Poker faced in Manchester

Ella Rhodes previews psychological offerings at the Manchester Science Festival.

Think you know the signs someone is lying to you? Think again. Psychologist Dr Paul Seager (University of Central Lancashire) will be giving a talk on bluffing, deceit and body language in poker at a special gambling-related evening of events at Manchester Science Festival.

An occasional poker-player himself, Seager has researched our ability, or lack thereof, to detect lies. He told The Psychologist that humans are much worse at this than we think. ‘I’ll be telling the audience that generally we really are not good at lie-detection, despite some people thinking they’re quite good at it. However, in poker as in life, being good at spotting lies and bluffs takes a lot of patience, practice and observation.’

Poker is a particularly interesting game from a psychological point of view, Seager said, because while usually we have a bias towards thinking people are being honest, the reverse is true when the chips are down and money is on the line. He told us: ‘One of the fun things about poker is it gives us licence to lie, a practice generally frowned upon in polite society! So in poker we assume everyone is lying to us, or at the very least trying to bluff us.’

Many poker players assume the best approach is to bluff almost constantly, but Seager said the dynamic is more complex than that. ‘You have to be patient and not force the issue –don’t bluff all the time and choose the right moment when you do. You should also be observing all the time. It’s a social game and many chat to friends while not in a hand, but you’re not going to be the best poker player if you do that because you’re missing tons of information.’

Where do people go wrong? Seager said many poker players miss some quite obvious cues or look for the wrong cues entirely. ‘There’s one concrete cue that most people miss and it amazes me! Someone might be chatting away with people round the table, then get dealt a hand and suddenly they abruptly stop talking. It’s quite obvious that person has just picked up a monster of a hand. They immediately start thinking “oh my God how am I going to play this hand?” Instead of expending their energy on being sociable they suddenly start channelling that energy on how they’re going to make the most of the hand. It’s a classic sign but more people than you think miss that, because they’re not looking for it.’ 

Many players, and people who see themselves as good lie detectors generally, tend to believe that a person who is lying avoids eye contact or shifts nervously about in their seat. However, one of the keys to accurate lie detection is knowing how people act in non-stressful or truthful situations and using that behaviour as an ‘honest baseline’ for comparing against their current, potentially suspicious, behaviour.

Seager explained: ‘A study by the Global Deception Team in 50 odd different countries asked people what cue they looked for if they thought someone was lying and the first one mentioned in most countries was a lack of eye contact. It’s a typical cue someone looks for, but obviously a good liar knows that’s what people are looking for, so they’ll hold their eye contact slightly longer than normal just to make the person feel uncomfortable; they think because they’re holding eye contact they couldn’t possibly be lying. It’s a cue people believe is linked to deception but generally speaking research says it isn’t. However, in certain circumstances it might be, but lie detection is quite a complicated process.’ 

So what does a good poker player actually look like? A good poker player, Seager said, doesn’t talk much at the table, they blend in and observe all the time. He added: ‘They’ll be observing how others act whether they’re in a hand or not, how people act when they’re under stress and not under stress. Only by building up all that information will you become good enough to reliably spot when someone is trying to bluff you.’

Seager’s talk is taking place as part of the Science of Gambling event on Saturday 22 October at Manchester’s 235 casino. There are also several other psychology and neuroscience events taking place at this year’s festival (see below), which is sponsored by Siemens and Lead Educational Sponsor The University of Salford. 

See for ticket information.

The Chronarium Sleep Lab

Immerse yourself in the UK premiere of The Chronarium. This public sleep laboratory aims to transform a bustling public space into a communal haven for relaxation and wellbeing. Lie back and rest inside hanging swings, while an audio-visual experience aims to reset your circadian rhythm for better, more harmonious sleep. The Chronarium was originally commissioned by FutureEverything Festival and debuted over a sold-out run in Singapore in 2015.

Audience: Adults and families age tbc

Venue: Manchester Arndale

Date:  Thursday 20 October – Sunday 30 October

Time: From 10 am

Cost and booking info: Free. Book on the day at the venue

Silent signal

This collection of six films explores new ways of thinking about the human body, using animation and contributions from leading biomedical scientists. See the journeys made by infectious diseases, battles with bacteria, intercellular memory, the science of sleep, the link between biology and machines and how scientists imagine their own work. 

Audience:  Adults

Venue: MediaCityUK campus, University of Salford

Date:  Thursday 20 October – Sunday 30 October

Time: 10am – 4pm

Cost and booking info: Free. Drop in any time

MSF’s 10th birthday party

The Festival celebrates its 10th birthday this year. Grab a slice of cake and celebrate as you look at the science behind birthday parties, including the psychology of clowns, the maths of cake cutting and the fluid dynamics of chocolate fountains.

Audience:  Adults 18+  

Venue:  Museum of Science and Industry

Date: Thursday 27 October

Time: 7pm – 10.30pm

Cost and booking info:  Free. Booking advised

Adam Chodzko presents Deep Above

Delve into the relationship between psychology and climate change as you watch artist Adam Chodzko’s new film, Deep Above. Moving image and sound are used to explore our self-deceptions, examining the zones between the rational and irrational – and mind and body – while adopting the languages of meditation, hypnosis and ‘self help’.

Audience:  Adults and teenagers 13+ (under 18s to be accompanied by an adult)

Venue: Texture

Date: Saturday 22 October

Time: 7.30pm – 9.30pm

Cost and booking info: Free. Booking required

The Idiot Brain

Join Guardian science blogger and neuroscientist Dean Burnett and comedian Toby Hadoke for a light-hearted look at the most inefficient, bizarre and irrational workings of the human brain. Hear how the illogical nature of our brains can affect our everyday world, including why a glass of wine might improve our memory.

Audience: Adults 18+

Venue:  Museum of Science and Industry

Date: Friday 21 October

Time: 7pm – 8.30pm  

Cost and booking info: £8. Booking required

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