Learn to Read Body Language and Understand Behavior to Spot Manipulation
Scammers, fraudsters, and manipulators of all kinds are out there trying to take advantage of you. Often, they are incredibly skilled at it. Even the smartest and most aware person can get caught in a scam. But there are stills we can learn to help. Learning to read body language and understand human behavior can help us spot when we’re being manipulated.
See Reading and Understanding Behavior with Chase Hughes for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.
Chase Hughes spent twenty years in the military and retired as a Navy chief. He is also a Harvard-trained neuroscientist and author of several best-selling books about behavior profiling and influence. Now he spends his days training both intelligence operatives and everyday people to read body language and understand behavior.
Chase didn’t start out intending to be a body language expert. At nineteen, he was pursuing a young lady in a bar and got shut down pretty hard. He went home and googled “how to tell when girls like you.” He just didn’t want to be rejected again. That search led to more research, and he got very interested in body language and reading people. A few years after that, his best friend was killed in a terrorist attack. The attack was successful because intelligence operatives couldn’t get the data they needed because they were struggling to develop relationships with local assets. Chase decided to use his knowledge to train intelligence agencies so something like that never happened again.
Universal Signals in Body Language
Chase’s interest started with reading body language and behavior. But operatives need enhanced training and the ability to build support rapidly. He wanted formulas for understanding what makes people tick and how to use that data to persuade or influence them.
I think the more you know about this stuff, the more you realize how much you don’t know.Chase Hughes
Accurately reading body language can be difficult. There’s so much about human behavior and psychology that we don’t know and that makes it hard to accurately interpret everything. But there are a lot of physical characteristics and behaviors that we know for sure reveal things about what the other person is thinking. And a few of them are universal.
When Chase is teaching people to read body language, he tells them to look for hidden stress signals. One of those signals is how often someone blinks, called their “blink rate.” Blinking more often indicates stress, often stress that person is trying to hide. If you are in a conversation with someone, a new topic comes up, and they start blinking more, for some reason that topic is making them stressed. Whether you’re negotiating, parenting, or doing sales, it’s something to note. You may need to skip over that topic – or you may need to ask more questions.
If you’re good at persuasion and are able to calm the person down, you’ll see their blink rate start to drop. Blinking less is our bodies’ natural response to being calm and focused. Focus lowers blink rate, and stress increases it. This is a universal principle to read body language.
Squeezing your lips together is called “lip compression.” Someone who does it is usually withholding opinions or information. If you as someone, “How do you like your new job?” and they respond, “Oh, it’s great!” but squeeze their lips together, there’s something they’re not telling you. Or if you’re in sales and someone tells you their credit score is great but squeezes their lips together, there might be an issue.
It’s good to be aware of lip compression when reading body language. That person is withholding something from you, and it might be important. Later on, you may need to ask more questions to find out if what they’re not telling you will affect you.
There are diagrams of how to read body language online that try to interpret the directions people look. They claim things like looking up and to the left means they’re remembering something, looking up and to the right means they’re imagining something, and so on. But that’s not necessarily true. Different people look different directions for different things. If you want to use this technique to read body language, it’s important to determine where your conversation partner looks for these things. Once you know where they normally look, you can spot inconsistencies.
Let’s say you’re interviewing a babysitter. Observe where their eyes move normally when you ask them questions. Then if you ask a question and their eyes move differently, that’s a data point. On TV, that would definitely mean they were lying. But again, that’s not always the case. Sometimes you just need to ask more questions. If your babysitter has been looking down and to the left the whole conversation, but when you ask about changing diapers they look to the right, that’s a spot to ask more questions.
When it comes to reading body language with directional gaze, it’s not about a specific direction. It’s about consistency of direction. Detecting change is more important than analyzing the specific directions of a person’s gaze.
Learning to Read Body Language
Learning to read body language will help you read what a person is thinking or feeling, even if they don’t want to share. It’s amazing how much our physical characteristics can tell an observant person. And it’s possible for you to be that observant person and see what other people don’t.
It’s almost like our private thoughts are just public at a certain point.Chase Hughes
Chase has been reading body language for so long that he doesn’t think about it much. He has a YouTube channel called The Behavior Panel with three other profilers where they break down behavior. It takes work for him to bring it to conscious awareness to talk about it on YouTube.
But when you’re first learning to read body language, you don’t want to start learning everything at once. Start by picking just one behavior. Focus on that one until you start to notice it without really paying attention. Then you can add another one. It’s like learning to drive a car – it’s much easier when you minimize how many things you have to pay attention to at one time.
The Problem of Unconscious Learning
Chase has been teaching his kids to read body language since they were little. They’re very good at it unconsciously because they didn’t realize they were learning it until recently. But there are a lot of people who read body language intuitively, without ever being consciously taught. Statistically speaking, women tend to be naturally better at it than men.
But teaching someone who’s naturally good at reading body language can be difficult. When Chase asks them, “What happened in that conversation?” they respond with something like “It doesn’t feel right,” or “It feels like they weren’t telling the truth.” They may not know why they get these feelings. The data is being processed unconsciously, and all they have are the feelings based on that data. They just “trust their gut,” and they have a good gut.
Reading the Body Language of Psychopaths and Sociopaths
Some people are concerned that psychopaths and sociopaths have different cues. They’re afraid that if they are targeted by one, they won’t be able to read them. But psychopaths and normal people score about the same on a polygraph. The stress responses and body language that reveal what’s going on underneath still come up. If you’re reading text written by a psychopath, it’s more likely to deceive you. But when it comes to behavior, you will still be able to read their body language.
Robert Hare, a psychologist who has done research on psychopaths and developed the current “psychopath checklist,” has a great anecdote. Imagine you leave your apartment to go get some Chinese food. As you leave, you pass a big accident scene. There was a car crash, lots of people were injured, and all around it’s a gruesome scene. You are mostly thinking about what you’re going to order at the restaurant. After you eat dinner, you find yourself in front of the mirror practicing the sad and shocked faces you saw in the crowd, trying to memorize how people reacted. It’s not because you’re trying to deceive people. It’s because you think other people have to practice too.
Psychopaths get a bad rap. People assume they’re going to become a killer. But that’s not necessarily true. “Psychopath” does not equal “evil.” A lot of psychopaths aren’t trying to manipulate the world. They’re trying to get on with society and learn how to connect with people most of the time.
Masking Our Body Language
Having the tools to read body language does not mean you’ll be able to read everything. And it does not mean anyone with the knowledge will be able to know exactly what you’re thinking. It is possible to mask our body language to a point. At a very young age, we learn we can lie with our faces – we can smile when we’re not happy to make others happy, for example. We can hide our natural reactions somewhat.
We lie best with our face.Chase Hughes
In order for the reactions to be revealed, we need two things. The first is cognitive load. This is the number of things you have to focus on or think about. The more attention you pay to other things and the more data your brain has to process, the less attention you can pay to masking your body language. But the more experienced someone is, the more cognitive load they can handle without giving anything away.
The second thing is stakes. The higher the stakes, the less you can hide your reactions. If an interviewer asks you, “What time do you usually leave the office?” the stakes are pretty low. But if they say, “I like you and I think you’re a good person, so I need you to think very carefully before answering this question. Take all the time you need, because it’s very important. What time do you usually leave the office?” Now this question seems really important. The stakes are much higher, so the likelihood that you will show some nonverbal indicators increases.
Read Body Language When There’s Nothing to Read
It’s hard to read body language when someone is giving away no indicators. But by understanding human behavior, you can analyze the verbal indicators that they give. Guilty people, for example, tend to give you a lot of detail about irrelevant things. There are concepts called the “detail mountain” and the “detail valley.” In the detail mountain, a person remembers a lot of details. In the detail valley, they may remember few details or just general ideas. You can watch for where the detail mountain and the detail valley are in what the person describes.
If you’re talking to someone about a mugging or a car crash, for example, a normal person’s detail mountain will be in the actual event. The brain tends to remember things that are dramatic, traumatic, or emotional. A person who witnessed or experienced something like that will remember a lot of details from the event and its immediate aftermath, whether or not they’re relevant. Guilty people, though, will have a detail valley around the actual event, and their detail mountain somewhere else.
Another thing you can watch for is the choice of words. Guilty people tend to use minimizing language and vague words – things like “I think” or “not very much.” They don’t share specific information when they can avoid it. They also use words that soften the severeity. Instead of “killed,” they might say “hurt,” use “take” instead of “steal,” and “fought with” instead of “assault.” Even if you can’t read body language because they’re not giving anything away, there are verbal techniques that you can look for to spot deception.
How Scammers Use These Tools
Learning to read body language can be very helpful in identifying when someone is trying to scam you in person. But many scammers operate online, where it’s often impossible to read body language because you don’t see the other person. But the same techniques that let you read body language can also help you spot a scammer online.
The tricky thing about these tools is that they are neutral. What causes them to be “good” or “bad” depends on how they are used. It’s like a scalpel. In the hands of a surgeon, it’s used to help a person survive and heal. In the hands of someone who wants to injure people, it can do a lot of harm. The ability to read body language and understand behavior is the same way. It can be used to identify the truth and protect yourself. It can also be used to trick and manipulate you.
When it comes to manipulating people … the danger is in the person using it, not the techniques.Chase Hughes
If you get in a conversation with someone online and it feels magical, be suspicious. Often we fall for manipulators not because they’re showing us a good person, but because they’re showing us ourselves. But we can also feel good about a conversation when we meet a genuine person. The way to tell whether or not this is toxic is to see how you feel after you leave. If you’ve been talking to a real person, it will trigger serotonin and oxytocin, the connection chemical. The good feeling will last. But if you leave the conversation and the feeling immediately starts drifting away, it was created by the person just spiking your dopamine. That’s probably not a real person.
The PCP Framework of Influence
Any kind of influence or persuasion, whether it’s social engineering, online scamming and phishing, or a therapist encouraging a patient towards better health outcomes, follows a three-layer formula. The three steps happen in order. Chase calls it the PCP framework.
First, something happens to change your perception of what’s going on. An event, a phone call, an email subject line, or something else makes you think differently. You thought that it was like this, but it turns out it’s really like that. Once your perception shifts and you are thinking about the situation differently, it opens the window to the next step.
Context is key. It’s absolutely inappropriate for you to strip naked on a Zoom call. But it’s completely appropriate for you to do so in front of the shower right before you get in. Changing the context makes something previously unacceptable completely acceptable. Shift the context and something you would have never done now becomes allowable behavior.
Context gives us permission to behave in unusual ways. If I can shift the context, I can get a person to do just about anything.Chase Hughes
The subject line of the email changed your perception, for example. Now you’re reading the email and it isn’t what you thought it was. The situation is completely different. There are a different set of rules for what’s allowed and expected of someone in this situation. The context has shifted. That leads to the third step.
In this new context, the person contacting you seems credible, confident, and authoritative. At the end, they give you permission to do something. That permission may be explicitly asking you to do something. Or it may be implying that it’s okay to respond or to click the link because of the shifting context. Either way, it gives you permission to act in a way that you normally wouldn’t – and in the way that the scammer wants you to.
Putting It Together
Say you got an email, and the subject line shifted your perception. It sounded like a legitimate – and important – email from your bank. So you opened it and began reading. What’s in the email changed the context. The context is no longer a strange and suspicious email. It’s now a context that you’ve received an email from your bank. It looks like a normal email from your bank, it sounds authoritative, and it’s asking you to click the link to verify some very important information. The shift in perception, the new context, and the permission to do it allows you to click on the fraudulent link without a second thought.
You don’t have to be able to read body language to spot this kind of manipulation. Pay attention and watch for those moments when your perception shifts, when the context changes, and when you feel like you have permission to do something you normally wouldn’t do.
The FATE Model
It’s not just psychology involved in this manipulation. It’s also physiology and neurology. Some of these things are hard-wired into our brain stem and the mammalian parts of our brains. There were four things that kept our ancestors alive. Because they worked for them, they were passed down to us. That’s why a three-year-old who has never seen a snake can still be scared of them – that fear was passed on because it kept our ancestors alive.
Chase calls those four things the FATE model.
- Focus: Novelty creates human interest. If a prehistoric person was walking by a bush they’d walked by every day and this time a twig snapped in the bush, that’s a potential danger. Their focus is now on that bush. When it comes to Perception from the PCP model, novelty and changing our focus is a big factor.
- Authority: When we lived in tribes, not obeying authority or perceived authority could have horrible consequences. We could get kicked out of the tribe, be rejected by potential mates, or even be killed. We are wired to follow people who seem like authorities.
- Tribe: Our ancestors had to pay attention to what their fellow tribespeople were doing. If everyone was stacking rings around their necks and you weren’t, you would be an outcast. If you were an outcast, you were unlikely to find a mate and pass on your genes. Conformity to community standards became important.
- Emotion: Our brains store emotional memories much stronger than others. If you experience an emotion about something – even something as simple as pain and being upset about touching a hot stove – your brain will store that. It will work from that stored memory to figure out what to do and what not to do.
How Manipulators can Use the FATE Model
If Chase can get you to focus, convince you he’s an authority (whether real or perceived), get you to think other people are making the same decision, and trigger emotions from your past, he can get you to do almost anything. Just following the FATE model brings in the PCP model. By getting you to focus, he changed your perception. By using tribe and emotion, he changed the context. And by convincing you he’s an authority, he gives you permission.
The bad news is there’s no quick and easy way to avoid this manipulation. But a great start is to identify these models in everyday life. Standing at the cash register, look at how product is placed to modify perception and context and give permission to buy something. Think about where the authority is coming from. Look at the use of tribe – social media does this especially well.
If you take these models and just start identifying them in everyday life … it starts to become glaringly apparent, and we start seeing how our focus is being hijacked.Chase Hughes
Everybody is using these techniques, whether intentionally or not. In the end, they are tools. Whether they are good or bad comes from the end goal. They can be used to help people, convince us to buy something, or take advantage of us. Just knowing they are there can help us identify manipulation.
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