This article is written by Jeff Baird, a Certified Body Language Trainer through the Science of People and founder of Arise from the Dust, a mentoring service to help people overcome obstacles and conquer their goals. You can follow Jeff on Facebook here and Twitter here.
Too often we discover that famous athletes are taking some kind of illegal performance enhancing drugs or PEDs. Lance Armstrong is one of the most prominent to come to mind. With Crossfit building in popularity, the pressure is on for athletes wanting to compete in the Reebok Crossfit Games. Are they turning to PEDs to give them an edge? Richard Bohlken is one games athlete that was suspended from participating in the 2015 games for testing positive. Rich Froning, in particular, seems to have super human powers, having won the games 4 times in a row. In this video he’s asked if he uses steroids, which gives us an opportunity to analyze his verbal and nonverbal communication to see if we can see cues of lying.
Without training, we’re only able to detect lies from people with about 54% accuracy. That’s barely better than flipping a coin! However, with training and going through a methodical process of establishing a baseline and identifying clusters of red flags, we can improve our accuracy to 90%. As a case study, let’s apply some of the principles of lie detection to this video.
One note before we start looking for signs of lying: Nancy Carter and J. Mark Weber found in an experiment in 2010 that trusting people are better than cynics at detecting lies. Let’s keep this in mind so we don’t just ‘see what we want to see’. Giving the benefit of the doubt may help you be more accurate!
There are 7 steps to lie detection. The first four steps deal with establishing a baseline of verbal and nonverbal cues. What we’re looking for during these steps are what the person does under normal, truthful conditions. How do they speak and move when they’re relaxed? And how do they react when they are nervous or have other strong emotions? These cues are important to note so that you don’t mistake them for signs of lying. What do we notice about Rich’s body language and the way he speaks before he’s asked about steroid use?
At 12:35 in the video, here are some observations:
- The Torso is angled away from the interviewer
- He pivots back and forth in the chair
- Uses his hands for emphasis, but not a lot of arm movement
- From this video and others we can see that the contempt (or smirk) microexpression is a common punctuator that Rich uses
- Subtly shakes his head side to side at times
- Mostly is looking away from the interviewer
- Touches his nose briefly
- Shoulders are steady and don’t move much
- Eyes move around deliberately, rather than darting around
Let’s look at some portions of the video where he’s asked about legal substances. This is something he’s less likely to lie about because they’re legal, but might still make him nervous. This gives us a chance to see what his gestures and behaviors are like when he’s uncomfortable.
At 16:42 he’s asked about coffee or caffeine. What do we see here?
- Starts playing with his arm rests a little
- Slight lip purse
- Looks at the interviewer more frequently
- Does a finger point for emphasis
At 30:23 they ask him about other drugs, such as cigarettes. Not much new here. He’s breathing heavier, but he’s working out at the time. Context is of course an important consideration when interpreting body language cues.
Lying Red Flags:
Now that we have a good picture of what Rich looks like when he’s telling the truth, let’s look at when he’s asked about steroids. At this stage in lie detection, we’re looking for anything that’s different from his baselines. If there’s something that matches what he did in normal truthful conditions, we ignore it. If there is a cluster of red flags, we may have caught a lie. Let’s see what we can see.
One of the first things I noticed he does first is look intently at the interviewer.
With the whites of his eyes showing, it almost looks like he has an expression of fear. It’s not a solid cue, but possible Red Flag #1.
He still uses his hands for emphasis, pivots in his chair, shakes his head etc., but there’s not much change from the baseline.
Often times a shrug with one shoulder is a nonverbal leak of a lie. When people are truthful, they’ll shrug with both shoulders. Rich has this going for him, as there was a double-sided shrug at 14:02.
Is he telling the truth? What do you think? I don’t personally see enough red flags to conclude he’s lying, but maybe he’s just really good at lying. Let’s look at another part of the video, where he’s asked about other people in Crossfit using steroids at 15:53.
All of a sudden we start seeing some things different from the baseline.
He’s asked the question and makes a strange expression we haven’t seen before. He also starts fiddling with his arm rests, moving them up and down. This is something we didn’t see him do in the previous sections. Red Flag #1.
At 16:11 he leans his head forward and looks at the interviewer, almost like he’s looking more intently to see if he’s being believed. This is head movement we haven’t seen in the baselines. Red Flag #2.
He was then asked if he’s thought others have done steroids. Rather than answering a simple no, he answers that he doesn’t think steroids would be of much use in Crossfit. This is a non-answer, which is another common statistical cue of lying. Red Flag #3.
At 16:19 we also see him sticking out his tongue. Another behavior we didn’t see in previous segments. Red Flag #4.
At this point I’ve noticed 4 differences from his baseline. What did you notice? There are enough red flags that I’d wonder if he really knows someone that does.
Finally, they go back to talking to him about his own usage. There’s some signs of getting frustrated, but he more or less goes back to the baseline behavior we noted above.
The next and final step in lie detection is confirmation. If we think he is lying about something, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and see if we can find additional information. If we were talking to him in person, we could ask some additional questions to see if we can clarify as well as spot additional cues.
My own personal opinion from watching this video is Rich Froning is not using steroids. I’ve noticed other videos of him on other topics where he showed obvious cues that are common in lying (know as “tells”) that weren’t seen in this video. I do suspect he knows some others in the sport that are taking steroids.
Want even more on the Science of Lie Detection? Take our Lie Spotting Quiz!