How Santa knows if you’ve been naughty or nice

There are plenty of factors at play, but it’s clear that Santa understands human response and has more than a little science on his side

Have you ever wondered how Santa Claus determines whether to leave you a present or a lump of coal on Christmas Eve? How he knows if you’ve been naughty or nice?

I don’t have any hard evidence to back it up but I’m pretty sure he must be a first-class lie detector.

And, if so, here’s how Santa does it:

He begins with a baseline

The first and most important step in Santa’s deception detection is learning your baseline behaviour under relaxed or generally stress-free conditions so he can compare it with the expressions, gestures and other signals that are only apparent when you’re under stress.

He watches you while you’re chatting informally, noticing how your body looks when you’re relaxed. (What’s your normal amount of eye contact and blink rate? What kind of gestures do you use most frequently? What posture do you assume when you’re comfortable? What’s your pace of speech and tone of voice?)

Then, after he knows your behavioural baseline, he stays alert for meaningful deviations that signal a stress reaction (and possible deception) as you go through the day.

He sees you when you’re faking

Seven basic emotions are shared, recognized and expressed the same way around the world. Discovered and categorized by Paul Ekman and his colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco, the universal emotional expressions are joy, surprise, sadness, anger, fear, disgust and contempt.

When you don’t genuinely feel the emotion you’re trying to display, it often shows up in expressions that don’t use all the muscles in the face that are typically part of that emotion. For example, if your smile doesn’t include the eye muscles, it’s not a felt smile. Real smiles crinkle the corners of your eyes and change your entire face. Faked smiles involve the mouth only and are often asymmetrical.

In monitoring your emotional reactions, Santa also looks for simulated emotions, where you try to convince others that you feel a certain way by simulating the facial expression associated with that feeling. He will notice your ‘terribly sincere furrowed-brow’ or your exaggerated display of anger that feels somehow excessive. He knows, too, that any expression you display for more than five to 10 seconds is almost certainly being faked.

He knows when you’re aligned

When your thoughts and words are in sync (when you believe what you’re saying) Santa can see it in your body language because your gestures, expressions and postures fall into natural alignment with your verbal message.

But when he spots incongruence, where your non-verbal behaviour contradicts your words – such as a side-to-side head-shake while saying “yes” or a slight shoulder shrug (a sign of uncertainty) as you say you’re “absolutely positive.”

Santa knows that often, verbal/non-verbal incongruence is a sign of intentional deceit. At the very least, it shows that there’s an inner conflict of some sort between what you’re thinking and what you’re saying.

He looks for clusters

Clusters play a key role in Santa’s ability to spot lies. Your non-verbal cues occur in what is called a ‘gesture cluster’ – a group of movements, postures and actions that reinforce a common point. A single gesture can have several meanings or mean nothing at all. But when you couple that single gesture with at least two other reinforcing non-verbal signals, the meaning becomes clearer.

According to research by David DeSteno of Northeastern University (research he has surely shared with Santa Claus) there’s one specific cluster of non-verbal cues that proved statistically to be a highly accurate indicator of deception. The “telltale four” body language signals that are associated with lying are hand touching, face touching, crossing arms and leaning away.

He judges you as being good or bad only after considering the following

For the vast majority of us, the act of lying triggers a heightened (and observable) stress response. But here’s what complicates matters:

  • Not all people demonstrate the same degree of emotion.
  • Not all liars (especially if polished or pathological) display readily-detectable signs of stress or guilt.
  • Not all lies trigger a stress reaction. (Social lies, for example, are so much a part of daily life that they hardly ever distress the sender.)

Santa Claus also knows that truthful (nice) people like you can exhibit anxiety for a variety of perfectly innocent reasons, including the fear of not being believed or discomfort speaking about embarrassing or emotionally arousing topics.

When Santa Claus takes all this into consideration, I’m sure you’ll be opening lovely gifts on Christmas morning – and that’s no lie!

Troy Media columnist Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is also the author of The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help – or Hurt – How You Lead.


santa, naughty or nice

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

You must be logged in to post a comment Login