How Elizabeth Holmes used psychopathic body language on employees and investors

This story has been updated from its original version published on March 20, 2019. 

Another day, another shocking Elizabeth Holmes update. This week Ladders News reported that the former golden-child Theranos CEO is under another federal investigation after allegedly destroying already-subpoenad evidence that is part of her investor fraud case.

Holmes and Theranos president Sunny Balwani are pleading not guilty to wire fraud charges alleging their Theranos technology could do things with a single drop of blood that it actually could not execute. The twosome also face some new indictments and could go to prison for 20 years if they lose.

After rising to fame as the next big super young successful brilliant (turtleneck wearing) college dropout in Silicon Valley (not to mention the world’s youngest female self-made billionaire), the multi-million dollar fraud behind her game-changing healthcare company followed just a few years later.

Holmes got all the media treatment in 2018 and 2019 in the forms of podcasts, an HBO documentary, a book (“Bad Blood” by John Carreyrou) and even a film starring Jennifer Lawrence and a Hulu series with Kate McKinnon (both of which are yet to be released.)

Well, as the book and documentary explain, there were many blatant lies and fraudulent activities committed. However, Holmes herself, like Fyre Festival and serial entrepreneur Billy McFarland, was an amazing storyteller and deceiver and most likely, a borderline sociopath.

They are both excellent at convincing people of things through manipulation and one of the ways Holmes did that was through her body language – and even changing some of her physical attributes.

Nodding yes

Traci Brown, the author of How to Detect Lies, Fraud and Identity Theft, notices (even though it is extremely subtle) that in this deposition video in which she is questioned sentence by sentence about a Fortune article that includes verbatim claims she made about her company’s achievements she nods yes even though she says “I don’t know exactly” to most of the sentences in question or “I don’t believe that is correct.” Very tricky. Watch the video below.

A study that came out this month from the UK and the Netherlands found that when we tell a particularly involved lie we tend to mimic the body language of the person we’re lying to. She may have been doing that with the other person in the video.

“Nonverbal coordination is the tendency to imitate the behaviors of others. Coordination can take place both on a conscious and a more unconscious or automatic level. How much people coordinate with their interaction partner, depends on several factors, including liking and common goals. There is some evidence that the coordination occurrence is also affected by cognitive load. So far, this has only been demonstrated in isolated body part movement,” The Royal Society explained in a media release.

Stare into my eyes

In Carreyrou’s book, he describes how Holmes would make unflinching (but probably somewhat disturbing) eye contact with her deep blue eyes when she was speaking with someone. This move made the person feel that they were the only human in the world while at the same time was completely intimidating.

Amy Morin, author of “13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do”, wrote of sociopaths, “Their body language is convincing. Psychopaths lie to make themselves look good. But their nonverbal behavior is often so convincing – and distracting – that people don’t recognize they’re being deceitful”

Dr Jack Brown, a body language expert, also notes that this kind of continuous eye contact has a “very high correlation” with “deception” and “antisocial personality disorder” or sociopathic behaviour.

A hypnotic combination

In addition to the staring tactic, Holmes also changed her voice.

Carreyrou wrote, that in combination with that unfaltering stare, “her voice added to the mesmerizing effect: she spoke in an unusually deep baritone.” It was absolutely hypnotic.

Former Theranos employees reported her sometimes slipping out of this low voice when she had a few too many drinks at a party and there are even some video clips of her real voice that still exist.

Morin also wrote that psychopaths, “speak slowly and quietly. Studies show psychopaths usually speak in a controlled manner. They don’t emphasize emotional words like other people do. Their tone remains fairly neutral throughout the conversation. Researchers suspect they craft a calm demeanor intentionally because it helps them gain more control in their personal interactions.”

She changed her voice to come off as more powerful as studies have shown that a lower voice is perceived as more authoritative. A recent study found that women actually have lower voices today than their grandmothers did because of shifting roles and power dynamics. Women’s voices have become lower as a result of survival of the fittest. And women in powerful positions changing their voices is actually an old story. Margaret Thatcher took elocution lessons and became the Prime Minister of England.

Jillian O’Connor, an assistant professor of psychology at Concordia University who studies how voices have influence, told The Cut, “This whole [Holmes] situation, the image manipulation, dressing like Steve Jobs, trying to sound a particular way — it sounds like an awful lot went into the facade. Some of the research we’ve worked on shows that when men and women deliberately lower their voices, it’s actually successful. They do sound more dominant. They do sound more likely to be someone who’s in a position of power.”

There is also a video of her doing an interview from a few years back in which she holds her left hand with her right when she is asked about press allegations that portrayed the company negatively. The self-hand holding is something one does to comfort themselves. She also breathed more and stuttered a bit during these intense questions.

Another example is this 2014 TED Talk in which she tells a beautiful story about how her company will revolutionize healthcare but never actually presents any lab or test results or really anything that has to do with science. John Brandon of Inc. wrote of this talk: “She used plenty of interesting factoids. She said words like engagementknowledge, and access. She shifted to a personal story. She lulled us, she calmed us. She talked about things we care about. That are quite seriousAnd yet, we were not really listening. She never really said anything about the science.”

Psychopaths are known for their charm and great storytelling capabilities. 

Learning to speak slower or removing “umms” and “likes” from your daily dialogue, especially if you are in a role that requires speaking to more than one person is one thing, but to completely change oneself to appear to be a completely different person that is doing anything to become more powerful is psychopathic.

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