If anyone has experience debating the merits of masks and face coverings, it’s poker players, who have been fighting about the issue for years. Of course, in the past, the argument was mostly about concealing their tells — not containing a deadly virus. But as recently as 2019, a significant majority thought the Poker Tournament Directors Association should ban the use of face coverings because it made it too easy for players to bluff and compromise the integrity of the game.
Naturally, the mask discourse has changed in poker as much as everywhere else over the past six months. Now that casinos in California and Nevada all have mask mandates in place (despite reports that they’re not equally enforced), many poker players have to read for deception on their opponents’ faces with only half the story. And while eyes have always had a reputation for conveying people’s intentions, they’re part of a bigger facial expression and body language equation, and cannot be accurately relied on without other information.
“Eyes are important, but much less so if the face is covered. So bluffing is definitely easier now, and it seems like more are doing it because of that,” explains DGAF, a blogger and professional poker player in Vegas. Instead of relying on people’s faces, DGAF prefers what he calls timing tells, or how fast someone puts money in the pot. If a player bets very quickly, it can be a bluff, but it can also mean it was an easy decision. On the flip side, taking more time can indicate they have a bad hand that’s unlikely to improve or a really good hand and they’re trying to feign weakness. “In poker, strong actions are often weak hands, and vice versa,” DGAF tells me.
The same is true in real life, according to clinical and forensic neuropsychologist Judy Ho, who’s sister is a professional poker player. The more effort people exert, the more likely they are to be lying because “when you lie, it takes more cognitive energy than when you tell the truth,” she says. Which is why polygraphers and other experts adept at identifying deception like to establish a baseline by asking people their names, birthdays and other neutral questions before looking for dishonesty by detecting the deviation of things like blood pressure and heart rate. (When we expend more energy by lying, dishonesty can also show up in physical tics or mannerisms as well, like pursed lips or smiling.)
But as we adjust to a new normal where half of everyone’s face is obscured, Ho raises a key question: “How can you tell what someone’s baseline is?” And more importantly, how can we take the broader gamble of trusting others under such favorable conditions for lying?
Again, humans are wired to connect through the eyes and our brains spend a lot of energy mapping each other’s and interpreting intentions as a survival instinct. But like many primitive impulses, this doesn’t always serve us in a modern context. “There’s a natural pull for us to think everything is in the eyes,” Ho tells me. “When someone averts their eyes, though, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re lying; it could mean they’re uncomfortable. There are many emotions that could cause someone to lower their eyes.”
In fact, reading too much into someone’s eyes typically causes more stress, hyper-vigilance and paranoia, rather than accurate deception data, says Erica Smith-Lynch, the founder and co-director of Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy. “Research shows that most people are pretty good at controlling their facial expressions, even when lying, and also that most people aren’t good at determining whether someone is lying or not — without masks,” Smith-Lynch explains.
To her, the bigger issue with trust and masks is that it makes it impossible to pick up on the friendly, safe or otherwise trustworthy intentions of people you don’t know well, as we’re primitively primed to interpret any ambiguous signals as a threat. “We’re much less likely to trust that person and get close to them — and this happens very quickly, at the preconscious level, before we’re able to put words onto our feelings,” Smith-Lynch says. “So the consequence of mask wearing may have less to do with whether someone is actually trying to deceive, but more that the person interacting with the mask wearer doesn’t see them as trustworthy, irrespective of their intentions.”
Perhaps that’s why researchers have found that the more effort poker players put into reading their opponents’ faces, the worse they actually play — and why some advanced poker players don’t place too much stock in them either. “The term ‘poker face’ is kind of overrated in the poker world, way more used by people outside of the community,” pro poker player Chris Brand tells me. Instead, poker pros like Brand rely on math, odds and a strategy known as leveling — or multi-level thinking — that takes multiple factors into consideration at the same time.
The reality is, “people who were already good at lying might be even better at it with a mask on,” Ho warns. But when it comes to people you knew prior to the pandemic, if they were honest back then, masks aren’t going to change that. Ultimately, it’s better to let a few bluffs slip by than to walk around in “chronic fight or flight mode,” Ho says.
Otherwise, you’re gonna think everyone is a liar — to your and their detriment.