“Tells” in the Poker Game of Life

(Last updated on: April 5, 2018)

Tells nicubunu_Card_backs_cards_blue 200pxScience Fact: “Tells” are the unconscious tics that give away your deepest secrets – not just in a game of poker, but in everyday life.

Do you think you can keep a secret? Not from a careful observer!

And: Can you communicate nonverbally when you want to? Absolutely, yes.

There is confusion in terminology between “tells,” “body language” and the term that some prefer, “kinesics.” The words seem to be most often used as follows:
– The term “tells” is used in poker and other games to denote behavior that may reveal another player’s thinking. Tells may be unconscious and reveal information that can change the outcome of a game; or tells may be faked (“false tells”) in order to mislead another player.
– “Body language” is a term popularly used to describe both conscious and unconscious nonverbal communication. The concept is that even when you are not talking, your body has things to say!
– Some researchers prefer the term “kinesics” rather than “body language,” because nonverbal communication does not satisfy a linguist’s definition of what constitutes a “language.”

As noted above, nonverbal communication may be conscious or unconscious, that is, intentional or unintentional. If it’s conscious, it may be true or false depending on our intent; if it’s unconscious, then it reflects what we believe to be true, which may or may not be factual.

Tells Reveal Our Secrets

The power of unconscious communication was used as a plot point by Mark Twain in chapter 11 of Huckleberry Finn. Huck is dressed as a girl and has stopped at a farmhouse seeking information. The woman there quickly perceives the “tells” that expose Huck’s deception:
– He tries to thread a needle by moving the needle, not the thread
– He does too good a job of throwing a lump of lead at a rat
– He catches the lead in his lap by bringing his knees together.

Huck compounds his problem by forgetting whether his name is Sarah or Mary. Fortunately, he manages to contrive a story and leave without being turned in to the authorities.

Of course, this is just fiction. More in the real world is the polygraph (“lie detector”), a machine that was invented specifically to detect falsehoods. Although some studies have shown the polygraph to be reasonably effective when testing untrained subjects, a person who has something to hide can train himself to deceive the device. In fact, there have been some notorious cases where the polygraph gave incorrect results, either exonerating a guilty person or implicating an innocent one.

The transparency of our innermost thoughts was shown in a direct and simple experiment many years ago, in 1960, at the University of Chicago (abstract, full article). The researchers filmed the eyes of six men and women, both married and unmarried, while they were shown a series of photographs. The video frames were then studied to measure the pupils of the test subjects’ eyes.

A previous experiment by others had shown that childless women prefer images of baby animals to adult animals of the same species, much more so than childless men. This preference holds whether the test subjects are married or unmarried.

Therefore, the researchers chose a series of photos that they thought would reveal strong differences between men and women: a baby; a mother holding a young child; a “partially nude” man; a “partially nude” woman; and a landscape. Each photo was shown for ten seconds, a total of twenty times, with the same level of ambient lighting. The tests were repeated one day later on the same subjects.

The results, graphed in the chart below, show significant differences in pupil size, consistent with the idea that your pupils get bigger when you are looking at something that you like or approve of.

Changes in mean pupil area.xlsx

Despite the small number of subjects, the results were so significant, and so repeatable, that we can be pretty confident in the results. As the researchers quote, the eyes indeed are “windows of the soul.”

Do these results mean that pupil dilation, at least, is a reliable measure of a person’s emotions? Many card players fear “tells” revealed by their eyes, not only by pupil size but by where they look and for how long. For those reasons, you may see professional gamblers wearing reflective sunglasses during tournaments to hide their eyes.

However, it’s not that straightforward:
Pupils enlarge for many reasons: affection, sexual arousal, preparation for “fight or flight,” in response to drugs or illness, and of course in response to ambient light.
– A person who wanted to intentionally confuse pupillary signals could use techniques similar to those who train to fool polygraphs – either physical techniques (the old “thumbtack in the shoe” trick) or mental conditioning.

Nevertheless, within the overall context of how a person looks and acts, pupil dilation can provide valuable information that is difficult to fake.

Body Language Helps Us Communicate

Just as tells can reveal more than we wish, other kinds of nonverbal communication can be used to consciously send a message.

In law enforcement, body language works both to reveal and to control: a suspect’s behavior may suggest innocence or guilt; at the same time, an investigator’s nonverbal cues may influence what the suspect does in a way that muddles the evidence that is being sought.

Businesspeople are often trained to adopt an open or closed posture to match their immediate communication goal: to enhance rapport; or to signal disapproval or intransigence in negotiations.

Note added 2/8/2017 and updated 2/6/2018: Some new recommended reading: In 2017 Zoey Miller wrote a long post about female body language on her life-experience website TheBabbleOut.com. Her article was titled How to tell if a girl likes you (8+1 signs she likes you – 2017 list!). Her article was directed to a man looking for a female relationship but as of 2018 I can no longer find it on her website. However, she has two other articles that touch on body language: How to tell if someone is lying? [7 Sure Signs] and What is Emotional Intelligence and How to Improve It?

We know that relationship formation is a complex process that depends on the present and past history of both parties. The subtle communication provided by body language plays a valuable role in testing the way forward for each participant. Miller’s articles touch on the gestures and actions used to communicate “I’m interested.”

Science Speculation: What more can we say, except that the smile is the biggest nonverbal tool of all!

A warm smile is the universal language of kindness. – William Arthur

Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy. ― Thich Nhat Hanh

A smile confuses an approaching frown. – Author Unknown

Always remember to be happy, because you never know who’s falling in love with your smile. – Author Unknown

Wear a smile and have friends; wear a scowl and have wrinkles. – George Eliot

By the way, I’m wearing the smile you gave me. – Author Unknown

Do you watch for or use “tells” or other nonverbal communication?

Sources: More smile quotes may be found here:

Drawing Credit: nicubunu, on openclipart.org


“Tells” in the Poker Game of Life — 7 Comments

  1. My apologies for the delay in your post appearing, Bob. Perhaps this was your first post under this e-mail address. But now that you have an approved post, your future posts should appear immediately.

  2. I’m so glad polygraphs are not allowed in courtrooms. For decades I was repeatedly told how sensitive classified information was, which so sensitized me that I responded poorly to polygraph questions that even mentioned the subject. They were searching for ‘tells’, but I created too many false positives. I’m glad I’m through with that whole process and system.

    • Some of my jobs required occasional polygraph tests. That was long ago. I remember that I was nervous about my first polygraph and twitchy-feeling. I passed, but suspect my data was noisy. The lie-detector system is obviously imperfect since people can be trained to fool it. If they had a more reliable system, perhaps they would use it. If polygraphs were required everywhere, only expert spies would be sure of passing the test! (That sounds something like, “if guns were outlawed only outlaws would have guns,” doesn’t it?)

  3. Social “tells” serve the same purpose as “smilies” in email communication. Without them, your meaning of what you do or say can too easily be misunderstood which can in turn lead to permanent misunderstandings and distrust. In that sense we are all “programmed” to unconsciously reveal our emotional state to others by default. We have to override that tendency in situations where we really don’t want the other person to know what we are thinking, otherwise it will be plain to see or be sensed. It’s an adaptation we made as we evolved into a communal species, I suspect.

    • I have a personal story where “tells” were a matter of life & death.
      During the war, I was hiding my Jewish identity under that of a Catholic Pole and lived, in Warsaw and in Vienna, in constant fear of being discovered. Ostensibly, I blended well, looks, demeanor and unaccented Polish. Yet, I was discovered several times. After the war I have met some of the “discoverers” and asked them WHAT gave me away? Among other factors, one stood out: my eyes. For decades, I wondered HOW? The factors in your Post: pupil dilation, where and how long one looks – seem best answer to my wondering.
      Author, Hiding in the Open

      • Zenon, that is an appropriate and scary story! Thank you for sharing it. It’s true, it’s difficult or impossible to fake what our eyes give away.

    • A good observation, Charles. Our default software seems to be to communicate with each other, to the point that it’s not under our (conscious, at least) control.