The HBO documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, about Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, begins with a haunting scene: Holmes is answering various benign questions about the future, and throughout it all, she hardly blinks. That is, until Holmes is asked to tell a secret — at which point she looks down and blinks repeatedly.
The Cut spoke with Maria Konnikova, the New Yorker writer and psychology Ph.D., to determine whether we should read anything into this. Konnikova spent three years with con artists for her 2017 book The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It … Every Time, and followed that up by becoming a professional poker player — learning how to read people and spot sincerity or insincerity — for her forthcoming book, The Biggest Bluff.
“I will caveat this by saying that it’s impossible to tell when someone’s lying, and anyone who tells you that it is possible is full of shit,” Konnikova prefaced the interview. Here’s what else she said.
What can blinking tell us? What is it about blinking that is so significant when it comes to trying to read people?
The answer is: absolutely nothing. The bottom line, for people who have studied this for years and years, is that there is no such thing as a Pinocchio’s nose of lying. There is no way you can look at a person and be like, “This person is lying,” or “This person is not lying.” The person who develops that technology is going to be billionaire; this is why lie detector tests don’t work. What we can tell is if a person is experiencing cognitive load, which means they’re uncomfortable or there’s something going on in their mind that is overwhelming their processing capacity. There are signs of cognitive load, and those signs might mean that they’re lying — but they might mean something else, and there’s your problem.
So you’re saying that we can’t really tell if someone is lying just by reading their body language?
Even people who can spot microexpressions, who can spot signs of physical discomfort, don’t know what’s causing that discomfort. Sure, it might be lying, but it might be the fact that they’re worried or stressed about something else. They could be uncomfortable or hiding something totally unrelated. You just don’t know. The other issue is that if the person is a professional liar or a con artist — someone who does this all the time — there is no discomfort for them because they’re living their lie. So you’re actually not going to see any of the classical signs.
I actually spent some time with one of the women who is basically one of [psychologist] Paul Ekman’s superhuman lie detectors — one of the people who can naturally spot microexpressions that most humans miss. It takes hours and hours of training to be able to spot them at least some of the time, and there are people who can spot them naturally. This woman consults with law enforcement and she said that whenever she meets with psychopaths or someone who is basically at the top of their game, there are no microexpressions. She can’t tell if they’re lying or not, and that really scares her. That’s basically what you need to know about trying to use this in any sort of predictive capacity.
In the documentary, there was an interview clip in which Elizabeth Holmes didn’t blink until she was asked “Can you tell us a secret?” and then she blinks a lot. And throughout the documentary, you hear her employees repeatedly saying that she never blinks. So, what do you think might be going on there?
Nothing. Please do quote me on this because I don’t want people to be misled: It really represents nothing. People have different physiological baselines. There are no generalizations you can make; it all needs to be specific to the person. So what you are going to need to do is actually establish baseline of behavior for Elizabeth Holmes. You will need to gather 24/7 data of her blinking, and observe hours and hours and hours of footage of her just going through her life. And then, what you can tell — the things that are actually meaningful — are not the blinking or the not-blinking; it’s the deviation from baseline.
Are there certain situations where her blinking behavior changes consistently and enough times that you can actually see a pattern? If that’s true, all you can say is that these are deviations from baseline, so it must be significant for some reason. But you can only infer what those reasons might be; you can’t say what they actually are. If her employees are saying she never blinks, then I’m guessing her physiology is just such that she doesn’t blink as often as other people.
On another note, I know that you became a professional poker player for your book. When you did that, did you have to change any of your own behaviors?
No. What you have to do is to monitor your baseline. You need to make sure that you standardize your behaviors as much as possible, so that people don’t see you deviating in certain situations, because poker is incredibly stressful. It’s actually not a bad comparison for what happens to someone like Elizabeth Holmes when she’s in the spotlight. Some people do actually give off physical tells because they’re uncomfortable and not monitoring how they’re acting. So it’s not as much about modifying your behavior as it’s being very aware of what you’re doing – and trying to do the exact same thing every single time, so that you’re giving off as little information as possible when you’re playing a hand. Controlling your baseline is something you really have to learn to do if you’re going to do well as a poker player.
When it comes to people who are accused of massive fraud, is there anything we can observe by watching them? Or really, is it that we have to see hours of tape and figure it out from there?
There’s no straightforward answer to that question. The safe answer is that you really just need to observe them. That said, because I spent three years and hundreds and hundreds of hours with con artists, you do start seeing certain trends pop up, like the types of things they say, the types of excuses they make up, the types of ways that they express themselves. Sure, there are certain patterns, but you do need a lot of data to come to those conclusions.
Some of the things I write about in my book about the dark triad of traits — psychopathy, narcissism, Machiavellianism — have correlates in how people hold themselves and how they talk. Some of the things, in my mind, that really unite the best con artists and unite a lot of the stories that we’re seeing today is that these people are incredibly charming and articulate, and they have an excuse for everything. If you spend too much time listening to them, you start to question yourself and what you know. That’s a very scary proposition.
To those of us who watched the documentary and subsequently think that we have Elizabeth Holmes totally figured out, what would you say?
I would say: we don’t know exactly what’s happening, and that it’s going to happen again. Right now we’re all saying “Oh no, this is outrageous, how could people ever fall for it?” And yet I am willing to bet any amount of money that there are multiple Elizabeth Holmeses operating with a lot of venture capital in Silicon Valley that no one is going after. So I would just urge people to be a little bit humble and realize that you never know quite as much as you think you know.
It’s really, really easy to have 20/20 hindsight after the fact. Hindsight bias is an incredibly strong psychological force, and it means that with the knowledge of hindsight, you basically reinterpret information and data to suit what actually happened, as opposed to realizing what information you had in the moment and at the time. People like Elizabeth Holmes are incredibly well able to manipulate those around them. I’ve never met her, but from some of the things I’ve seen and heard, it seems like she’s obviously someone who’s incredibly able to draw people into her magnetism. There is just something about her, and that’s not at all uncommon. So, I would urge caution and I would urge people to realize that if they met Elizabeth Holmes, there’s a very real chance they would be taken in by her.
This interview has been lightly edited.