The Tell

"Scientists are increasingly coming to the conclusion that the mind is a prediction machine."

- The Tell, page 9

Prediction is not just one of the things our brains do, it’s the primary function of the Neocortex. We are bombarded daily by different visual scenes, different smells, sounds, past experiences, etc. Our brain then works to identify patterns so we can make sense of and use all this information. As Sherlock Holmes says,“I have trained myself to notice what I see.”  We see all the time, but aren’t always looking at things. We hear, but aren’t really listening. Even our other three senses are used, but not always integrated with other information or the outcome of that stored for use in the future.

Matthew Hertenstein, author of The Tell: The Little Clues That Reveal Big Truths About Who We Are, aims to get us to develop and hone our powers of observation and entices us to do this by listing a host of research showing tells that successfully predict all manner of behavior. There are chapters on how to predict social maturity, personality traits, whether you’ll have a good date, if a couple will divorce, when people are lying, company profits, the outcome of political campaigns, and leadership potential.

The research spans the life cycle and various countries and cultures to give a broad picture. There’s even a whole chapter on infant tells and the scientific predictions that come from those tells.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Act the way you want people to perceive you

"…so much more than we understand or acknowledge molds our perception of those around us."
- The Tell, page 136

Have you ever said, “I don’t know, I just don’t like him”? Even when we think we know why we like or dislike someone, we probably don’t completely. This is even further complicated by behaviors people specifically do to get you to like them.  One I found to be the most potent is the Expressivity Halo. Studies show that you can get people to like you by acting like an extrovert (this works for first meetings as well as later trying to win over an initially cool response – and this works for everyone, even for introverts like me). Hertenstein asks the reader some intriguing questions such as How do we use the behavior? and How do we guard against this behavior being used on us? But then he doesn’t give us the answer. That got me thinking about my own answer to these questions. I realized I do act like an extrovert when meeting someone in a work situation for the first time and always when I’m the facilitator of training (groups or one-on-one).  I now wonder if later, when the people discover that the real me only wants to communicate with them by text or email, they are put off or at the very least surprised.

I want the people to perceive me initially as an extrovert because of the Expressivity Halo. But if this is expected to be a long term relationship (like employment or a vendor relationship), I need by the next meeting or conversation to talk about the best ways to work with me/contact me so the person gets what they need from me.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Practice by observing people

"With practice he could identify the signals in real time."
- The Tell, page 119

When most of us think of tells we think of the two most talked about: poker and lying. TV shows tell us to look for shifting gaze and lack of eye contact. The studies Hertenstein describes show it’s not these things at all, and that most law enforcement officers actually miss the liars. Even the secret service agents only picked out the liars 70% of the time.

When someone is lying their pupils are usually dilated and their voice is higher in pitch than normal. Easy to recognize but some really good liars can keep these things from happening.  What they apparently can’t control are what the researchers have dubbed microexpressions. Microexpressions are expressions that are only exhibited for 1/12 of a second.  This is so short a time period that when watching a video of people lying, the researcher had to watch frame by frame before he even saw them (it took 100 hours!). Once the researcher had a behavior to look for he began to see a few of them in real time. After much practice could see even more.

The microexpression tells of lying (remember, only exhibited for 1/12 of a second) are:

  • a squelched expression (eg. the person’s face starts the smile and stops it)
  • a lopsided facial display (eg. only half the mouth is smiling)
  • an emotion displayed at an inappropriate time (eg. a smile when talking about something sad)

Be careful – if you only see one of these at a time it may not indicate lying. Look for a cluster of behaviors. Even then, the author cautions us, don’t make snap judgments. Instead let these signal you to ask more questions to determine if you’re getting the truth or a fabrication.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

The power of prediction: leading or misleading?

"…my main goal is to aid you in being a more sophisticated observer of others’ nonverbal signals and appearance, as well as to show you the predictive capacities of the mind."
- The Tell, page 177

Our brains remember evidence to support the things we believe – like first impressions. Our brain wants to make us “right”. Sometimes, and we’ve all experienced this, our first impressions are wrong. So in using tells to make decisions about who to hire, whether someone is lying, who to let your children hang out with, we need to be constantly on the lookout for information that contradicts rather than merely supports our hunches. For example: you see the person in the waiting room you’re about to interview. They have unkempt hair and you immediately begin to figure out a way to make the interview as short as possible. Instead, look at the person’s resume for signs of high intelligence, ability to get things done and anything else that’s the opposite of what you think are behaviors of an employee with unkempt hair.  This could be your best programmer or best mechanic, and you don’t want to lose this opportunity because of an inaccurate first impression.

But make no mistake, I agree with the author. If I were in charge of hiring salespeople or CEOs, I’d first design a study (or hire someone to) where potential customers assessed candidate’s interpersonal nonverbal cues. I’d then use those cues to assess actual candidates for the positions. And finally I would use what the cues predicted along with other information I collected to make holistic decisions about who would be successful in the position.

It was fun to read the psychological operations of causation, probability, correlation. I thought it was simply a how-to book on recognizing specific tells. But it was so much more. For me, as a behavioral psychologist, this book was pure heaven and all the more useful because of the detailed descriptions of the varied research on tells.

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Carolyn B. Thompson

ABOUT Carolyn B. Thompson

I’m proud to be a Renaissance Man – dog mom, singer, water skier, Christian, gardener, trainer, business owner, cook, baker, swimmer, reader, crafts, Christmas decorator, vegetable lover who eats fish & meat, mocha drinker, iced tea drinker, believer that chocolate desserts are a major food group, walker/runner, exerciser, movie watcher, writer, former work road warrior mainly to do conference keynotes & bookstores, 3 children in their mid-30s w/5 grandchildren under 6 yrs old.
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