Trust your Gut: Reading People

A tremendous amount of what we communicate is done without saying a word. We look at some of the things to look for when interacting with people.

August 27, 2020

Every day, you interact with countless people, even in passive, superficial ways. While we don't talk to everyone we meet, we most certainly communicate. As we discussed in "The Myth and Legend of the Gray Man", people read our body language, our face, our posture, and our dress on an instinctive level. Even in an age where people have their heads buried in distractions around the clock, there's still good reason to give some thought to what's going on. So, let's discuss things to look for in people - good and bad - so we can more reliably trust our instincts.

This article is going to start with the scientific framework for how we consider high level decision making before transitioning to the practice.

Trusting your Gut

Often times, as a component of generic self-protection advice, we tell people to "trust their gut". There's some good reason for this, and what we're looking to do isn't replace instinct, but augment it with articulate reasoning as to why we experience discomfort around certain people at certain times. Before we go too much further, we need to state the obvious: this isn't a hard and fast set of quantitative facts. We can't add these characteristics together and consistently get the same exact result. What it is, is a useful guide that can give us some subjective information we can use in conjunction with our instincts to make sure we are ahead of the curve, and thus, have options in how we interact with people.

So, trusting your gut. When we discuss this, what we're really saying is that we're using imperfect information that we're not consciously processing to make snap judgments. While it's very useful, it's also dangerously close to a startle reflex at times, and as Paul Howe says "Panic is contagious... but so is composure." Often, the way other people act will have a direct influence on our own feeling of fear or comfort, and that can be a trap.

Psychologists today generally break down "intuition" into two disciplines:

  1. Heuteristics and Biases, which in short mean shortcuts in thinking and expectations based on experiences, and;
  2. Naturalistic Decision Making (NDM) which is the process of using experience as a guide for making intuitive decisions.

This article will draw heavily on Klein and Kahneman's "Conditions for Intuitive Expertise: A Failure to Disagree", which does an excellent job providing a framework for *how* we arrive at intuitive judgments, and that's a place we'd like to work forward from. It's important to note that H&B and NDM are conflicting schools of thought. This is important because it illustrates what we discussed before: There is no foolproof way to take these concepts and turn them into Mentat training, though we can attempt to divorce ourselves from prejudices and overestimation of our own ability.

Briefly, NDM

Naturalistic Decision Making draws heavily on vast experience in a single subject. For example, Chess Masters, over the course of decades, can "acquire a repertoire of 50,000 to 100,000 immediately recognizable patterns, and that this repertoire enables them to identify a good move without having to calculate all possible contingencies." In other words, "Recognition Primed Decision Making" suggests that with enough experience, it's possible to recognize and select the most likely course or outcomes based on experience. Perhaps the least appreciated example of RPD in history is the case of Stanislav Petrov, who in 1983 was in control of a Soviet nuclear missile battery when their early detection system blared a warning that the United States had initiated a launch of multiple warheads.

Petrov - risking an unchecked nuclear annihilation and probably the soviet equivalent of an Article 15 - delayed a nuclear retaliation because:

He just had this feeling in his gut that it wasn't right. It was five missiles. It didn't seem like enough. So even though by all of the protocols he had been trained to follow, he should absolutely have reported that up the chain of command and, you know, we should be talking about the great nuclear war of 1983 if any of us survived."

NPR Interview with Petrov

But NDM isn't perfect... Often, the expectations we create when someone has the experience to trust their gut fit only a narrow band of criteria. In the case of Petrov, he was trained to look for a full scale launch of nuclear weapons. When they detected only 5, he assumed (correctly) that this approach didn't make sense. As put by Orasanu and Connoly:

These experts are expected to successfully attain vaguely defined goals in the face of uncertainty, time pressure, high stakes, team and organizational constraints, shifting conditions, and action feedback loops that enable people to manage disturbances while trying to diagnose them.

Orasanu & Connolly, 1993

Surely, you can see how this bias of expertise can be imperfect, if not manipulated.

Briefly, Heuteristics and Biases

By contrast, the H&B approach is deeply skeptical of human intuition, instead relying on statistics, algorithms, and the omission of biases in thinking. Indeed, the Heuteristics and Biases approach found that there's very little correlation between perception and expectation. Given this, H&B deals more with 'fact' than intuition, and builds a framework that approaches expertise with skepticism... a position that we ourselves have taken.

However, the H&B crowd, by nature of their approach, often develop and test their suspicions in the laboratory - which unsurprisingly isolates many of the important influences that occur in day to day life.

If H&B were fool proof, we'd be gifted the ability to look at the record of a fighter or Chess player's win/loss record, and make factual statements about their odds, when in reality, every fight or strategic match-up is distinctly individual, and the subtle changes that occur within those matches frequently lead to surprises and upsets, even when other things (training, weight, conditioning, etc) are held reasonably constant.

So, now that we know a little about some of the ways intuition is considered, and as we get to know how our metaphorical gut works, we can better decide on what information we provide to it for making quick, efficient decisions about people and situations.

Intent Analysis

Have you ever waved at someone when an innocent bystander has been caught in the way? Most of us have. Think back on the last time that happened, whether it was you waving, or mistakingly finding yourself the recipient of some unsolicited kindness. Was the surprised person angry? Grimacing as if someone had insulted them?

Chances are if we follow the Recognition Primed Decision making concept, they were either confused or happy. We generally accept that when someone looks happy and is waving, that our experience with this is positive, right? 

While this can be used against you, in the form of ruses, most of us in the modern West recognize this as a genuinely non-threatening act. We don't immediately default to looking for a blindside attacker, because that would be wildly out of step with our experience and biases.

How about when someone says your name in public? Do you immediately turn to see who's trying to get your attention? It's a pretty natural response, if so. Didn't work out so well for Bin Laden's son, who allegedly got his cap peeled when the SEALs called out his name during their Abouttabad raid in 2011.

But again, our experiences generally don't create the expectation that we'll get shot for responding to someone calling our name.

The purpose of this section is to establish this: we are experts of our current domain. We have years of reacting to "normal" circumstances in which someone trying to get your attention is a rote part of existing. It's also to reinforce that those habits create an intuition that can be easily used against you.

Don't take this as an insinuation that you should start reacting violently to mundane acts - just be aware that these biases exist! When it comes to making snap decisions, we should take into account the backdrop on which those circumstances are occurring. If SEALs are raiding your home, and someone calls your name, you should be suspicious, as someone is trying to kill you. If you're standing in line at Chipotle, it's probably less of a concern. Be aware, use judgment, and don't get in the habit of not changing your perception of intent with circumstances.

Let's get to the point. How to tell whether or not someone is being honest or likely lying.

If only it were this easy, right? Well, it kind of is. If you stack the signs, it might not give you a physical sign, but you can certainly begin turning trends into reasonable conclusions.

Perhaps one of the single most important skills you can develop is the ability to instinctively recognize a lie. In his book "Alas, Babylon", Pat Frank wrote:

"Lying was the worst crime, the indispensable accomplice of all others, and would always bring the worst punishment."

As we wrote in "The Strength of the Pack", trust is a non-negotiable requirement of intragroup success during emergencies. Ferretting out lies - whether for good or bad - is an ability that will go a *long* way in safeguarding trust, before you find yourself reliant on someone who is untrustworthy. There are some common signs of lying, but for the most part, we use indicators of nervousness to determine whether or not a person is lying. That's a less than reliable with people who are skill liars, or worse, those who can justify anything to themselves and become comfortable lying. Those are usually the types most prone to abusing trust. As Let's look at a few of the most common indicators.

Things to look for:

  • "Buying Time" Subject change(s), Clearing the Throat, Shifting, delaying Answers

    One of the first things I look for is efforts to buy time; this could be answering a question no one asked, clearing the throat, making a visible effort to get more comfortable, sighing, looking annoyed... Just about anything that's not an effort to just answer the question. When someone answers truthfully, they typically don't require a whole lot of time, especially if the question is simple. Keep in mind that longer answers (reconstructing a timeline, for example) take time and allowing some time for an accurate recollection is important. If you start to see this behavior, enter it into your mental database, because it's a surefire sign that someone isn't happy that you're asking them hard questions.
  • Counter-accusations

    One of my favorite tools in the 'bad liar' toolbox is immediately making a counteraccusation. This is basically the spoiled leftovers from childhood, and you see it more often than not when someone is desperate. If you're asking for answers and someone interjects with something like "she's lying!" they're doing a couple things that should send up red flags: they're trying to deflect from answering the question while calling the other person's character into question.

    Contrast "she's lying!" with "that's not true!"

    Saying "that's not true" is directly addressing the issue, it doesn't attack character, and it likely indicates honesty. Lashing out with "She's lying!" doesn't do anything to address the question and it attempts to reframe the questioning by attacking someone's character. This is a liars 'gateway drug'. If they can successfully convince you that the other person's character IS suspicious (and it often is) you end up with a "Cats game" in which no party can be trusted and you instead have a "he-said, she-said" situation to untangle. A final thought on this is that it doesn't just apply to people. When lying, people will often create a scapegoat. For example, if you're trying to find out why someone was late and they say "My stupid car broke down", you effectively have the same phenomenon. Is it possible that their car broke down and really is stupid? 
    Yes, but be on the lookout for other signs.
  • Eye Contact/movement

    One of the pop culture favorites is eye movement. Everyone thinks they can tell if someone is lying by their eye movements, but studies have broadly shown no correlation with lying and eye movement. What often gets left out of these studies is that categorically, the people involved in them are regular citizens, who aren't under the influence of drugs or alcohol. My personal take is that people get twitchy in the eyes when they're uncomfortable. Again, being uncomfortable doesn't mean they're lying, but it's certainly a sign of nervousness.

    One of the more reliable measures is a forced gaze. People who are trying NOT to move their eyes are often subtly trying to intimidate their way out of an uncomfortable position. As we discussed above, you have a baseline with eye contact in normal social situations. When you see strong deviations, trust your gut!
  • Rambling, Overselling, and Too Many Details

    Liars who have contrived stories often talk like they're getting paid by the word. They'll reconstruct every little detail in a vain attempt to make the story more 'real'. Someone who is telling the truth is generally able to give honest, reasonable answers without answering questions you didn't ask. When people start answering unasked questions, start thinking of ways to trip them up. They're probably making things up. It's counterintuitive, but they may give very quick answers to questions regarding details, unless they think you already know the answers.

    The scene in Ronin where DeNiro asks "what color is the boathouse at Hereford?" comes to mind. Someone who is nervous might not have an answer. Someone who is a good liar might snap back a quick answer that has some plausible deniability ("It's dark colored"... dark what? That is, at least in part, subjective). Someone who has actually seen Hereford might know there are more than one boathouse.
  • Grooming, Fidgeting, Obscuring the face, and Hiding Postures

    Normal physical posturing sometimes includes some of these, so don't be overly alarmed just because someone strokes their chin or rests their head on a hand while thinking, but very often these kinds of behaviors are a significant sign of discomfort. These kinds of gestures aren't limited to just grooming of the self, but also to reorienting things within ones' personal space. Often a sign of exerting some control over their surroundings, those who are nervous while being questioned may take to organizing their desk, rearranging papers, or arranging things in front of them. Again, this isn't an absolute indicator of lying, but it's a significant sign of discomfort and someone feeling as if they're not in control. Some people are naturally uncomfortable when being approached by authority and may do this anyway, but it's a useful sign.
  • Proper Language and Phrases

    The emphatic "I did not go there" type of language often indicates that the liar is working very hard at trying to be convincing. This is often used by people in power as a sort of condescension, or tactic to "spell it out" for their inferiors. These statements are also common among those schooled in law - as they commonly don't address the actual facts and rely instead on ill-defined verbiage. So while Bill Clinton "did not have sexual relations with that woman", the way he answered the question *seems* to address it, without ever defining what 'sexual relations' means. Hot take: we're about to see round two, so watch for some of these tells.

    Another one you'll see often is when people say stuff like "categorically", "honestly", or "to tell you the truth". I don't rely on these because I use them all the time. It's not because I'm lying but because I'm long winded, as you no doubt already know.

Facial analysis and Expressions
Duchenne Facial Expressions, circa 1862

Have you ever met someone who just seemed "fake"? Why do you think that is?

Often times, we read subtle cues from people without being able to put our finger on exactly what it is about them that makes us suspicious. Sometimes it's a combination of things. Have you met someone who gladly shakes your hand and smiles enthusiastically, but walks away during conversation? How about someone who takes too much or too little care of their appearance?

We instinctively know that no one can be too perfect without obsessive maintenance, or too imperfect without significantly bad decision making, and to tie back to earlier, these things are out of the norm of our experience. They may have posture or expressions that look (and often area) well rehearsed to leave only a good (or menacing) impression.

Before we break into expressions and how we can read them, it's important to note that Paul Ekman's studies on expressions and micro expressions found that they are largely universal (though criticism to this theory exists). That means that generally, most places you go, no matter what language is spoken, the following expressions will be interpreted more or less the same.

Happiness and Smiling

Smiling, as it turns out, isn't a 'one size fits all' endeavor. One of our principle expressions, there are several types of smiles, and they can have different implications. I grew up around a lot of Soviet ex-pats, and around them, smiling was a sign you were simple or homosexual. They had a deep seated mistrust of smiling, and since then, smiling has been associated with diminished masculinity in males.

Less stoic cultures often use the smile as a courtesy, or sign of accommodation. In the West, we see white people constantly do what's referred to as an "uneven smile" where they basically move their mouth as if they're trying to convince you they're happy to see you when they really just want to be left alone. Worse yet, is the "PanAm" smile, a phrase which came from the bankrupted Airline which forced it's stewardesses to smile constantly. Since it doesn't take a genius to figure out they aren't always happy to see you, there was a characteristic lack of honesty in the expression... notably, raising the cheeks and corners of the mouth, but exercising no other facial muscles.

Contrasting that, the genuine, or Duchenne smile, engages the orabicularis occuli muscles - the muscles of the eyes in addition to the cheeks and mouth. Exaggerated flexion of the Duchenne smile can still be a sign of forced, disingenuous smiling, but in general, it is an expression of genuine happiness.

Reading the intent behind someones smile can be helpful in trying to interpret their motives.

Fake smiles are generally a sign of discomfort.


As we said earlier, 'panic is contagious', and there's actually a reason for that; facial expressions of fear drive right to the amygdala, where they're immediately processed for what they are: a sign that some other human is terrified of something. The stress response responsible for "Fight, Flight, freeze" is, in this case, a lack of information fused with observable panic. Part of the reason we are so adamant about 'stress inoculation' is that if we can be receptive to fear without panicking, our ability to make solid judgments under pressure can survive that initial onslaught of neurotransmitters telling you to run fast and far. If people are being honest, when things get dangerous, fear is a part of life, and it doesn't have to be a bad thing. There are times when you *should* get out of the path and reevaluate later... but the goal in training for stress is to get the body used to being scared without surrendering to panic or inaction (Flight or freezing). Well constructed scenario based training and force-on-force, give us some of the stress without the consequences, and very quickly reveals whether or not an approach will work under pressure or not.

Fear is somewhat unique in this section in that it isn't ambiguous. When someone is scared, there's really not much chance you're going to mistake their mood.


Just as a smile doesn't mean someone is happy with you, expressions of anger don't mean they are angry with you. We're pretty distant from routine violence as of right now, even with all that's going on in the West at the time of this writing. Looks of anger bear resemblance to frustration, contemplation, and concern, especially in stressful situations in which true anger will be easily recognizable. We don't need to spend too much time on identifying anger, but we've discussed in the past how avoidance plays a major role in dodging "negative outcomes".

Microexpressions, Mirror Imaging, and The "other" expressions

There are, of course, other expressions and indicators of stress, (dis)honesty, or satisfaction, as well as phenomenon such as Mirroring, or changing ones posture to match those near you. The subtle nuance of reading into people's motives and nonverbal cues would be best served by future articles, but in the meantime, the work of Dr. Paul Ekman is the imminent guide, and he provides some good reading and learning exercises here.

Don't just pass this link up - it's seriously an excellent resource for better understanding Physiognomy (the study of facial features and expressions).


One of the major components of lying from my experience has been drug use. People who are on drugs might lie due to embarrassment, deviousness, or to conceal something that might get them in trouble, but there are some tell-tale signs physiologically that should be mentioned, most notably the dilation or contraction of the pupils. While erratic behavior is common, it's not always a surefire sign someone is on drugs. In some cases, it might be because they're not on drugs. In any case, the pupils tell some of the story, so watch for excessive dialation or constriction of the pupils.

In general, we expect a person is on downers or depressants when their pupils are 'pinpoint'. This one is tricky because your pupils naturally contract if there's plenty of ambient light, so don't just to a conclusion based on this alone.

On the other hand, when people are using stimulants or 'uppers', such as meth or cocaine, their pupils tend to dialate. Again if it's dark this is a natural response, so make sure the dilation is unusual given the circumstances.

A final word on this: there's plenty more to drug induced behaviors and psychosis, and this isn't a definitive guide. It should simply serve as something to be aware of during your interactions with unknown contacts and can provide addition information to substantiate your suspicions.


No matter your view of H&B and NDM, familiarity with situations is what creates intuition, and being an active participant in your environment is part of becoming familiar with situations. Trusting your gut, as we've seen, is as much about knowing when the situation *doesn't* match your experiential framework as it is about finding patters that do. H.A. Simon said the following in "What is an explanation of behavior?":

“The situation has provided a cue: This cue has given the expert access to information stored in memory, and the information provides the answer. Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition”

If we believe what he says is true, intuition is as simple as taking the initiative and making the effort to build recognition, and that, at least to me, seems an intelligent goal.




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