There are many cues to deception, a lot of which are discussed here on this blog. They run the gamut from eye movement, facial expressions, word choice, paralanguage and so on. In this entry, however, I am going to discuss an indicator that is a bit broader. Overcompensating behavior.
In his excellent book, You can read Anyone (Viter Press, 2007), Dr. David Lieberman addresses this behavioral cue. When an individual is trying to manipulate your perception of him (deception) he will act in a way that is in direct contradiction to how he really feels. A suspect being interviewed by a detective may slouch, yawn and attempt to look overly relaxed. This is a dead give away. Most anyone being questioned by police regarding a crime, whether innocent or guilty, should not be displaying that kind of body language, as some nervousness is expected and normal behavior for the situation.
When we are trying to manage other’s perception of us, we become very self aware. Our focus is primarily on what we are doing and how it should look to others. There is no better place to see this type of posturing than at a poker table. The player who has a strong hand does not want to scare off other players, so he acts like he is pensive, taking his time to push his chips in. He is engaging in perception management. Conversely, the player who is bluffing, wants to give the impression of supreme confidence in his hand and may throw his chips into the pot very quickly as if to say “I can’t wait to take this pot!”.
When trying to pull off a deception in a high stakes situation, we become anxious. This causes our actions to be mechanical, stiff and awkward. Anxiety often affects physical action by altering how movements are calibrated and adjusted based on perceptual information. It can also affect movement execution directly. Under anxiety, the excitability of the corticospinal motor tract (The corticospinal tract conducts impulses from the brain to the spinal cord that make possible the execution of precise voluntary movements) is increased in order to more quickly respond to a threat, and this leads to higher levels of muscle activation and more force production (Nieuwenhuys & Oudejans, 2011). Anxiety will cause an incongruence in gestures. While our deceiver is attempting to look relaxed and calm, his gestures will betray him through his lack of smoothness in movements. Anytime there is incongruence between what it said and what is shown, the truth is more likely to be what is shown. He may say he is calm and confident, but his movements display a nervousness. Your best bet is to believe he is nervous.
When someone is engaging in overcompensating behavior, you will often get a gut feeling that something is awry. Anxiety will cause the timing and fluidity of his gestures to be off. His eye movement will often increase and he will possibly look rapidly from side to side (Day, 1964). Stop and take a minute to see if the subject’s movements are smooth and truly comfortable. Look to see how much eye darting is going on. Slow down and let the anxiety the subject is truly feeling, but does not want you to see, manifest within. Perception management is tough act to keep up for any length of time. This is even more so when the stakes are elevated.
If you are nervous and in a situation that would make anyone nervous, don’t try to fake it! That doesn’t mean to let your nerves overtake you, as you should attempt calm yourself and keep your composure, It just means deal with your nerves honestly and do not concern yourself with perception management. Instead concern yourself primarily with managing your emotions. Once your emotions are properly managed, the signals you give off will not be the fake, overcompensating displays of a deceiver, but instead an honest and true body language that commands respect.