Soul Reading

In Popular Crime, after quoting nine descriptions of creepy eyes from books about serial killers, Bill James pleads:

“Guys, knock it off. There is absolutely nothing about the eyes of a serial murderer that is any different from my eyes or your eyes. If you could look at a guy’s eyes and see that he was a serial killer, women wouldn’t get into the car with them. It’s magical thinking, that somehow you can look in a person’s eyes and see into their soul, and it’s dangerous, because it encourages people to think that they can identify sociopaths just by looking at them.”

I’ve written before about people’s ability – or inability – to read others. This is good for me as a professional poker player, because it distracts people from what is really going on. Poker is a game of strategy in which, over a long period of time, the player with the best strategy ends up winning. Obscuring this is enormous short-term volatility and interpersonal drama involving “tells” and “reads” that are usually irrelevant or misleading. Nonetheless, these factors keep casual players coming back by making it less obvious that they are losing and making the game more fun and accessible.

As it applies to poker, this is all mostly harmless. Most recreational players gamble amounts they can afford to lose. They keep coming back because the entertainment they get from playing is worth the money they lose. Some lives are wrecked by gambling addictions, but that’s got nothing to do with belief in an ability to read people.

What’s more troubling is that some law enforcement officials might believe they have such an ability. The issue isn’t that they can’t actually read people; it’s that they think they can. In poker those with too much confidence in their reading ability lose money to me. Not a big deal. In law enforcement they might prosecute innocent people while ignoring evidence that could lead to the real culprit.

I don’t find it a priori implausible that someone could be very good at reading others based on subtle physical signs. We give off – and perceive – a lot of information that we’re not consciously aware of. But if there is someone out there who’s exceptionally good at parsing this, I’ve yet to meet him at the poker table.

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