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Body Language

When Liars Smile: The Telltale Tic of Duping Delight

"One may smile, and smile, and be a villain." —Hamlet

Key points

  • Duping delight is a psychological "tell" frequently manifested by liars.
  • Duping delight indicates pleasure in deceiving and controlling others.
  • To tell fake smiles from genuine ones, pay attention to the eyes.

On a spring morning in 1983, the town of Springfield, Oregon, awoke to news of a brutal and shocking crime that would stun the nation. Diane Downs, a 27-year-old divorced mother of three, shot her children in cold blood, killing one and severely injuring the other two. Downs, who was wounded in the arm, claimed that a “bushy-haired stranger” had ambushed them on a remote country road. But her improbable story, suspicious behavior, and forensic evidence quickly led cops to conclude that Downs herself had done the unthinkable.

Much like Susan Smith, who years later would roll her car into a lake and blame the resulting deaths of her preschool boys on a fictitious Black man, Downs wanted to rid herself of “excess baggage” so that she could be with a man who didn’t want children. She claimed that the bushy-haired stranger flagged her down on a dark, deserted road late at night, then shot the children and her. Downs said she raced to the hospital, but a witness came forward who spotted her car driving at less than 10 miles per hour. Two of her kids weren’t dead yet, so Downs was buying time. Her oldest daughter lived to testify against her at trial, and Downs was sentenced to life plus a number of additional years.

The Guilty Grin

Duping delight is a facial “tell” that occurs when a person takes pleasure in deceiving others. The term was coined by psychologist and Professor Emeritus Paul Ekman, who has extensively researched the field of nonverbal communication and facial expressions. He is best known for his work on micro-expressions and facial recognition. Ekman has been a consultant for various government agencies and is considered one of the foremost experts in his field.

Specifically, duping delight occurs when someone is lying or manipulating others and feels a sense of power or control over the situation. This pleasure can manifest itself in various ways, including through subtle facial expressions, body language, or vocal cues. Consider the following clip from an interview Diane Downs gave just days after the crime. Pay attention to a couple of things in particular: Notice her dead eyes while talking about the murder of her children. At the end, notice the smirk and how her eyes finally light up—that’s duping delight.

According to crime writer Ann Rule’s book about the Downs case, this murderous mom was diagnosed as histrionic, narcissistic, and antisocial. Psychiatrists described her in colloquial terms as “a deviant sociopath.” Downs’s undoing, as is the case with many emotionally callous and manipulative types, was her sense of narcissistic immunity—overconfidence that her preposterous story would be accepted without question by the rubes she was trying to deceive.

Genuine vs. Faked Smiles

If you’ve ever wondered how to tell whether someone’s smile is sincere or feigned, your best clue is to notice the eyes. When the emotion is real, the eye muscles respond just as the lip muscles do. Both the lips and the eyes smile. With a forced smile, there’s little or no change in the eyes. Paul Ekman explains:

Why would enjoyment smiles differ at all from other smiles? The differences between enjoyment and other smiles originate in functional neuroanatomy. It appears that there are two distinct neural pathways that mediate facial expressions; one pathway is for voluntary, willful facial actions, and a second for involuntary, emotional facial actions. The voluntary facial movements originate in the brain’s cortical motor strip and arrive at the face via the pyramidal motor system. Involuntary facial movements, like those involved in an emotional expression, mainly arise from subcortical nuclei and arrive at the face via the extrapyramidal motor system.

Other Examples of Duping Delight

Ekman cites the example of John Walker, a naval warrant officer responsible for one of the biggest espionage cases in U.S. history. Walker delivered technology and top-secret messages to the Soviets that allowed them to track submarine movements. Even though Walker failed to pay his wife court-ordered alimony, he couldn’t resist bragging to her about what he was getting away with and how much the USSR was paying him. She turned him in.

Any video you are likely to find of Ted Bundy, whether it’s a media interview, a report recorded at the time of his arrest, or coverage of his behavior at trial, will invariably show him laughing and joking. He was notorious for quickly making friends with cops and jailers, showing himself to be a jovial and charismatic individual. This is Bundy’s psychopathic duping delight on display. It’s his way of manipulating, gaining trust, and controlling the situation.

Watch videos of Scott Peterson, Jody Arias, O. J. Simpson, and Casey Anthony. You’ll eventually spot the signs of duping delight. Possibly the quintessential smirk of duping delight can be seen on the face of Martin Shkreli, convicted and sentenced to seven years for securities fraud. He is perhaps best known as the pharmaceutical executive who raised the price of an HIV drug from $13.50 per pill to $750.

In Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud wrote, “He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.” Freud’s statement was based on observation and anecdotal evidence. Ekman has produced evidence through research to prove Freud was right.

"A smile that Judas in hell might be proud of." —Bram Stoker, Dracula

© Dale Hartley. Connect with me on social media.

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