Understanding Cognitive Load – Four Clues That Sarah Palin and Jan Brewer Have a Few Things in Common

When someone is being deceptive, the load on the mind-body system – the cognitive system – is so significant that the deceiver will often leak cues that are easy to spot. Nobody is immune, even the most polished public figures that are accustomed to the spotlight will exhibit “tells” when they are fabricating a story, anticipating the next question, and attempting to exhibit the appropriate emotional response. Researchers have found that when the cognitive load on our system is high, we:

  1. Freeze our upper bodies,
  2. Shift our blink rate,
  3. Smack our lips, clench our fists or leak other nervous “tells” that suggest we are not being completely honest
  4. Deflect the hard questions with dodgeball statements, protest statements or
    sidesteps.

When Arizona Governor Jan Brewer first mentioned in a June 16th interview with Fox News that headless bodies had been found near the border of Mexico and Arizona, she could not have known how it would come back to haunt her.

The Governor said it again and again in a series of subsequent interviews, stating at one point that “law enforcement agencies have found bodies in the desert, either buried or just lying out there, that have been beheaded.”

While her statement about escalating border violence garnered a considerable amount of attention in Arizona and throughout the country, there was one problem: it was not true.

A televised debate between Brewer and her opponent in Arizona’s gubernatorial race provides plenty of “tells” that the Governor may have been fudging the facts. Pressed by her opponent to back up her claim, Brewer noticeably deflected the subject by responding with a counter accusation. She couples it with a flash of contempt . Watch from 1:47 and you’ll see the asymmetrical contemptuous smirk cross her face at 1:53.

While the Governor remained tight-lipped, her body language spoke volumes. Notice how the Governor blinks rapidly while staring off into space, perhaps a sign that she was creating a response to the question before side-stepping it altogether. When the reporters pressed the question again, the Governor abruptly storms off.

Another classic example of cognitive overload can be found in that famous September 2008 interview between Charlie Gibson and Sarah Palin, during which Palin is asked if she agrees with the Bush Doctrine. Watch the question and Palin’s reaction in the first twenty seconds of the clip below.

Notice how Palin deflects with another question: “In what respect, Charlie?” – and she is noticeably smacking her lips. Watch Palin’s hand gestures. As she stumbles through her answer, Palin can be seen first protecting her space with crossed hands right when the hard question is asked..and then she retreats to one clenched faintly waving fist – a sign that she is compensating for her weak verbal response with anger, fear, defensiveness…and a confused half-cocked attempt to show physical strength and force.

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