Psyched Up: Body Language Analysis Cannot Help You Decode Another Person
Despite what some body language experts say, there are no proven signs of deception.
In 'Psyched Up', we find out what’s wrong with the pop psychology fads we love.
When Ellen DeGeneres opened Season 18 of the now-wrapped up “The Ellen Show” by addressing the allegations against her of having created a toxic workplace, a popular body language expert was not so taken in by her apology. In his video, which has been viewed a million times, he points out what he calls “desynchronization” – that is, DeGeneres is subtly shaking her head ‘no’, when she makes significant statements like “My intention is to always be the best person I can be,” or “I take responsibility for what happens at my show.” She doesn’t do this as much in her other monologues, he claims. He is careful not to draw any definitive conclusions through the course of the video, instead cloaking his analysis in hedging language such as “it’s a possibility.” He also acknowledges that the speech was heavily rehearsed which makes “reading” body language that much harder. But eventually, he gives his opinion: “I do not think she is as sorry as she is trying to present herself to be.”
Body language analysis has long been a staple in political debates and key international events, where experts decode world leaders’ tells as a cue to understanding not only their personalities but also their effectiveness as leaders. But over time, this method of ascribing meaning to what the body does filtered into pop culture, as Juno Kelly wrote – first, as self-help books which turned into paid courses to help one master body language to communicate more effectively and confidently in their daily lives, and then as entertainment that used clickbait titles to intrigue the audience into caring about whether Aditya Roy Kapur and Ananya Pandey are actually dating or how Prince William and Kate Middleton’s 2021 Christmas card hinted at hidden tension. Some are reportedly self-taught – as evidenced by the scores who tried to find the ‘hidden’ meaning behind everything from Donald Trump’s court appearance to the Amber Heard-Johnny Depp trials, and claimed to be able to detect deception in celebrity marriages and even criminal investigations. On YouTube, these ‘experts’ have amassed hordes of subscribers as they decode (often conclusively and with great confidence) the meaning behind every eye flutter, compressed lips or face itch.
But the idea that body language can be “read” like a book is false. As three researchers on non-verbal communication wrote, “There really isn't such a thing as ‘body language’.”
“There is no scientifically validated dictionary for understanding what people are thinking but not saying, based on their face and body movements,” said Vincent Denault, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at McGill University who is also the co-founder of the Center for Studies in Nonverbal Communication Sciences at the Research Center of the Montreal Mental Health University Institute.
To be clear, there has been extensive, peer-reviewed research on non-verbal communication, which Denault, in a lecture, defined as communication through means other than words, such as facial expressions, vocal characteristics, gestures, clothing and even the environment. Researchers agree that non-verbal behaviors, that are mostly subconscious, transmit certain information and can communicate particular emotional states. But communication is a dynamic, complex process that heavily depends on context. There are researchers from a variety of disciplines involved in understanding nonverbal communication, Denault says. What they have found is that there is not enough evidence to prove some of the claims peddled as body language analysis through both social as well as traditional media, while other claims – such as there are cues to tell when someone is lying – have been debunked entirely. Despite the scientific papers and researchers that are often alluded to in YouTube videos on this topic, the science behind body language analysis seems shaky at best. Several non-verbal communication experts, researchers and psychologists have themselves pointed out that body language analysis is “not an exact science."
Still, body language hacks, do’s and don'ts are extremely common, to the extent that many of them have almost assumed the status of universal truths. If someone crosses their arms, they’re defensive. If they touch their nose before they answer a question, they’re lying. If they fiddle with their hair, they’re nervous. Pare it down to its bare bones and quite a reductive formula emerges – that one non-verbal cue can be linked to a single emotional state which can then be applied to decode all humans across the world. As Denault told Wired Magazine, “When specific gestures are associated with specific meanings, and when this is implicitly or explicitly presented as scientific, then it begins to fall under the umbrella of pseudoscience.”
Touching your own face while talking to someone, for instance, could be interpreted in several different ways, as articles show. It could be a self-soothing behavior, if you are in a situation where you are experiencing some sort of discomfort or stress. It is often considered to be a sign of low confidence and insecurity (a number of articles tell us to avoid this particular behavior if we want to make a good impression). It could also mean (and this is a myth) that you are lying. At the end of the day, it could simply mean that your face is itchy. A single gesture could mean multiple things in different contexts, or nothing at all.
Cultural differences in communication are rarely accounted for when body language falsehoods or half-truths are disseminated as facts. Eye contact, for example, has been associated with confidence and good communication skills. However, in Japan, maintaining steady eye contact is not only considered rude but could also be interpreted as a sign of aggression, a psychologist noted.
One of the biggest myths is that nonverbal communication accounts for 93% of all communication. The breakdown for communication usually goes like this: 55% body language, 38% tone of voice, and only 7% words. This inflated statistic has been widely cited and has even made it into communication textbooks. But it is, in fact, a misinterpretation of a paper from the 1960s, which already suffered from several limitations, experts in the field say. Albert Mehrabian, the author of that study, himself later said, “My findings are often misquoted… Clearly, it is absurd to imply or suggest that the verbal portion of all communication constitutes only 7% of the message.”
Then, there are specific theories that emerge from credible-sounding, career-making research which have later been found to lack empirical evidence to support parts of it. The long-standing debate around “power poses” is a case in point. This body language hack became popular after a TED Talk by Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist, who suggested holding a Superman-esque “expansive nonverbal display” with one’s chest out, hands on hips, and legs apart for just two minutes could make one feel more powerful and boost confidence. Cuddy’s research – which she authored along with two other scientists, Andy Yap and Dana Carney – even linked this posture to hormonal changes such as a rise in testosterone and a decrease in cortisol levels. According to a Forbes magazine report, some later labeled power posing a pseudoscience, with the debate around it raging to the point of involving “death threats and bullying.” But the power pose was primed for popular culture and quickly became entrenched in it, with many articles on how to ace a job interview or clinch a business deal touting its positive effects.
Six years after the research was first published, one of the authors – Dana Carney – dismissed the power pose, stating no "faith in the embodied effects of power poses." Carney posted on her faculty website: "As evidence has come in over these past 2+ years, my views have updated to reflect the evidence. As such, I do not believe that 'power pose' effects are real.” Now, after a number of studies looked into the “postural feedback effect,” it seems that while the effects of the power pose (i.e., feeling more powerful) are not huge, they are “real.” However, some researchers, as this study shows, were unable to replicate parts of what Cuddy had claimed, such as the hormonal changes linked to power posing.
A number of YouTube videos promise to teach one how to detect deception and tell if someone else is lying to you. If these videos are to be believed, body language ‘experts’ are the human equivalent of the polygraph test – the lie-detecting abilities of which have itself been questioned and termed unreliable. One analysis of over 1300 estimates of 158 commonly cited signs of deception (such as fidgeting, avoiding eye contact, touching one’s face) showed that these cues have either weak links, or no discernible links at all, to lying. Another study says, “...no reliable non-verbal cues to deception have to-date been identified.”
A big part of why body language myths are so hard to shake off is probably because we are bombarded with it not only on social media but through several media publications that have given many body language ‘experts’ a platform. They tap into the innate curiosity verging on voyeurism many in the audience hold for people in the public eye. It has also been legitimized by attaching names of experts in authorial positions, such as ex-FBI agent Joe Navarro, who is considered to be a world expert on nonverbal communication. The ubiquity of body language analysis claims, made more prominent by its inclusion in movies and TV shows such as Lie to Me, is then rarely questioned.
The cultural obsession with body language feeds into our need to control the impression we leave on others, and our desire for certainty. The idea that we can tell when someone is hiding something from us, that we can save ourselves from deceit, lies at the heart of the popularity of body language. It is the search for an easy answer – a one-size-fits-all tell – that can either reinforce or break one’s trust and credibility, and forms the basis of next steps.
But the ability to detect deception based on someone’s body language is also the most widespread myth that has proven hard to debunk. And it has several consequences, especially when we consider how body language analysis has been instituted as a part of criminal investigations in justice systems. “The kind of claims made by body language ‘experts’ sometimes end up in the hands of people in positions of power, such as judges and jurors, where people’s liberties and even lives may be at stake,” Denault said. In India too, forensic psychologists have been called upon to assist the CBI and police on cases by studying a suspect’s body language and voice modulation.
Under a YouTube video debunking body language ‘experts’ on the internet, one person laid bare the miscarriage of justice that can arise from an undue emphasis on context-less analysis of nonverbal cues. They commented: “The cops who interviewed me about my abuse when I was 9 determined, on body language alone, that I was lying about what happened to me. As a result, my abuser never saw jailtime for what he did to me. No thought perhaps went into the fact that I was 9, scared, cold, in an unfamiliar environment, and talking about the abuse for the first time. I call bullshit on ‘body language analysis’ every time I see it.”
Amber Heard, while testifying in court, was subjected to an inordinate amount of what Juno Kelly in The Independent called “trial by body language.” Experts threw doubt on her credibility and undermined her testimony as they decoded her facial expressions, hand gestures and general behavior on the stand. Meghan Markle, too, has been a popular target of body language analysts. The two have been consistently vilified online and many of the analysis videos and articles serve as confirmation bias for all those who had already decided to dislike them. Unscientific analysis can then not only reinforce stereotypes and preconceived biases, but, as experts note, may even distort the outcomes of trials by influencing them.
Amid the misconceptions and false claims, it is hard to separate fact from fiction, science from pseudoscience. Body language analysis, in catering to the audience’s appetites for reality entertainment and true crime, creates an environment that allows one to jump to conclusions about others. It not only perpetuates claims awash in misinformation but can even discredit the work of scientists publishing peer-reviewed work on nonverbal communication – an important component in better understanding others and ourselves.
Ananya Singh is a Senior Staff Writer at TheSwaddle. She has previously worked as a journalist, researcher and copy editor. Her work explores the intersection of environment, gender and health, with a focus on social and climate justice.