Real life rarely wraps up as neatly as this: On Sunday, the season finale of HBO’s documentary series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst aired what sounded like a hot-mike, accidental confession from Robert Durst, recorded as he muttered to himself in the bathroom. Just one day before, Durst was arrested in New Orleans over suspicions of his involvement in the 2000 death of his close friend Susan Berman. But some of us have at least one last, lingering question here: What was happening with Durst’s weirdly intense body language during his interviews with the documentary crew?
Before and after responding to questions, Durst would blink excessively and, sometimes, forcefully, as if he was using the whole of his bodily strength to perform what’s normally an automatic behavior. (Over at Gawker, Rich Juzwiak put together a nice supercut of Durst’s blinking, by the way.) At one point during the finale, Durst covered his face with his hands in response to an interviewer’s question. And then there was the burping! Can tics like these ones reveal a liar, as many fans of the show seem to believe?
The not-simple answers are: Kind of, yes! But also — no, not really.
According to Joe Navarro, a former FBI counterintelligence officer and the author of several books on nonverbal communication, it’s too simplistic to say that odd behaviors like these directly implicate Durst in the murders. “First of all, there is not one single behavior indicative of deception,” Navarro said. “Not one. No one can claim that. The research is very ample, going back to 1986 — repeated studies have demonstrated that there is no ‘Pinocchio effect,’ per se.”
That said, behavioral analysis can certainly lead interrogators in the right direction — because what these behaviors do signify is that the person is stressed. “So a lot of times what we do notice is that when we ask a question, the person maybe does one of those hard swallows, or they scratch their neck or touch their neck, or their blink rate goes up,” Navarro said. “But — again — those are not indicators of deception. Those are indicators that something is stressing the person at that very moment.”
The blink rate in particular, Navarro said, is something worth paying attention to. While researching his 2008 book on nonverbal communication, What Every BODY Is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed Reading People, Navarro tracked down old clips of two former presidents — Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton — as they were interviewed about their respective scandals. As he watched, he focused on something very specific: He counted the number of times they each blinked. “The average blink rate is between 8 and 12 blinks a minute, and these individuals were in the 60s and 70s per minute,” he said. (He wrote about this for Psychology Today a few years back, where he said he counted a peak of 68 blinks for Nixon and 92 for Clinton.)
It’s not clear why blinking might be associated with nerves, Navarro said. In the context of lying, at least, it’s likely not about avoiding eye contact — research has suggested that liars, somewhat counterintuitvely, deliberately seek and hold eye contact with the people they’re lying to, in order to appear more convincing. Navarro’s best guess is that it’s an evolutionary holdover.
It may have to do with the body’s automatic need to sort of “window wash.” So go back 10,000 years — you’re out on the savannah and you see the number-one predator of humans, which was large felines. And so your heart pumps — you need to be able to do something in a second. And, meanwhile, your eyes are sitting there window washing — they’re cleaning themselves.
In other words, when you’re under threat, you know you’re going to have to make a move, and quickly — but before that, you need to be able to see! (Eh, maybe not the most convincing explanation ever, but he’s a former FBI agent, not an evolutionary psychologist.)
At any rate, a good interrogator, Navarro said, is highly cognizant of these nervous behaviors, while also realizing that it’s just as important to pay attention to the question that prompted that physical response. “All we can really say is that there is an autonomic reaction to the question,” he said. “The question then is — why? What was the question, and what was it about the question?”
Once, he recalls, he interviewed a man who had been brought in for questioning for connection with a murder case. The man didn’t realize that the autopsy report had revealed the weapon: an ice pick. “So if you kill somebody with an ice pick … versus a machete, or some cutting instrument, you’re not going to react to machete when the word is mentioned,” said Navarro. Ice pick, however, should produce a reaction. He remembers asking the man, “Well, you’re claiming that you had nothing to do with this guy’s death — but if you had, would you have used an ice pick?”
“Boy, you should’ve seen this guy — his chin came down, his eyes closed. He just tightened up like a ball of rubber bands,” Navarro said. “And why would he react that way? There’s only one word there that could’ve hurt him — the ice pick.”
But the body-language strategy falls apart if the interviewee is uncomfortable, perhaps because of the way the interviewer is phrasing the questions, or some other aspect of the environment. Navarro told the story of a woman brought in for questioning in connection with a white-collar crime — she claimed her identity had been stolen and was being used to claim benefits she wasn’t entitled to. As Navarro questioned her, he noticed she was behaving oddly, pulling on her earlobes, compressing and licking her lips. “I was observing all the behaviors in the books that say, Oh, she’s guilty,” Navarro said. “And so I said, ‘Ma’am, you look like you need to get something off your chest.’”
She did indeed: When she’d parked, she only had two quarters to feed the meter, and she was afraid of getting a ticket she couldn’t afford to pay. After they went down together to feed the meter (with money from Navarro’s own wallet), she relaxed; in the end, she had nothing to do with the crime. Odd body language, including Durst’s tics like blinking and even repetitive burping, can, in the right hands, serve as a useful clue — but never a definite answer.