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Cultural Psychology | curated by Kevin Goodman

Detecting Deception

My newest article has been published in Pursuit Magazine on detecting deception during an investigative interview. For this article I asked three world class scholars of deception,  ”how do you catch a liar?” See it at:

Reflecting on Searle: Justifying Psychology as Science and the Problem of Consciousness

John Searle is one of my favorite contemporary philosophers. I read his book The Construction of Social Reality as part of a graduate seminar at Indiana University on social metaphysics.

In a recent TED conference (posted below) Searle argues for the basis of a science of consciousness. Searle’s main point is that science has neglected consciousness—though he concedes that this is changing—because consciousness is (traditionally) perceived by scientists as something that is subjective and somehow beyond objectivity. Alluding to mind-body dualism, which he dismisses, Searle points out that thoughts seem distinct from physicality yet it’s clear they are linked to neurological processes. Thoughts are, of course, the substance of consciousness, which according to Searle is a property of the neurological substrate and therefore properly within the domain of science.

I wholeheartedly agree with Searle on this point but not because I believe that consciousness is an emergent property of the neurological substrate—though I do believe this—but because I view it as a fundamental ignorance to automatically default to the assumption that consciousness exists outside the rest of nature and is therefore out of bounds for inquiry. While the criticisms of psychology are sometimes deserved the one criticism that is ignorant—with few exceptions—is the one that proposes there is no science and can be no science of the mind. For this reason Searle deserves Kudos.

However, there are points in Searle’s argument that I’m agnostic towards. For instance, Searle argues that consciousness has the property of causality through intentionality; he seems to use this point to argue against a computational account of consciousness because “computation only exists relative to consciousness.” The problem is whether Searle regards intentionality—a property of consciousness—as a state of free will. Such seems implied. There is much debate in neuroscience about the prospect that the brain decides before a person becomes conscious of their brain’s decision (see Libet experiment) thus illuminating the possibility that intentionality as conscious free-will is something of an illusion. Controversial? Yes! But less controversial is the proposition that behavior is based on rules and that these rules are implicitly understood. We know many of these rules not because they are common sense but because experimental psychologists and sociologists have successfully demonstrated that peoples’ behaviors are predictable given various stimuli and social-ecological alterations. We can deduce that because behavior is predictable it is rule based—algorithmic. For Searle’s argument to work it seems we have to give these rules intentions but the problem is that much behavior is motivated by factors outside of conscious awareness.

How To Know If You’re Being Lied To

j0439343Popular books on body language and even police manuals on interrogation have proposed a number of nonverbal indicators of deceit such as covering the mouth, self-touching, gaze aversion, blinking, etc.…But most scientific research on the matter suggests there is no basis for these claims. The fact of matter is that most people are poor lie-detectors and experiments have suggested that even professional lie-catchers aren’t much better at interpreting nonverbal behavior than the average Joe—police officers, judges, CIA officers, and FBI agents have all tested relatively average in terms of detecting deceit from nonverbal behavior. But there is research—conducted by Paul Ekman and colleagues—suggesting that there are people capable of detecting deceit at levels well above chance.

How to be one of them…

Forget the notion of specific set of behaviors as indicators of deceit and think about what it means to lie: deception=cognitive effort. Lies require effort because they entail nonexistent claims—details must be imagined and described as plausible—whereas the truth requires only the restatement of what is already known. The theory behind the polygraph is that the fear of being discovered causes emotional arousal, particularly anxiety, and the risk increases with elaboration. The implication is that the effort required to lie compounds upon itself, not only in terms of the need for creating a plausible elaboration of the account—the lie—but also with the need to control for anxiety. Remember though that anybody under suspicion is likely to feel anxiety so it’s not anxiety that concerns us the most—though it may be an indicator of deceit—it is effort that is most revealing.

Note: not all liars will feel anxiety; some may even feel self-gratification in their capability “out-smarting” others by deceit. Now back to cognitive effort…

Aldrit Vrij and his colleagues conducted an interesting experiment where they videotaped accounts of people either lying or telling the truth about an event they witnessed and then recruited police officers to determine the truth-tellers from the liars. There was a twist—the control group was asked to explicitly determine who was lying while the experimental group was asked to determine “who had to think the hardest.” The result is that police offers who were explicitly looking for lies failed to detect deception beyond chance but those who looked for the hard thinkers were very successful at identifying liars (though the didn’t realize that’s what they were doing). Vrij suggests that police officers who were looking for lies failed because they were biased by misconceptions such as liars fidget or avoid eye contact whereas in truth, liars tend to restrict body movements and make eye contact more intensely.

Rule 1: Forget those popular books on body language and don’t look for specific signs (e.g., looking away, stroking oneself, covering the mouth, etc.); rather, look for indications that the other person’s account is cognitively taxing. This rule alone, according to the research referenced above, will significantly enhance lie-detection ability.

Rule 2: Look for restricted expressiveness, especially in the context of the person’s normal expressiveness. A prominent theory of gesture is that they help the person making them visualize and regulate their own thoughts during interaction. An individual that is lying must either match their gestures to the lie or restrict their gestures so as not to reveal the lie. The theory of gesture as embodied cognition is supported by research indicating that liars tend to show less hand and arm movements thus indicating an attempt to restrain and control cognitive expression. But, again, people will have varying degrees of expressiveness so restricted behavior should be compared to the same person’s baseline behavior.

Rule 3: Make lying even more cognitively taxing than it already is; if lying requires mental effort then making it cognitively harder for the liar to account for his lie will give the lie-catcher greater opportunity to assess whether the suspect’s account is mentally taxing. The strategies here are really limitless but some ideas include (a.) ask the suspect his account of a potential lie when he is not expecting it—that is, when he doesn’t have the details scripted in his head and ready to state (b.) ask for details and further elaboration—the more details the greater the chances of an incongruence more challenging it is for liar (c.) look for possible points of contradiction and ask for elaboration (d.) restate the account differently but non-threateningly and ask if it is accurate (e.) restate a claim the subject made  out of sequence and ask what happened before or after. Again, the lie catcher is looking for the degree of effort it takes for the subject to account for his claims. Note: there is a danger here in that the more times a liar accounts for his lie the more adept he will become at telling it and accounting for it; such threat should considered when confronting a suspected liar.

Rule 4: Look for inappropriate salesmanship. Contrary to popular belief, liars are more likely to look you harder in the eyes for which the theory is that they have a greater need to persuade. Because liars are motivated to disproportionately influence others’ perceptions, they will likely be particularly assertive and adamant. The lie-catcher can ask whether assertiveness and persuasiveness matches the subject’s baseline behavior but should also consider what is at stake. For instance, if an innocent individual is accused of murder they should be assertive with the declaration that they are not guilty but if someone asserts seemingly irrelevant facts out of an appropriate context, then there’s reason to ask questions.

Rule 5: Think like a social scientist. Do a videotaped interview when the stakes are high and then do a frame-by-frame analysis. The analysis of interaction and behavior is also cognitively taxing and an analyst or investigator won’t be able to keep track of every micro-level-event that occurred in the interaction; furthermore, the investigator will likely follow hunches—biases and heuristics—during the interview and will therefore over look much detail. Recording an interview allows the investigator opportunity to reflect on the interaction with greater objectivity and attention to detail. The analyst/investigator should examine the interview sequence-by-sequence making note of every utterance and gesture while asking what preceded it from which she will develop hypotheses and questions about the underlying cognitive motive for any statement or action. The analyst can then look for behavioral themes as well as incongruences and patterns that develop from the initial analysis and put forth an assessment that is based on behavioral details and contextualized to the broader interview.

Rule 6: Treat assumptions of lies as hypotheses not facts and look for corroboration.  I’ve heard of a study where interrogators were given training on detecting lies and afterwards tested worse at lie detecting than before but demonstrated greater confidence in their (false) abilities. The lesson here in not to be overly confident: entertain other possibilities. Lie detection is indirect and requires that the lie cognitively and behaviorally alter the liar—when such changes are noted then it is appropriate to entertain the hypothesis that a lie is occurring but until corroborated with further evidence, the lie remains only a theory.

The Logic of Investigation

SherlockCarl Ratner—whom I’ve had the pleasure of studying with—writes in his book, Cultural Psychology and Qualitative Methodology that qualitative research is akin to a criminal investigation. His point is essentially that the evidence and the logic must corroborate the claim to the extent that it can convince a logically minded jury—whether a grand jury or a scholarly panel. Considering that I’m planning on taking forensic psychology courses next year and pursuing work as a private investigator to supplement doctoral studies, the systematic logic of legal investigations has become a bit of an infatuation and I’m now wondering how I can reverse engineer Ratner’s declaration.

The fictional Sherlock Holmes made famous the notion of rigorous logic applied to investigations. Holmes called it “deduction,” but in reality, his logic was a broad combination of abduction, induction, and deduction, with the latter being—perhaps—the least significant. In ideal form, deductive logic is the strongest because under a given set of absolute premises, the conclusion must be true. The only problem with deductive logic is that it’s hard to satisfy the conditions of “absolute.” The complexity of reality renders our observations relative and approximate and even philosophers of science recognize that science must stand on axioms, which are in essence an inference to the best explanation with what is known.

Inference to the best explanation is a term used in philosophy to refer to the logic of abduction, which is essentially choosing a hypothesis among competing hypotheses according to that which is best inferred from the evidence. The hypothetico-deductive model of science comes into play to the extent that competing hypotheses can be eliminated—falsified—based on the evidence. Gregory House, a character based on Sherlock Holmes, exemplifies this combination of logic. Gregory House and his team of diagnostic doctors consider all the possible diagnoses for a given patient’s symptoms (inductive and abductive) and eliminate them one by one as new evidence falsifies competing diagnoses (deductive) in order to arrive at the diagnosis that best fits the evidence (abductive).

I assume that the homicide detective works in a similar fashion without having formalized the logic. When any given murder is discovered, the detective infers a range of possible suspects, which she in turn systematically tries to eliminate; when she cannot eliminate a suspect then she may begin to look for further evidence that corroborates the suspect’s guilt. While there are elements of inductive, abductive, and deductive logic in such an operation it is the abductive logic that stands out as it forces the detective to consider a range of possible suspects.

Abductive logic is not without imperfections as it is simply the better choice of possible answers and an individual may still be biased towards a particular choice; however, abductive logic is a better choice than induction towards a single inference because it forces the consideration of plausible alternatives.  Abductive logic therefore presents a better chance of achieving the right conclusion, especially when hypothetico-deduction is used to eliminate the alternatives.

While abductive logic appears informally latent to investigations as well as scientific discovery there may be some advantages to formalizing abductive logic in cohort with hypothetico-deduction as a method of investigation.

Indigo Children = Narcissists By Proxy

A man once told me his daughter was rejected from American Idol because she was “too good,” elaborating, “They need bad ones for entertainment.” The last times I got my hair cut, which was a  long ago (because I shave my head now), the stylist talked the entire time about how certain she was that her daughter would become famous because of her dancing talent. Years and years ago while working a temporary job, I made friends with a sweet little granny type lady and then was taken by surprise when she told me her grandson was looking for the “spear of destiny” and the “holy grail” and what’s more was “close to finding them.” Today, I would categorize all these people as demonstrating vicarious narcissism.

There is such a thing as healthy narcissism and then there is also narcissistic personality disorder, which is characterized by delusional or fantastic sense of self-importance. Vicarious narcissists are those that lean towards pathology and project their narcissism onto their children or family. A new age phenomena that characterizes vicarious narcissism is the indigo child.

The indigo child concept emerged from self-declared psychic Nancy Ann Tappe’s declaration that beginning in the late sixties she began seeing an increased number of children with indigo auras. The idea took hold that indigo children possessed special powers, were the product of a destined evolution that heralded the coming of a new age, which by some accounts correspond with the Age of Aquarius. Alleged characteristics of the indigo include intuition, intelligence, and sense of entitlement.  I underline the last characteristic because it is also a trait characteristic of narcissism but the phenomenon as a whole has all the hallmarks of a “legitimizing mythology”—an ideology designed to reinforce a latent belief in the superiority of that which the ideology promotes: in other words, an aggrandizing vision. The indigo child, according to new agers, is here to usher a new era in human spiritual evolution. What could be more aggrandizing?

According to one skeptic, Robert Carroll, the indigo fad has become an “alternative diagnosis” for children with behavior problems. Better to view your child as supernaturally gifted than challenged in any sense. If Carroll is right then the Indigo child becomes a mask for deficiencies and inadequacies, which is a classic dichotomy characterizing narcissism. Accordingly, the narcissist suffers from “splitting,” a self defense mechanism in which people and things are either put on a pedestal or entirely devalued. The narcissist’s own deficiencies are too much to face and are therefore masked by an alternative worldview, which is loftily elevated against all ideological threats. Precious self-esteem is at risk. The paradox is that the defense mechanism is subversive to actual success; this I fear is the fate of the indigo child.

Conspiracy theorists have (predictably) accused me of not being open-minded. Perhaps I have not given indigo children an “open minded” consideration; however, I view evidence-based rationality as far superior to open-mindedness—the latter, it needs to be said is very much a schizotypal trait without constraint. I can imagine a million theories but just because I can imagine it does not make it so. Ultimately, I must consider an inference to the best explanation based on the evidence at hand. In this case, the indigo child narrative has all the qualities that I would expect from a narcissistic delusion. When psychics can repeatedly pass scientific tests that show significant statistical effect sizes (and not mere, but miniscule, statistical significance) then I will look very closely at psychic theories with second eyes. For now, I must declare that the indigo child is not only bunk but is potentially detrimental to the child at which such belief is directed.

Psychological Strategies for Winning No-Limit Texas Hold’em Sit and Go Tournaments: Part 1

No limit Texas Hold’em is a psychologically exhilarating game so it is only natural that it is my recreational game of choice. While I don’t have any World titles, I have played a statistically significant game over the last year. In fact, I’ve turned 10,000 chips into 150,000 chips over several months of six or nine person Sit n Go tournaments played seven to ten times a week—I’ve had several such runs in the last two years alone. What I like about poker is that it is about making decisions against a competitor and thus the game is a natural laboratory of how choices are made under assumed subversive situations. I assume the game is fairly revealing of how people make decisions in competitive situations because not many people play to lose; that fact combined with personal experience is bringing me to consider taking careful field notes of my games and perhaps publishing them on a blog as a means of documenting a virtual ethnography of poker with emphasis on how people make decisions.

Here’s an example what poker can teach us about human nature…

A year ago while playing a sit and go tournament, I was dealt an Ace and King (both clubs) and limped into play, calling the minimum alongside several other players, the player at the big blind made a significant pre-flop raise, which caused all the other players to fold except for me. On the flop an Ace popped up, which gave me a high pair but I knew I was dealing with an aggressive player so I decided to give him a chance to dictate terms and therefore passed; sure enough he raised by half the pot and so I went all in, he followed—with a low pair! (Giggles.) I took him out of the game but he had the audacity to call me a horrible player, his exact words were “Ace, king! Call the preflop! Horrible player.” My words: “psychosemiotics!” While I have repeated the play on winning hands against aggressive competitors many times that was the only time I’ve been called a horrible player. So let us begin there…

Poker Strategy Lesson: Dealing with Aggressive Players

1. Bad players are good for you! If you complain at the table about other players making bad plays then you’re probably not that good of a player yourself. I see this often enough and it’s usually from tight players directed at loose players. Loose players are good for doubling the smart player’s stack so if an aggressive player frustrates you then that player has an edge over you because it means you’re thinking emotionally rather than rationally. Too often, I see the self-assuming good player push all in on a mediocre hand and get beat by the “bad player.”Lesson: Always keep your cool.

2. Bet proportionately for tight players but go low for loose players. Raise on prime hole cards such as double royals or aces when playing against tight players to the extent that you can get them to put chips in the pot but limp (slow-play) on aggressive players. This strategy does two things: 1. It forces tight players to put money in the pot if they have a decent hand 2. It puts loose players at a disadvantage because they will likely raise against you on a much weaker hand, which gives you an opportunity to take them out of the game or will cause them to think twice about being aggressive against you later in the game. The same strategy works especially well after the flop if you have a straight, flush, or full house or otherwise a very good opportunity for a ranking hand.

There are times when it is dangerous to slow play after the flop; for instance, if there are two cards of the same suit thus creating a possibility for someone making a flush or if the community cards suggest the possibility that a competitor has a chance at three of a kind or a straight, it’s time to bet hard; if they push all in you might even consider folding, after all, pocket aces are only a low pair.

The Psychology Lesson: Poker Players Seek Justice Too

It is human nature to seek justice and the game of poker is not an exception to this basic human need. There tends to be a dichotomy in playing styles with one end relying on good cards and the other end relying on brute force. Calls and raises become a means of signifying the strength of one’s hand and therefore loose aggressive players earn the perception of being liars—bluffing—but tight players aren’t willing to risk good chips on nothing. The strength of the loose player is that s/he forces tight players to play less than prime hands, with punitive motives, thus forcing the tight player to rely more on luck than good plays should (thus becoming an advantage for the loose player). Most professional poker players advocate tight play and therefore many poker players play tight games and expect others to play tight games too but this is a mistaken attitude. The tight player should appreciate the loose player because the tight player need only wait for prime cards—be it twenty rounds (they’ll eventually come).

The best way of dealing with an aggressive player is to be modest on a sure hand and let them raise the stakes and then double up on them when they do; the irony is that loose players internalize and idealize macho play and therefore may perceive slow plays in the same vein as the tight player perceives the habitual bluffer. The lesson is that poker players are motivated toward a justice for what they believe are justified plays and ideal approaches—it’s emotive, which is what makes it interesting. Ultimately, the most rational player has the edge so long as s/he is willing to take needed risks and leverage his or her plays to the ultimate purpose of winning the game. In the long-run, poker is a game of skill but every hand played involves an element of chance and pocket aces are never a guarantee—be prepared to lose graciously for that very reason.

Play to win and not to get even.

Boo: Why I Believe in Ghosts (Kind Of)

Before the serious minded and literalists take me too serious, bear in mind that All Hallows and Samhain are upon us and such a topic is only appropriate though I’ll likely disappoint the supernaturalists.

This weekend and last, teenagers and young adults in communities across North America have and will go legend tripping. They have and will take to the unknowing dark to visit old abandoned houses and cemeteries that are said to be haunted. Some will no doubt see something and perhaps many—maybe even most—will feel a haunting presence.

In 1983, Folklorists Linda Dégh and Andrew Vázsonyi published an article in the Journal of Folklore Research titled, “Does the Word “Dog” Bite? Ostensive Action: A Means of Legend-Telling.” In that article the folklorists proposed a semiotic phenomenon they termed “ostensive action,” which occurs when narrative becomes reenacted as reality. A serial killer, for instance, often does not kill without knowledge of murder but rather glorifies the act according to everything they have ever heard or saw of death itself. Thus, the word comes to bite.

The power of imitation is well known in the social and psychological sciences. Anthropologists and sociologists insist culture is transferred by imitation while neuroscientists and psychologists speak of mirror neurons and a shared circuitry between observation and action. I shall borrow from Wikipedia to describe a mirror neuron, which is “a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another.” The discovery of mirror neurons by Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues in the early 1990s is not surprising considering that psychologists have long been puzzled by the ideomotor response, which is a seemingly automated physiological action induced by thought and which seems to occur outside conscious control (physiological responses to hypnotic suggestions, dowsing, and automatic writing are all examples). Neuroscience and social science has converged on the idea that imitation serves a powerful function in human behavior.

The very idea of what it means to be a “good person,” a “cool person,” or a “worthy person” must in part stem from comparison processes and imitation. Children learn by mirroring the actions of parents and caretakers and as they get older they may—and will if exposed—take esteem-enhancing ideas from television or peers that they perceive as possessing superior qualities. It is the process of enculturation. Many cultural psychologists advocate the position that culture motivates and mediates most of our complex behavior; it is a reasonable suggestion considering that children deprived of human contact (beyond the critical period), and thereby deprived of enculturation, often fail to develop basic social and communication skills, even with significant clinical intervention.

Culture, like biology, is an evolved and evolving phenomenon, which is to say that innovation has a heritage. Restated: culture hinges on a causal chain. If the Greeks had not given birth to Western Culture, the world would be very different. Like genetic heritage, culture possesses lineages. Every cultured individual possesses a cultural heritage that goes back to Cro-Magnon—modern Homo sapiens—whom emerged in the fossil record 200,000 years ago. Cro-Magnon marked a cultural revolution with evolved language which likely facilitated modern Homo sapiens’ success towards global colonization, apex predatorship, and dominance over competitors such as Neanderthals. The next great cultural revolution didn’t occur until the rise of civilization—the agricultural period—the greatest innovation of which was written language. Neuroscientist Merlin Donald, in the Origins of the Modern Mind, defines the advent of writing as the emergence of “theoretic culture,” a period in which knowledge is no longer constrained by biological memory but facilitated by “external” devises. The advent of writing enables radical cultural change as it facilitates a near infinite capacity for knowledge; nonetheless, no idea is without a predecessor.

The proposition here is that there is no mind without ghosts as culture structures thought and all culture arises from a past. Just as every parent passes their genome, every caretaker passes on a cultural ethos, which is constrained by the social terrain that too impresses a cultural ethos upon the members of the community that in their sum recreate the culture to which they were socialized. The idea goes back to Cooley’s looking glass self and Mead and Blumer’s symbolic interactionism, which is the idea that the mind is an interpretive microcosm of society—culture—which provides a means for interpreting events and which individuals try to faithfully replicate because it forms an existential basis of the self.

As for the more literal belief in ghosts, it is part of the cultural narrative. Culture, as I have written, is a part of the self as it provides a means for making sense of the world and impresses itself upon us with incredible tenacity as a matter of our mere dependence upon the social world from which it arises. We construct our role in culture by situating our own narrative within the cultural narrative; such confluence provides much needed self-esteem. Because ghosts are part of the cultural story, some people manage to wrap their own personal narratives around ghost stories, which in turn have primed them to interpret the seemingly uncanny accordingly. But the ghost is real in a sense as it evolved external to the believer’s own mind—as an aspect of the immaterial cultural ethos—and is yet part of the believer’s selfhood experience as it is situated in the cultural narrative.

Lastly: Some scholars who study the cognitive science of religion suggest that belief in ghosts arise from cognitive structures and biases that predispose us to interpret deceased persons as still existing. I don’t deny a primitive neural-cognitive basis for the belief in spirits but insist that experience is largely structured by the cultural narrative, which seems to have currency with the fact that uncanny experiences evolve with the culture (for instance, folklorists sometimes point out that demonic encounters of the middle ages have some resemblance to the fairy encounters of the 18th and 19th centuries and alien encounters of the late 19th and 20th centuries).