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The Tell

Matthew Hertenstein

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Beyonce's waist-to-hip ratio of 0.69 is 'a tell' that she will give birth to cleverer kidsThe Tell  slim, dense, a little forbidding  tells us of The Little Clues That Reveal Big Truths About Who We Are.

(Basic Books)

Here’s an idea, and for once it’s a good one. Matthew Hertenstein, who looks impossibly young to be a psychology professor, believes we are far more intuitive and perceptive than we realise.

His book, The Tell – slim, dense, a little forbidding – tells us of The Little Clues That Reveal Big Truths About Who We Are.


It’s all about picking up the non-verbal signals we give off, all the time, usually without realising it. But while we are broadcasting these signals, others are interpreting them, instinctively and also without realising it.

Hertenstein collects a number of examples psychologists have been investigating over the years. Some of these results will make you raise an eyebrow, or make some other non-verbal signal that indicates mild amazement.

Hertenstein starts with the story of a sergeant in the US Marines serving in Iraq in 2004. His battalion had been assigned to lead a convoy to a town near the Syrian border to deliver supplies to troops stationed there. On the way back he spotted an orange-and-white car parked on the side of the road. He saw the driver for no more than a split-second.

“He looked as though he had pure adrenaline coursing through his veins and had an ‘Oh s***!’ look written on his face.”

The sergeant immediately told his superior there was a bomb in that car. “Don’t worry about it,” said the commander. A minute or so later, the bomb exploded.

An extreme example, maybe, but on the slightest imaginable evidence, the sergeant’s intuition led him to the correct conclusion.

Poker players call it “the tell”, the inadvertent signal that tells them their opponent has a good hand or, in my case, a truly abysmal one.

Dating and mating are all about “the tell”. We unconsciously look for symmetry in the faces of potential lovers, and it’s not just an aesthetic response: people with symmetrical features tend to be genetically stronger, healthier and longer-living.

Men may think they prefer women with long legs or big busts, but most are unconsciously looking for a waist-to-hip ratio of under 0.8. A bit depressing, that.

Again, it’s our genes talking. Child-bearing hips, according to the latest research, give birth to cleverer children. Beyoncé has a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.69. Elizabeth Taylor’s was 0.58.

Hertenstein is less sure about gaydar, the mystical process by which we identify someone’s sexual orientation. Is it genetic or a matter of experience, or a combination of the two?

It’s not clear, but there’s one amazing result here: that women are more accurate at determining a man’s sexual orientation the closer they are to ovulating.


We are good at predicting, from viewing short video clips, whether people are generous with their money, or whether they are mean. We can guess whether a man will be aggressive or not from the shape of his face, and we can do it in 39 milli-seconds.

Wide-faced men are more likely to start fights, although narrow-faced men are more likely to die violent deaths in those fights.


In one study in Texas, students were photographed with neutral expressions and their arms at their sides. People who didn’t know them could accurately gauge their self-esteem, whether they were extroverts or introverts and, bizarrely, their strength of religious feeling.


Looking at photographs of politicians from other countries, even children can accurately predict which of them will win the next election. It turns out millions of us vote for the person who “looks” most competent, whether they are or not.


One thing we’re not naturally good at, sadly, is spotting when people lie – although Hertenstein gives us a few useful tips.

I’m not going to lie here: he is not the most entertaining writer in the world. But after reading his book, you might well look at the world in a different way – an even more jaundiced way than usual, that is. – Daily Mail

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