play, giving the little silence?

Dr. Marinakis: Yes, absolutely. People are uncomfortable with silence, and so I recommend attorneys to do that during voir dire to draw out more information. And it’s funny that we give our witnesses the opposite advice, “Don’t fall into that trap.” So something we teach them is these are the tricks that the opposing counsel will do during cross examination to get you to volunteer more. Be comfortable with silence.

Zach Elwood: So when you answer your question you can stop talking then.

Dr. Marinakis: Yeah. The other thing people will do, another kind of trick, is to ask the same question but in a different manner. And people will think, “Well, if you’re asking the question again, you must be looking for something different,” and they’ll give a different response or give more information. So we tell our witnesses, “Look, no matter how the question is asked, even if it’s asked in five different ways, your response is always the same.” I answered that question, this is my answer. Don’t volunteer more.

Zach Elwood: Getting to your witness preparation and communication training. A couple questions about that, are there any rules around how you’re allowed to advise a witness on how they should speak or act when they testify?

Dr. Marinakis: Well, first I should say that when we’re meeting with our witnesses that is protected by client-product confidentiality, attorney-client privilege. So anything a witness says to the attorney that’s on the case is confidential. So when we conduct these sessions, we always have an attorney in the room there to ensure that our session is covered by that lawyer-client confidentiality. Now I’m a lawyer myself, so I don’t have to worry about that as much. But if there’s a jury consultant who does not have a law degree and is not bar-ed, an active member of the bar, you must have an attorney there to keep that conversation privileged. Now that said, there’s still some rules, and these go back to those ethics rules for attorneys which are actually laws. You cannot tell a witness to lie. And in fact, you can’t even ask a question on direct examination if you know that witness will lie, that is against the ethics rules. But we never do that anyway. We don’t want witnesses to lie. Most because they have poker tells, and jurors will call them out on it. So we’re not telling our witnesses what to say, but how to say it. How do you word something both verbal, behavior, and non-verbal behavior to give what you say more credibility so that the jurors believe your version, your truth? How do you effectively communicate that truth so the jurors believe you and they don’t misinterpret signs of nervousness or personal ticks as being signs of dishonesty?

Zach Elwood: Right. That brings an interesting point because the fact that you have to do this is mostly due to the fact that everybody thinks they can read people well, even though they can’t. So you’ll have a lot of people in the general population who are like, “Oh, she looked down when she said this, she’s lying. Or she was blinking a lot, she’s lying.” It’s just like in poker where usually those things are so ambiguous you would have to have such a big data set to even reach a conclusion like that. So you’re basically trying to make your witnesses unreadable basically, because people are going to draw all sorts of weird conclusions from their behavior.

Dr. Marinakis: Exactly. And people watch these TV shows, the Lie to Me, The Bull, those types of things, and they think that they know the signs of untruthfulness when you’re right, more often than not, those are signs of being nervous. Even just having your hand over your mouth is a huge thing that when I talk to jurors and they say, “Oh, I didn’t trust that witness because he had his hand over his mouth. He was afraid that the truth was going to come out because his hand was over his mouth.” And usually that’s just the person’s nervous and it’s a nervous tick. So I have to work with witnesses to get them to, you’re right, be unreadable and to be confident. Even if you’re not confident, even if you’re nervous, speak confidently, keep your hands down, make eye contact, that’s going to make you more credible to the jury.

Zach Elwood: Right, yeah. You just want them to get across the content of their testimony and leave out all the extraneous behavioral stuff.

Dr. Marinakis: Right. And in a way, jurors will remember it. So we talk about themes and having thematic content. Most jurors have very limited attention spans, especially in today’s age of 40-character news stories. And a jury’s not going to listen to a two-minute diatribe about something, but they will listen to a couple seconds. So we work with the witnesses on their non-verbal skills and also their verbal skills and being short, direct, to the point. Otherwise, they’re going to lose the jury and the jury will tune out.

Zach Elwood: Right, makes sense. Any other interesting examples of reading people from your work come to mind? Any great reads you’re proud of or that you’ve witnessed other people in the industry make?

Dr. Marinakis: I think I probably have more stories about bad reads, where I have the lawyers who, yes, they have a lot of experience, but so many times they’ll be like, “Well, I just don’t like juror number seven. There’s something about her. I just don’t want her on my jury. She gives me the hibbie jibbies. She’s given me a bad look.” And I have to say like, “That juror just has resting bitch face. That’s just how they are. Everything on paper, they look like a great juror.” So many times I have clients say, “We got to strike her, I got a bad feeling,” and I really have to talk them off the ledge from that and explain to them how, “Look at her face. She’s making the same face when the other side is talking too.”

Zach Elwood: Right. So just her baseline and they’re overreacting to small data points.

Dr. Marinakis: Right, or they’ll say, “Juror number seven is totally on our side. She’s nodding, she’s taking a lot of notes.” Then all of a sudden that juror comes back with a complete opposite verdict, and the attorneys are just shocked. And I talk to the juror or I’m observing them, and I realize that they’re nodding along not because they agree, because they’re following. People do that. I’m following what you’re saying, I’m nodding along. Or I’ll talk to the juror, and they say, “Yeah, I was doodling. I was drawing or he was talking and I was writing down that’s BS, I don’t agree with that.” So just because someone’s taking a lot of notes doesn’t mean they’re writing down what you’re saying, they could be writing down that they hate what you’re saying.

Zach Elwood: This guy’s an idiot, yeah. The nodding is interesting because I do that a lot when I talk to people. Nodding a lot, small nods, just as an encouraging way to set people at ease. And I think it does lead people to like tell me things they otherwise wouldn’t because they think I’m on their side. So I get random people confessing weird things to me sometimes, and I think it’s just because I nod and look like I’m interested and sympathetic.

Dr. Marinakis: Exactly, and that’s what I was talking about earlier when you’re talking to the jurors, doing that very subtle head nod gets them to open up even more to you.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, I think that’s pretty powerful. We’re near to wrapping up here, I won’t keep you too much longer. Do you think recent popular documentaries that show the inner workings and frequent mistakes of the legal system have lowered people’s trust in how fair jury trials are? Do you think that impacts your work?

Dr. Marinakis: I do worry about this a lot. Before when I told people what I do, they had never heard of it before. But now with the documentaries and with the show Bull, people have a bad impression about what we do. They think we do things unethically because in the show they’re always doing things that are unethical. Talking to the judge, manipulating the jury, talking to jurors, and that’s not really the reality of what we’re doing. So it gives our profession a bad name. The other thing that I see is that you’re seeing more and more stories about misconduct, whether it’s corporate misconduct, government misconduct, and people being bought off, that’s what all these TV shows are about, documentaries about an unfair justice system. And the truth of the matter is that yes, that happens, unfortunately it does, but that’s not the norm. But unfortunately, because people watch these documentaries and these shows, they come in with these expectations, that’s almost their biases about what they think is the truth. And usually being on the defense side, that works against my client’s favor, where people think, “Oh, okay, you’re approved by the FDA, but I’m sure you guys probably bought off the FDA and you manipulated the scientific studies.” It’s like come on, I know that happened…

Zach Elwood: Everything’s a conspiracy.

Dr. Marinakis: Yeah, and so we’re finding we’re having more and more difficulty getting fair jurors for our cases because so many people have been tainted by these… And there are bad companies out there. There are the [end rounds], there are certain companies that have done bad things, and it might only be one or two individuals within that organization that were corrupt, but people feel like now everybody’s corrupt, all corporations are corrupt, and it really works against… The other thing I feel that we see a lot is people feel like, “Well, the corporations must have more resources, so it’s not fair. Corporations can hire people like jury consultants to do that.” And the truth of the matter is it’s actually more balanced than you might think. Corporations are usually insured, and the insurance carrier will limit how much resources can be spent on trial. They might limit it. Whereas plaintiff lawyers, you see a family versus a corporation, but what you don’t see is that the corporation is really defended by the insurance company with a limited budget, and the plaintiff lawyer, they’re coming off of maybe five other trials where they just got multi-million dollar verdicts. So you say, “Oh, the family doesn’t have resources,” but plaintiff lawyers represent people on contingency basis. So if the attorney they don’t win the case, the plaintiffs pay nothing. That family loses the case, they pay nothing, and the law firm is putting up all the costs ahead of time. Now that law firm is going to take 100 million dollars they just got on a previous case, use those resources to hire their own jury consultant to do the mock trials, and they’ve actually got the money to do that stuff that maybe even the big corporation doesn’t. Seems hard to believe, but that’s actually more often the case than not.

Zach Elwood: Interesting. That’s an interesting thing because I would’ve been in that group that thought it was quite unbalanced usually.

Dr. Marinakis: No, I can tell you, in terms of clients, the plaintiff lawyers are the ones with the private jets and the multiple yachts, because they’ve got these 100 million dollar verdicts in the past. And then my clients, I’m not saying they’re not well to do, they’re big corporations, but they’re nowhere near the type of stupid money that some of these plaintiff lawyers have.

Zach Elwood: And they’re also limited by how much they can spend on that too.

Dr. Marinakis: Right, and now in the criminal realm, it might be a little bit different. You certainly have criminal defendants who can’t afford a jury consultant or the best lawyer and that there is definitely probably more imbalance, but neither can the state. The state is not going in there and spending a lot of money trying to argue these cases or to hire people, so it’s almost balanced there too. And in fact, if someone is on trial for capital murder and they have a public defender, they are awarded funds for a jury consultant. I’ve done many cases where we’ve worked for criminal defendants who are indigent or just we offer our time pro bono, for free, representing criminal defendants to give ourselves more experience, to do something and give back to the community. And so you find more evenness and parity there than you might otherwise think.

Zach Elwood: Nice. So my final question would be, as you’ve worked in the profession so long, do you have any opinions on things you would change in the jury trial legal system that would make cases more fair in general? Anything that you would change?

Dr. Marinakis: I touched on this earlier about relying on stereotypes, and I think we really need to advocate somehow for jurisdictions to allow a better opportunity for the jurors to be questioned. There’s some states, again, like in the northeast where the judge is the person who asks the questions, and the attorneys never even get to talk to the jurors. And so you might know nothing about them, all you can see is their race and their gender, how they dress, maybe their education. And as I mentioned before, that really forces us to base decisions on stereotypes, and that’s just really unfortunate. So there’s certain laws and the judges who don’t allow sufficient questionings are really doing society a disservice.

Zach Elwood: Okay. That’s about it. And we will end with some places you can go to learn more about Dr. Marinakis’s work. There’s, that’s the company she works for. And there’s a blog series on there with some interesting blogs that people might find interesting with client questions and answers from Litigation Insights.

Dr. Marinakis: Oh, absolutely. We post two blogs a month, and these are all based on questions that our clients have asked us, and they range anywhere from what is the statistical social science research behind something to should I shave my beard for trial and what should I wear? So there’s a variety of different questions that have been asked of us, and we answer them for people, and it’s all available on the website under our blogs.

Zach Elwood: There’s also the book, the voir dire book. And to find that if anyone’s interested in that, that’s at, and just search for voir dire questions on that site. The book is called Pattern Voir Dire Questions, and it’s the second edition that Dr. Marinakis helped out with and added contributions to. That was a talk with jury selection specialist Christina Marinakis. This has been the People Who Read People podcast with me, Zach Elwood. You can learn more about it at You can follow me on Twitter @apokerplayer. If you enjoyed this podcast, please leave me a review on iTunes or another podcast platform. Music by Small Skies.

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Zach Elwood: I’m Zachary Elwood and this is the People Who Read People podcast. This is a podcast about examining and understanding human behavior; you can learn more about it at my website

In a pretty large study done in 2017, 40% of people polled either agreed with or did not disagree with the following statement “When I think about our political and social institutions, I cannot help thinking ‘just let them all burn’? 

And similarly, 40% of those polled either agreed with or did not disagree with the following statement “We cannot fix the problems in our social institutions, we need to tear them down and start over.” 

These were some of the pretty startling findings of a research project done by Michael Bang Peterson, Mathias Osmundsen, and Kevin Arceneaux, where they surveyed more than 6000 people in the U.S. and in Denmark, a country considered less polarized than the United States. They labeled a certain level of these destructive and antisocial mindset a quote “need for chaos”. In the U.S. study, these feelings were found across the political spectrum, and weren’t correlated with a specific left or right type of ideology. While these feelings were significantly high in Trump supporters, they were also pretty high in Bernie Sanders’ supporters, and presumably they were also present for people who can be hard to put in political categories. 

In today’s episode, I’ll be interviewing Kevin Arceneaux, one of the “need for chaos” researchers, about this work. We talk about ideas of what it is exactly and what might be creating those mindsets. 

The title of their paper was “The “Need for Chaos” and Motivations to Share Hostile Political Rumors.” I’ll read from their paper’s abstract now: 

“Why are some people motivated to share hostile political rumors, such as conspiracy theories and other derogatory news stories? Previous research mostly focuses on the thesis that people’s partisan identities motivate them to share hostile political rumors as a way to tarnish their political opponents. In this manuscript, we demonstrate disruptive psychological motivations also play an important, but often overlooked, role in the spread of hostile rumors. We argue that many individuals who feel socially and politically marginalized are motivated to circulate hostile rumors because they wish to unleash chaos to “burn down” the entire established political order in the hope they can gain status in the process.”

When I heard about this study, I was intrigued, because I thought it helped explain a lot of behavior I see these days, from people across the political spectrum. A lot of the mainstream focus this study has received has been about how it helps explain Trump supporters. A New York Times op ed about it had the headline The Trump Voters Whose ‘Need for Chaos‘ Obliterates Everything Else. Farther down in that piece, it only briefly mentioned how the “need for chaos” was also significant for Bernie Sanders supporters.  

But I’ve seen a good amount of this kind of mindset on the left, including from some people I know. And I think as we grow increasingly polarized, that contributes to this, too, and makes such stances more likely. If you’re a liberal listening to this, hopefully as you’re listening to the upcoming interview, you’re not just going “yeah those crazy Trump supporters”; hopefully you spend some time considering about how these chaotic worldviews may be present on the liberal side, how there’s been a pretty evident and substantial “burn it all down” mentality amongst many on the liberal side. And similarly, if you’re a Trump supporter listening to this interview, hopefully you’re willing to challenge yourself and examine how Trump himself can be perceived by many as emblematic of chaotic and anti social tendencies in how abusively and recklessly he behaves, in how he has constantly tried to divide everyone into “us” and “them” since before even taking office.

One of the key aspects of how polarization dynamics play out is that we tend to not question our own side and give them a pass on things; in psychology, this is called in-group favoritism, the in-group being our own group, our tribe; And at the same time, we also filter everything about the other side through the least generous, most pessimistic lens; this is called out-group bias. If you’d like to learn more about these dynamics, I recommend listening to an interview I did of Jennifer McCoy about polarization dynamics and how they get worse. 

If your goal is to try to understand how these polarizing us vs them dynamics play out, how they ramp up, it’s important to try to see things from a more removed and objective vantage point, to try to eliminate your in-group favoritism and out-group bias. And one step in doing that is to attempt to see your own side as your political opponents view it. 

To take a specific example here: if you’re a liberal and you can see the perspective that a good number of people on the left do have some pretty antisocial and destructive views, if you can admit that there are some very bad takes that conservatives are seeing, you can better see how the perception of such things is what drives the anger and animosity of those on the right. In the same way, a liberal person’s perceptions of the worst aspects of conservative people is what drives anger and animosity on the liberal side. Attempting to see these alternative points of view helps us better see how there can be people on both sides who use these us vs them, good vs evil framings and helps us better understand how those behaviors ramp up tensions. Trying to get that vantage point also makes you more capable of making points in a way that speaks to the other side. 

It should go without saying, but each political group contains a wide variety of people, with a wide variety of beliefs, and not everyone is as bad as the worst person in that group. Some liberal people listening to this may be thinking: no, Trump supporters are horrible, they’re racist, they can’t be reasoned with;       if you’re thinking that, I’d like you to remember that about 10% of black voters voted for Trump in 2020, and about a third of Muslim voters voted for him, and that these percentages increased significantly from 2016, and that many analysts think the anti-police and anti-prison type slogans, and the militant protests and riots, and people on liberal side acting as if those things weren’t a big deal, played a role in that minority support growing for Trump. And if you can understand how there can be black and other minority Trump supporters, then you can also understand how it’s possible to be a white Trump supporter and not be motivated by racism or xenophobia; I personally know some white Trump supporters who don’t understand these framings, and while I disagree with them in their support for Trump, I do see their point of view in that regard and see how being unfairly maligned drives the us vs them polarization dynamics for them.  

Put another way: it’s important to separate your perceptions about who you see as the worst and most malicious leaders from your perceptions about your fellow citizens. While I dislike Trump as much as anyone, and believe that he might be the cause in the near future of the United States becoming a failed democracy, I also draw a big line between my beliefs about Trump and my beliefs about a randomly chosen Trump supporter. I know a lot about Trump; I don’t know a lot about that randomly chosen Trump supporter; in fact, I believe many Trump supporters are fine people. And even if you think that the other side is very wrong, we should be able to recognize that humans can be fooled and misled in various ways, and that that doesn’t make those people horrible or crazy people. For example, believing that the 2020 election was stolen doesn’t make you a white supremacist or an evil person, which are both framings i regularly see from liberals; to me, belief that the election was rigged only indicates to me that you were successfully misled by some pretty powerful people and media sources. But even this rather basic level of generosity and empathy, acknowledging that our fellow citizens are fallible, seems missing for so many people these days. 

On both the left and the right, there seems to be a percentage of people who are very unreasonable and antisocial, who have this so-called need for chaos, or something close to it. And maybe it’s possible we’re letting the most unreasonable people on both sides have undue influence on our public discussions and online discussions. In my talk with Kevin coming up, we talk about how the internet gives a lot of power to the most destructive voices.

Some people listening to what I’ve been talking about so far are thinking: ‘these are false equivalences, obviously one side is way worse.’ But I’m not debating that; obviously we all have our thoughts about which side is worse. But we’re talking about individuals here; we’re talking about psychology at an individual level. The matter of ‘who started it’ or ‘which side is worse’ isn’t relevant if our goal is understanding why individual people behave the way they do, or what we might do to help or hinder things.

And I think one big factor here: as polarization grows and we perceive more and more people around us to be unreasonable and horrible, the more our anti-social tendencies grow. When we perceive a large swatch of our fellow citizens to be horrible people, beyond redemption, the more we can understandably have an urge to “burn it all down”. Because when you perceive the world that way, your love for humanity withers; you see less and less worth saving. And I’d argue your love for your self and your own life also withers, because we are humanity and humanity is us. And I think these effects are also being amplified by the fact that modern society seems to increasingly be isolating us and making us more lonely. If these ideas are correct, then the “need for chaos” is likely growing as our polarization grows. And maybe that means in order to avoid worst case outcomes, we need more people willing to work on things that take some effort and some courage: hating the other side is easy, it’s the path of least resistance; what’s much harder is attempting to understand others’ points of view, attempting to see things from their point of view, and being willing to have conversations and listen and not presume the worst about your fellow citizens. 

I’m sorry about this very long introduction; I think these things are very important and I think they’re connected to my and Kevin’s ‘need for chaos’ conversation. 

Here’s a little bit more about Kevin Arceneaux: he’s currently a professor of Political Science at Sciences Po Paris, Center for Political Research. He’s been a Professor of Political Science with the Institute for Public Affairs, and Director of the Behavioral Foundations Lab at Temple University. He studies how people make political decisions, paying particular attention to the effects of psychological biases. A book that he co-authored was called: “Taming Intuition: How Reflection Minimizes Partisan Reasoning and Promotes Democratic Accountability”, and that took a look at why people vary in their ability to get beyond their biases. It won the 2018 Robert E. Lane Best Book Award from the APSA Political Psychology section and was co-winner of the 2018 APSA Experimental Research section’s book award. Another book he was co-author of was: “Changing Minds or Changing Channels: Partisan News in an Age of Choice”, and that studied how people’s partisan biases shape the influence of political media. It was co-winner of the 2014 Goldsmith Book Prize awarded by the Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy.

And of course he was a researcher on the ‘need for chaos’ research project.

Zachary Elwood: Okay, here’s the interview with Kevin Arceneaux, recorded July 22nd, 2021. Hi, Kevin. Thanks for coming on.

Kevin Arceneaux: Thanks for having me, Zach.

Zach: Yes, maybe we can start with… Can you talk a little bit about what the interest was, what the motivations were for you and the other researchers when you were thinking about researching these hostile political rumors.

Kevin: It started all right after the 2016 election. Michael and Mathias and I were sitting around, I remember I actually traveled to Denmark for a collaboration meeting where we were trying to figure out how to get our heads around what had just happened in social media, and how a lot of rumors and fake news spread during the 2016 election. And we didn’t think that the whole story was that this was just another outgrowth of partisan polarisation and partisan cheerleading, we thought that there was something a bit deeper going on. And really, this whole project has its roots in trying to understand a reaction to the events of the 2016 election.

Zach: And other objective indicators that show those kinds of things increasing, I know we all have our sense that those things are increasing, but are there objective indicators?

Kevin: That’s really hard to answer. I guess the easy answer is not any, in my mind, credible or reliable ones. Because it’s a difficult thing to chart over time. So if you think about even looking at, say, there’s work for instance on the spread of false and true stories and news on social media, especially Twitter. [unintelligible 00:12:18] are probably the most famous folks to have looked at this question. And so they look at, say, Twitter from 2006 to 2017, I believe. But even that, they don’t make claims about whether it’s rising or not, because how many people on these social networks has also grown over this time? So it’s hard to know, even if you did see an increase, it’s hard to know is it just because there’s more people there or the composition of the folks that are there has changed in some way. I think the only thing that we can say is that whether or not it’s grown or not, the ability for rumors and fake news to travel quickly across networks, that power has increased with social media. And as social media becomes broader and more embedded in our lives, that ability has also increased.

Zach: Is it accurate to say that our study of the internet and social media, how we communicate on there is still in its infancy just because it’s so hard to get a handle on these things and they change so quickly?

Kevin: Absolutely. And it’s funny to say that because we’ve been studying the internet. The internet’s not new, in a sense. We’ve been studying it for 20 years. But social media is relatively new and I think that the work on it is much better than it was 10 years ago. But we are still getting our heads around it because the platforms themselves and the technology and how we engage with it are continuing to unfold and change before our eyes.

Zach: Yeah, it just seems there’s so much disparity and thought about this. I interviewed Jamie Settle who researched and wrote a book about how Facebook seems to amplify polarisation, then you have Levi Boxell who I also interviewed saying it doesn’t seem that big a factor. And I think at the end of the day, these things are still very much in the beginning stages of being understood. And the wild thing is just how big an impact they seem to have and how little we understand the impact.

Kevin: That’s absolutely right. And you mentioned Jamie Settle’s book. Right now at this point I think it sort of stands as the strongest and deepest reflection on this by providing a theoretical framework in which you understand how people engage with social media. But even with that, we still are funny enough in a position where we’re inundated with data. I mean, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, there’s so much data we don’t even know what to do with it. And at the same time, we’re still grappling with how to understand the basic questions like the one that you posed, you know?

Zach: It’s almost like if the situation would stay static for a while, then you could get a handle of it. But it all changes so rapidly.

Kevin: That is the problem with studying technology. The nature of the beast is that it’s a moving target.

Zach: Yeah, I thought Settle’s book was so great and I think the interesting thing there is how little that work is known. I think it’s largely confined to academic areas. People will run with Levi Boxell’s work and other work critical of social media impacts, but it’s like there’s other academic work out there about the effects of social media. But it seems largely in the academic world.

Kevin: Well, thanks to folks like you, you know, more people can learn about it. The problem with the academic world, if I can criticize us for a bit, is that Jamie’s book is written beautifully. But it is still written for an academic audience and so I think a lot of people if you’re choosing a book to read on an aeroplane, it’s probably not going to be an academic one.

Zach: It’s expensive. It’s big.

Kevin: Yeah, exactly.

Zach: Yeah, let’s get to your work now. Let’s talk about your study. Maybe you can talk about the jist, if you could sum up in a few sentences what your study involved?

Kevin: Well, we were interested in understanding the psychological motivations for why people share what we call hostile political rumors. These are things that are negative and they’re meant to be negatively directed at political opponents. We were interested in what motivates people to share– not necessarily believe, but to share those items. Our work basically attempts to uncover some of the psychological mechanisms that lead people to do that. And the broad takeaway is that for many people, or I should probably say for some people, sharing things like fake news and hostile political rumors is driven by their desire for social status. And one way in which they go about trying to gain that social status is by creating chaos. And certainly sharing fake news and rumors and things like that are in a sense, a means to an end.

Zach: Your study involved asking– basically polling many people and to give people a sense of the kinds of questions you ask people. I’ll just read a few. “I get a kick when natural disasters strike in foreign countries. Our social institutions are rotten to the core. I fantasize about a natural disaster wiping out most of humanity such that a small group of people can start all over. I think society should be burned to the ground. When I think about our political and social institutions, I cannot help thinking just let them all burn.” You ask questions like this and you rated people’s agreement or disagreement with them. And I think you also in the US, at least, you also collected information about the political side that they were more aligned with. Does that all sound accurate?

Kevin: That’s exactly right.

Zach: Can you talk a little bit about the number of people that agreed with such statements?

Kevin: Thankfully, the number of people that agreed… I think we end up having 11 total statements with this scale. And most of the analyses that we run, just look at a summary of eight of the questions on the scale. If you asked, “How many people strongly agreed with all eight of these?” It would be a very small number, less than 5%. And that’s, in some sense, the good news. But if you look at the individual items here, we do find that there are a good slice of the sample– say somewhere between 10% and 15%– who do agree with questions like, “When I think about our political and social institutions, I can’t help thinking just let them burn.” As well as the statements about starting over again. So when we look at these questions and we do an analysis that actually tries to put people into categories, what we find is that there is a group of people who are sort of high in what we call need for chaos. And these are folks that tend to strongly agree with all these statements. And that’s about, like I said, about 5%. But you have another group of people; they don’t agree with all of the statements that we have, for instance they don’t get a kick out of natural disasters, but they do tend to agree with the ones about restarting society over again. And if you look at that slice of folks, it’s closer to about 15% of our sample that agree with those types of questions. So the way I would think about it or the way I think about it in my own mind is that this is a minority of folks who have these sentiments. They probably have them for different reasons. The folks that have them for the most darker elements of this– so people who enjoy natural disasters, for instance– that’s a small portion, thankfully, of the United States. But once you consider the maybe less dark motivations for wanting chaos, we do see a substantial or considerable minority of folks who might have these inclinations.

Zach: Somebody described the results as staggering, for example the fact that 24% agreed that society should be burned to the ground. Were you surprised by how high these numbers were?

Kevin: Definitely. And I think if you look at question by question, there could be some reason that a lot of people liked a particular question. But you should know that we, in a sense, did something that can be a bit risky and scary for academics. We created the scale ourselves. It’s usually the standard approach that you kind of stand on the shoulders of giants that have done things before you, which also gives you a little bit of cover to say, “Well, other people have bedded the scale.” So a lot of the preliminary work that you don’t even see in these papers was us just developing a scale that got us this characteristic that we call Need for Chaos. So  I think that in the beginning of developing the scale, I can remember Michael in TSI being like, “You know, how many people are really going to agree with these sorts of things? They’re gonna be just trolling us” And unfortunately, after working on this for a couple of years, it’s sad to say I am a bit surprised by how many people are out there that feel this way and aren’t just trolling us. I should note that all of this work happened before the pandemic, too. So, you know?

Zach: Mhm, which seemed to amplify some of those feelings on both sides. [chuckles] Yeah. There’s trolling and then I think there’s also the caveat of, you know, for a lot of people it can just be kind of cool or approved to say some of these things without really thinking about their meaning. For example, we cannot fix problems in our social institutions, we need to tear them down and start over. I know some liberal people who basically will say things like, “Burn it down.” And I know that they don’t actually believe that, it’s almost like some of the meaning of that has been subtracted because the things have become so easy and common to say. I think there’s a little bit of that, too.

Kevin: Absolutely. One of the things that we tried to do in all of these studies is try to make sure that we weren’t just picking up people who were just playing around or not being fully serious. In doing so, that means that we do end up trying to control for or remove those types of responses from our analysis. What you do find is that there still remains some group of people who seem deadly serious about this, they really do. I’ve been asked before in the past, “Is this an ideology?” I don’t think it is an ideology, but I do think it is a form of nihilism that some people just seem to gravitate towards.

Zach: I will say personally I see that around me, whether from conservatives or liberals. I have a sense of that growing from interacting with people I know and things I see in the world. That’s why your paper spoke so much to me. And I feel like a lot of people talk about the, you know, they’ll talk about the misinformation or the media and things like this. But I think it’s missing the key point which I think your study gets to, which is that there is this growing nihilism across the board for a lot of people. I think that your study captured that. The other thing you talked about, another limitation of the study is that obviously the people that believe these things aren’t necessarily going to go out and actively try to destroy society, but it gives insight into how many of these people may be acting when they’re alone in front of their computer. And those actions, the actions on the internet and on social media now have very real effects. Does that sum up your thinking in that area?

Kevin: That does. And I’m glad you brought that up because one of the things that we try to keep right in our minds and when we communicate this to other people we try to communicate, is that we developed a framework for trying to understand how people behave in an online world. And so these sorts of feelings or attitudes towards society and nihilism can be a thing that kind of lives in an online or virtual environment. We certainly don’t have any evidence on, and therefore I wouldn’t make any claims about whether or not this helps us understand whether or not folks are going to actually do something violent or join a violent movement or something like that. There are people who do study those things. And I do see some parallels with that work, but for the most part I think we’re really getting at the kind of behavior that is more or less contained in clicking and sending and basically engaging with people in a virtual environment.

Zach: Yeah, one thing that comes to mind in that area is I’d done a good amount of research into one of the most prolific fake news creators (domestic fake news creators in the US) and he went by the name of True Pundit. He was an anonymous fake news creator and he was pretty influential. He got shared… He had a lot of fake news about Hillary Clinton that was shared leading up to the 2016 election. I was this close to outing who he was and BuzzFeed beat me to him. I was actually talking to the BuzzFeed journalist and it turned out it was this guy named Michael Moore behind it. Not the Michael Moore [crosstalk 00:26:24]. Yeah, not him. It was a former journalist in Pennsylvania who kind of went off the deep end who’d been arrested by the FBI for selling bootleg hockey DVDs and had a grudge against the system. His fake news creation was very influential. In my opinion, it was a key factor in Trump winning in 2016 because his fake news got shared by Donald Trump Jr, General Flynn, and a lot of people in the right-wing conservative world. I thought it was a good example of how the behaviors of these disgruntled and angry people can have very real-world effects.

Kevin: [laughs] They really can.

Zach: In the US study that you did, you saw a need for chaos both high amongst Trump supporters less so, but also amongst Bernie Sanders supporters. Was that right?

Kevin: That’s correct. We’ve actually sort of dug in a bit more in subsequent studies. And what you find is that there really does appear to be this measure need for chaos. It doesn’t appear to neatly map onto the left-right political divide, as we sort of think about it. There do seem to be people that are a bit more on the right that are high on this need for chaos indicator but not exclusively so, and there are plenty of people who are actually on the left. But there are also, I should say, plenty of people that don’t really fit neatly into any of these political labels. And at best, we basically did a follow-up study where we tried to understand the motivations of these folks who are high in need for chaos. What we found is that they seem to be motivated not by a political ideology, it’s usually something that’s about a system for a better society. Folks on the left and folks on the right, they disagree about what that is. But they believe that if government and society were to be organized in a way that’s consistent with their belief system, it would be better for everybody. Folks that are high in need for chaos really don’t care about that. Instead, they’re much more interested in systems being designed to benefit them and people like them. So their motivation is much more self-involved, it’s much more selfish. I think that also fits with the nihilistic view of the world as well, which is the only thing that matters is me. Everything else is meaningless.

Zach: Yeah, this might be getting into too broad philosophical area, but one thing I often think of is that there can be some aspects inherent in modern society that can induce some of these feelings. For example, modern society being pretty isolating, there’s a high loneliness quotient, we have less communal activities, modern societies are a bit sensory depriving and boring, which maybe makes people longing for something more real; some purpose, some conflict. And that’s not even taking into account actual inequality of how people can look around– even if they’re doing quite well– can look around and more easily see how people better than them are doing– the people that are doing better than financially. And I’m wondering if, you know… Obviously, we’re in the very much opinion area here but I’m wondering if some of those aspects of modern society, in your mind, caused some of these things.

Kevin: We actually have some evidence that sort of… You’re right though, the broader question about society we can’t really manipulate society. But what we do find is that when we try to understand the antecedents or the substrates that lead people to develop higher levels of need for chaos. And one of the things that we see that go along with that as you were mentioning is loneliness, as well as a set of dark personality traits. So it’s not just loneliness by itself, but it’s loneliness combined with the type of people who might be higher in what psychologists call dark psychological traits. This would be psychopathy, Machiavellianism ( the desire to manipulate other people to your end), as well as narcissism. These are folks that aren’t… They’re not people you necessarily want to have as your friends, and maybe for that reason, they don’t have a whole lot of friends so they feel pretty lonely and they feel pretty isolated. What’s also interesting about that, too, and I think it touches on this question about the role that society plays in here is that folks that are high in need for chaos, they tend to be lonely, they tend to be high in dark psychological traits, but they do not tend to be poor or deprived in a material sense. If anything, folks that are high in need for chaos tend to be a bit more on the wealthier side– not rich, but not poor. And I think that one of the things… Now, this is where I’m gonna get into opinion and speculation. One of the things that I think that could be going on here is that you have folks who are not destitute, right? They feel like they have the material trappings of the type of people that should be well-off and respected in society. But for a set of reasons, real or imagined, they feel marginalized and slighted and not respected to the level that they feel like they should be in society. This is what motivates them to sow chaos. They’re angry about it, but they also don’t have much of a moral compass that reigns in how they deal with those feelings of marginalization. And as a result, they act in ways that are disruptive.

Zach: Also if we’re talking about social media effects, social media how I see it is the way it factors into a lot of these things is it allows us to be the worst versions of ourselves so easily. Whether it’s online gambling or spreading hostile political rumors, it just basically gives us an easy path to doing these things that are either bad for us or bad for society.

To clarify here on a little note, I meant being addicted to online gambling in a self-destructive way and not just engaging in online gambling. I could also have mentioned becoming addicted to online porn, becoming addicted to shopping, or any number of things that the Internet gives us an amazing power to indulge in.

Kevin: And you layer on top of that that you get to create an avatar of who you want to be on on social media. These are the same folks that if they actually were in the room talking to you, they might behave in a very different way. But online, they can hide behind pseudonyms. They can basically construct a world in which they feel powerful and dominant. And I think you’re absolutely right, social media provides folks in this position a way to kind of live a double life in a way that they didn’t have before. 

Zach: Yeah. And I’d say even for people that are not anonymous, the Internet can be a pretty deranging and distorting place. That was one reason I researched and wrote my piece on- the inherent ways in which social media may be amplifying our divides. Because I think in a few years, we’ll probably have a better sense of how deranging our interactions on social media can be, because I see a lot of people they’ll get anger from people and that seems to cause them to behave in ways that are just completely unreasonable. Because being hated online, having angry interactions online can be very destabilizing. It makes us short-circuit our reason and that can have cascading effects on how people behave.

Kevin: I completely agreed with your article on that, actually. I think you also layer on top of that, Chris Bail’s work on this topic of polarization and social media. You also layer on top of that, that most of us live in distorted… Social media, I should say, provides a distorted view of what people are saying and thinking and worried about. Not just because of the algorithms that select and sort what we see, but also because what we decide and what people decide to post on social media might be wildly different from what they would do or what they would say if they were at a dinner party or talking with a friend. So, of course what happens is we get ourselves in this sort of vicious cycle where it’s negative and provocative content that gets attention. People who want attention and likes and clicks and retweets then respond to that incentive, so then when we go on social media we think everybody is unhinged. [laughs] And then I think you’re absolutely right, then we’re in this context where people are yelling at us and we yell back at them. Then, of course, the etiquette that then governs polite interactions in the face-to-face world fall apart when you’re online, right? I mean, I don’t have to watch the person in front of me cry because I tell them I hope they get run over by a bus. Right? So I say it.

Zach: Yeah, and I think while we’re on the subject, I might as well throw in a lot of people point to Levi Boxell’s study showing that older Americans are more polarised. And people will use that to say, “Well, obviously social media can’t be a big influence.” But having talked to Levi Boxell and just did some research on it and looked at other studies, I think it’s still entirely possible that… I mean, I don’t think anybody would say it’s the main driver or what the argument is that it’s an amplifier. And I think even with the older people being more polarised, there are other routes to that that could be theoretically due to social media. Like the fact that, for example, Fox News shares the worst and most unreasonable takes from the left and uses that to rile up their audience. Things like that. There’s still mechanisms by which older people might be more disturbed by that kind of thing than younger people are.

Kevin: I think that’s absolutely right. I think it’s amplifier. I think also there’s just a different understanding about how you should engage with social media, and I think that older folks might tend to engage with social media posts. I know for a fact that there’s evidence of this in a more literal way. Whereas younger folks might see things in a more ironic or funny kind of thing, and so they might see hyperbolic posts and laugh at it. And so these things, these dynamics really do kind of complicate. It’s hard to answer the question, “What is the effect of social media?” Because it has different effects on different people for different reasons.

Zach: Totally. You can see that every day in Facebook seeing older people overreact to something that’s obviously a joke or just said to rile people up and younger people are just like, “Aah, whatever.” Yeah. I feel like there’s a tendency on the part of many on the liberal side to look at a study like yours and make simplistic deductions about this. For example, they’ll say, “Oh, well, that explains support for Trump.” But I think they’re missing the fact that while there may be more of that on the Trump supporters’ side, A, many Trump supporters don’t have these qualities. And B, many people on the liberal side do have these qualities.

Kevin: I would say that in some respect, people that want to use or do use chaos as a way to try to obtain their own reputational ends, you know, that they want to burnish their reputation or feel better about themselves, essentially. And they do this by trolling and spreading lies and rumors as well as trying to provoke others. That’s always been with us. Social media gives those folks a platform that allows them to do this on a grander scale than before. Trump, especially in 2016, Donald Trump was a perfect, if you will, weather vane. And this is it allowed them they could basically harness his candidacy to play with and troll and have a lot of fun in a sense. I mean, folks are high in need for chaos. They tell us that the two reasons that they like to spread hostile political rumors isn’t because they believe them per se, but because they think it’ll help them obtain their ends. And also because it’s funny. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton I think we’re a perfect storm in terms of if you wanted to really rile people up. It was the perfect two. Because you have Donald Trump who is essentially a chaos candidate. He’s doing things that folks hat are high in need for chaos love and find funny. And Hillary Clinton is a perfect foil. [laughs] She’s in a lot of ways maybe could be considered overly serious and all this sort of stuff. I think we should also mention… But we should also mention that her gender, I think, also attracted. If you think about Gamergate and these other instances where we see people high in need for chaos behaving in horrible ways, turning that iron and that fire on women I think is something that for folks that are high on these kinds of dark traits, it’s even more fun for them to do. So the 2016 election, I don’t think was about the moment that folks high in need for chaos were getting their political ideology net by Donald Trump. I think if Donald Trump were a Democrat, they would have done the same thing.

Zach: Also, the Clinton family itself they’re a good example of how these things have been going on for a long time because people have been spreading hostile political rumors about them for their family for 20 or 30 years or whatever.

Kevin: How many people have they killed? [laughs]

Zach: Yeah, exactly. So many stories there. And I was gonna say, too, the focus on whose side is worse while obviously we all have our beliefs about that. I think what I see happening here is a ramping up of the fact that the most angry and unreasonable people on both sides, no matter who we believe started it, they’re both driving both things to ramp things up. And it really feels like it is the way that the most nihilistic and tear-it-all-down members of both sides seem to be having an unusual amount of influence on ramping up the divisions. At least that’s how things seem to me these days.

Kevin: I think you’re absolutely right. They do it for different reasons but it has the same outcome.

Zach: And I can’t remember his name, but some of what you’re saying has reminded me of this guy, this social theorist who studied Beatles and then got into talking about how there will be an impending destruction of society because modern society has created too many people who want to seek being elites but they can’t actually become elites because there’s not enough space for them. Do you know who I’m talking about? I can’t read his name off head.

Kevin: I’m in the same boat as you are. I’m familiar with that argument but I can’t tell you who said that.

Zach: A little note here. The person whose name I couldn’t remember was Peter Turchin. T U R C H I N. If you’re interested to learn more about his ideas, you can find an interesting piece about him in The Atlantic.

 Zach: He was kind of scoffed at but I thought he made some good points in seeing how there can be this drive for recognition, you know? That we see other people getting recognition around us but yet society doesn’t offer enough spots for that recognition, so so many people end up feeling slighted and feeling like, “Well, I just want to tear things down then.”

Kevin: I mean, that’s part of it. I would maybe also reframe that as part of what’s going on. Especially right now one of the dynamics in the western world is by trying to make hierarchies flatter, and therefore allow more diversity and more people to be who once before were considered lower on the social hierarchy. Once you sort of say, “No, we’re going to challenge sexism, we’re going to challenge racist ideologies. We’re not going to accept these anymore,” there’s always going to be a group of people that say– folks in this case, white men, are going to say “Well, that’s where I get my status. It’s from just being unquestionably in this higher part of the hierarchy. Once you say it’s open to more folks, then these people will feel slighted and marginalized even if they’re not necessarily really are. But just because now it’s not unquestionably the case that because you’re a man or because you’re white or because you’re filling in the blank, you get X privileges. I think that’s actually motivating a lot of this. Not 100%, but from the data that we’re looking at, you know? To the extent that folks that are high in need for chaos tend to be on the right, they’re the type of person who says, “I basically want the world to be like it was before we talked about all this equality stuff.”

Zach: From the conservative side, one of the more interesting arguments I’ve heard on that side was a talk between Ezra Klein and conservative David French. He espoused the conservative view that while the liberal side may be giving service to those ideas from many conservatives point of view, that’s just being used to foster similar power dynamics and attempts to gain power. That was a  really interesting talk if anybody wants to hear that. It was one of the more interesting political discussions I’d heard, just from getting a sense of what it is that some of the more reasonable conservatives think on topics like that.

Kevin: I think part of what’s going on there too is it really is a different mentality. And sometimes these drive ideological differences. So if you have a worldview that things are zero-sum, equality isn’t really a thing. Right? You have a hierarchy and then you’re just going to decide who’s on the top and who’s not on the top. And I think a lot of folks on the left, they tend to have a nonzero-sum view of the world. Which could be equally as sort of Pollyanna or overly idealistic. Because, of course, you can’t have a fully flat organization either. Things have to get done and you have to have…

Zach: And people do have a desire for getting above others, which always messes the equality thing up. Yeah.

Kevin: It always does. Yeah, absolutely.

Zach: So your study sheds a pretty dark and disturbing light on human nature and the current political environment. And one thing I sometimes wonder if there’s something inherent in humans that is very hard for us to achieve a stable large group, and that it always seems to end up in some sort of bad outcome and us-versus-them conflict. Do you think there’s something to that that modern society may in some way contain the seeds of this demise and in allowing us to reach a point where we’re not thinking as much about survival. That we’re able to look around us and say, “Hey, this system is very unfair,” no matter who’s saying that. Because you can always find elements of the system that are unfair in some way and lead to bad outcomes, or look around you and say, “These leaders are very fallible making lots of mistakes.” I’m curious if you see… Am I being too negative, too pessimistic in seeing some of these dynamics?

Kevin: I don’t think you are. It’s easy to be a pessimist especially in these times. And I think that for me, I prefer to think about this as challenges or limitations created by human psychology, rather than a deterministic thing where it says, “Well, because humans have a particular bias, we can’t get up and get over it.” But I will say one of the challenges that large-scale diverse societies have always confronted is the fact that humans have a tendency to identify with groups, and a desire to belong to groups that are distinctive in some way. The social psychologist Marilynn Brewer who’s done some of the most important and the most interesting work on social identities notes this sort of, in some sense, opposing drives that are intention. The desire to belong to a group that has status and is powerful in some sense or well respected, but at the same time one that is distinctive. What that means is that there’s some optimal size for how large our ingroup can be. And it’s difficult, therefore, for humans to say, “Well, I’m just a human being. That’s the group I belong to.” Or,”I’m just a creature, all creatures are in my group.” Even folks on the left, we will see the world through the prisms of groups and will– I see this on social media all the time– will do the things that humans do when they’re in competition with another group. And that is to denigrate the opposing group, to treat them with a double standard, and to behave in ways that I think is destructive when you’re trying to live together. It’s destructive even if you’re trying to live side to side, right? Those are the things that lead to wars and other horrible stuff. But that’s it. The reason why that’s a challenge for modern society, diverse modern societies, is that the hope of a democratic political system is that we can resolve our differences peacefully through elections, through reasoned debate, and these sorts of things. That’s all completely short-circuited when we divide ourselves in a sectarian way where we say, “My group is the best thing, it’s always right, and is existentially threatened by some other group.” When societies find themselves in that place, what we see is that it’s almost impossible to resolve that democratically. Sure, you can have an election. But if you lose the election, it’s because the other side did something horrible and terrible and they cheated and we need to go kill them. That’s the thing that I worry about when I’m being pessimistic, is social media I don’t necessarily think it’s a cause of this, but it does allow us to fall into a sectarian pattern where we don’t just disagree or see ourselves different from another group of society, but we see them as the enemy and as evil incarnate. And therefore, we can do anything necessary to protect ourselves from them. That dynamic which we see increasingly in the West, certainly in the United States, I think that’s the biggest threat as having a stable society that’s diverse.

Zach: I’ve had conservatives ask me what the worst thing about Donald Trump is in a genuine way, because they just don’t see it sometimes. And the number one thing I point to is just the division, you know? The creation of this… And he’s a good example of all of these things. He’s a very representative of these us-versus-them dynamics and he’s fostered that so much in his speeches and emails and painting liberals as not real Americans and all these kinds of things. Yeah, just a very good example. There’s a lot of other things we could talk about but I think I’ve probably taken enough of your time. You’ve done some very interesting work, you’ve written books about the effects of cable TV, news, and you found that it wasn’t as big as an effect as most people think. In fact, you thought that people were largely polarised before watching cable news. So that looked very interesting. I don’t know if you want to talk a second about that book and how you see that.

Kevin: I see this fitting into social media. One of the things that I think that that book points to and that I found over and over again in my research is that we make a mistake when we’re thinking about the effects of media when we treat people as if they’re just passive receptacles of information, so if they see a media post on Twitter, they’re just going to believe it. That’s usually not the case, people are not that stupid. Instead, largely what we see is that when it comes to politics, first of all not that many people are interested in politics or motivated to discuss it or to engage with it. That’s number one. It’s a small slice of society or the polity that engages in this. Those folks already have opinions, often very strong ones. And so largely, cable TV 15 years ago was sort of the Twitter of today, right? When people engage or receive information, partisan information, they tend to put it through a filter which is “Does this agree either with my worldview, if they’re being sophisticated about it? Or is this consistent with what my political group thinks? Is this is what other Democrats or Republicans think or other liberals or conservatives think?” And so those things, I think are the bigger problem. It’s not necessarily partisan cable news or even rumors and misinformation today that we’re talking about on social media, it’s about people’s often inability to stop and be a bit reflective and second guess their own intuitions and biases. Those are actually a bigger deal in creating this dynamic that we have-

Zach: And you’ve written a book about that, too, the ability to take a step back and think about-

Kevin: That’s the more optimistic work I’ve done. Although you could say the pessimistic aspect is that it’s also not that many people [laughs] that habitually, I should say, tend to be reflective. But the silver lining there is that humans do have this capacity. It is one of the things that I think allowed human beings to become the apex animal, if you will, in the ecosystem. It’s the ability to think and reason. I think that this might be getting a little too broad and philosophical, but think about the idea for democracy. And the idea of not just democracy, but democracy in a broad diverse society. It’s something with its roots in the Enlightenment era. And so a lot of the philosophical under support for democracy starts with the notion that people can reason, and are enlightened enough to reason and come to decisions in a peaceful way even when they disagree. I think that’s true, but in some sense the Enlightenment led us to maybe think that… I think it led many people to think that it’s just something that is inevitable. That we’re constantly moving forward, we’re getting more educated, we’re getting more tolerant, et cetera, et cetera. I think there is something to that. But that doesn’t mean that we’ve left behind us the Dark Ages. That’s always going to be with us. Those mentalities are always going to be with us. The drive to want the world to be a simple place where you’re always right and your group is always right, that’s just always going to be with us. And so I think the challenge for modern society and for democracies is how can we get more people to stop and push against their own comfort zones? I think right now we’re in a dark place because as you say, when you put people in a context where they’re just yelling at each other, even the most thoughtful person is gonna get angry and fire off some ill-thought things.

Zach: And it could be that there’s some structure, some societal government structure that prevents these things better from happening. Like, people talking about the rank voting things. It’s entirely possible that we’re just– in the US anyway– that many people are in structures that foster these worst outcomes, and then there’s some structures that would do a better job at preventing those outcomes, whatever those structures may be.

Kevin: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think that is a problem in the United States. It’s having the two-party system. Once you get into this sort of like… Lilly Mason has done work on this. Once people completely stack their social identity so that they completely align with one political side or the other, you get into the sectarian mindset where it’s us versus them. In a multi-party system, you’re less likely to have that kind of dynamic. Nonetheless, I’m living here in France right now and it’s a multi party system, but you see some of the similar dynamics. Largely though, because again, you can always try to boil things down to us versus them. You know, it’s French people who are French versus new arrivals who are not playing by the rules. So you can always create a world in which there’s just two groups that hate on each other. But I do agree with you that the political system in the United States just allows that to be amplified and harnessed in a sense for political gain. And that’s the most difficult thing to address. Once you have a political party that can reliably attract votes by stoking those divides, then those divides are going to get stoked.

Zach: All right, this has been a great talk. Thanks, Kevin.

Kevin: Thank you. This has been a lot of fun.

Zach: That was Kevin Arceneaux. You can find his research and books by searching for his name online, and you can find his website that way too.

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Understanding and coping with anxiety, with editor of The Atlantic Scott Stossel

In this episode of the People Who Read People podcast, I interview Scott Stossel (@sstossel on Twitter), who is the national editor of the magazine The Atlantic, and the author of the book My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind. That book is a history of humanity’s understanding and treatment of anxiety, and also a personal history in which Scott recounts honestly and openly his own struggles with extreme, debilitating anxiety and phobias from a young age. I talk to Scott about what he’s learned in his research and in his personal life about the factors behind anxiety and how we might, as much as we are able to, overcome it. Along the way, I also talk a bit about my own struggles with anxiety.

Podcast links:

Other topics discussed include:

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How does not believing in free will affect one’s life?, with physicist Daniel Whiteson

A talk with Daniel Whiteson, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California, Irvine. He’s the co-author of “We Have No Idea,” about the unknown mysteries remaining in physics, and a co-host of the podcast Daniel and Jorge Explain The Universe.

I talk to Whiteson about free will. We talk a little bit about why we both think free will is unlikely to exist, but our main focus is on more psychological and emotional aspects: What are the results in our own lives of not believing in free will? What potential effects does lack of belief in free will have for people in general? Because the idea that free will doesn’t exist can make people anxious or sad, the idea that we are basically just automatons, the idea that our conscious experience of the world is like watching a movie we have no real control over.

A transcript is below.

Episode links:

There are many resources on free will out there, but here are a few that were either discussed in this episode or that I’ve found interesting:

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Analyzing written and verbal statements, with Mark McClish

My second “People Who Read People” podcast features Mark McClish, a former US Marshal, and a longtime trainer of law enforcement personnel in interrogation/interview techniques. He has written two books on his Statement Analysis® techniques: I Know You Are Lying, and Don’t Be Deceived. These are great books; the first book was one of the inspirations for me writing my book Verbal Poker Tells.

This podcast is meant to serve as an introduction to some statement analysis concepts. We talk briefly about quite a few cases, new and old, including OJ Simpson, Timothy McVeigh, Chris Watts, Making A Murderer, the KROQ radio DJ hoax, the McStay family murder, and the Van Dam child murder.

Here are links to this episode:

If you’d like to read some in-depth analysis of the Chris Watts statements, check out this blog post.