While some experts "read in the eyes" the thoughts of politicians, others actively challenge the very possibility of such an analysis
Body language can show confidence or awkwardness, charisma, or anxiety. In recent years, the idea that nonverbal cues can reveal important truths about people in critical situations has become popular. And even the corresponding industry was born. Media outlets such as the Washington Post and Politico interview consultants and ask them to analyze the body language of participants in debates and diplomatic meetings between world leaders. Self-proclaimed experts who claim to read the facial expressions of public figures sometimes collect millions of views on YouTube.
Among other things, they analyze how body language can affect the audience. Experts also try to explain what public figures think or feel based on subtle signals. After the trump-Biden debate, for example, one analyst told the British newspaper The Independent that Biden's behavior looking at his podium during trump's speech "could be interpreted as submission to the attack" or a sign of self-control.
Many police departments and Federal agencies use body language analysis as a forensic method, claiming that these tools help assess people's intentions or integrity. Federal and local law enforcement agencies across America are learning from body language consultants, the Intercept said in an August investigation.
Psychologists and other researchers agree that body language can convey certain emotional States. But many bold claims are not supported by scientific evidence. For example, it is very questionable to say that a single gesture reliably indicates what a person thinks or wants. They say that if a person looks too long into their eyes, then they are lying; a smile without wrinkles around the eyes is not real, and pointing at something with a finger with a clenched fist is a demonstration of dominance.
"Nonverbal communication in politics is extremely important because it impresses the public and can influence whether people trust a politician," says Vincent Denault, a communication researcher at the University of Montreal.
But when it comes to experts who comment on body language in the media, "it's often more fun than science," he says. "This can lead to misinformation."
Modern research on body language often referred to as nonverbal behavior, began in the 1960s and 1970s with work demonstrating the universality of facial expression. According to David Matsumoto, a psychologist at the University of San Francisco and Director of Humintell, a company that provides body language training and research for companies and government agencies, these works were partly inspired by a forgotten study by Charles Darwin - " the Expression of emotions in humans and animals."
Since then, researchers have studied how parts of the brain respond to certain facial expressions, and babies mimic facial expressions and hand gestures. They also revealed the complexities and subtleties of body language, which can sometimes be difficult to decipher, despite its ubiquity.
For researchers like Deno, the scope of nonverbal communication has expanded to include everything that goes beyond what a person says. The speaker can make an impression by shrugging, scratching his nose, tapping his foot, rolling his eyes, or wiping sweat from his face, as Richard Nixon did during the 1960 presidential election debate, where his rival was, John F. Kennedy. A person's clothing, their background in Zoom, tone, pauses, and "uh" and " em " during a conversation are all considered nonverbal signals that can shape the audience's perception.
Despite warnings from many experts that body language is complex and context-dependent, there are consultants and specialists who have been using body language research for many years in a variety of cases, including career coaching, work presentations, and airport inspections.
"I help people convince others that their message is authentic and trustworthy, "says Mark Bowden, a body language consultant and author of Winning Body Language. It focuses on how a person perceives their body, as well as their gestures.
Some analysts also claim that these signs can be used to identify hidden motives and emotions. For example, they say that the position of Donald trump's hands during speeches indicates that he believes what he is saying. And if people touch their faces, it's a clear sign of nervousness.
But according to Deno, "linking' States of mind ' to specific gestures or concluding that a particular gesture will produce a certain effect on the audience without any nuances is questionable."
However, analysts like Bowden and Joe Navarro, a former FBI agent and author of the book on interpreting nonverbal behavior, "I can see what you're thinking," have made their careers partly out of ideas of this kind.
Navarro — who analyzed politicians ' body language for Politico magazine and wrote an article for CNBC on how to read the body language of a person wearing a protective mask during the Covid-19 pandemic-has a special method for evaluating speakers, such as presidential candidates. "I record a video and then watch it without sound," he says. — I'm looking for behavior that stands out: these are signs of discomfort, wrinkles on the forehead and bridge of the nose, in the area between the eyes, pursing of the lips, or the desire to refresh yourself by pulling back the collar of the shirt." As an example, he cites the movement of Donald trump's lips when he reacts to a question that he clearly does not like.
Although the work of Navarro and other analysts attracts a wide audience, many experts doubt the reliability of such methods.
"Our facial expressions convey certain types of emotional states," says Matsumoto. The same can be said for certain movements, such as shrugging your shoulders. "But there's a lot of noise here, too," he notes. "People can do whatever they want with their bodies." For example, a raised eyebrow can indicate both disbelief and discomfort or surprise. The same gesture can mean completely different things in different cultures.
Deno and Matsumoto are skeptical of those who draw confident conclusions based on observations of body language. According to Deno, even astute observers cannot understand a person's thoughts or intentions based on nonverbal behavior alone.
Dawn Sweet, a communications researcher at the University of Idaho, agrees. "We are unlikely to ever develop a 'behavioral diagnosis' for those who lie or behave aggressively, " she said.
Sweet and her fellow researchers often look at a person's body language and the words they use together since they usually talk about the same thing. Scientists also study the context of human behavior and try to learn more about the speaker, because it matters whether this behavior is typical for them or not.
Sweet cites an earlier analysis of dozens of papers that examined 158 possible signs of deception. The research focused on body language cues that people sometimes associate with lying, such as fidgeting or avoiding eye contact. The results showed that such signals are either not associated with lying at all, or are very weakly associated with it. This isn't Pinocchio's nose.
For this reason, some researchers, such as psychologist iris Blandon-Gitlin of the University of California, simply try not to pay attention to such nonverbal signals. "My research focuses mostly on understanding what people are saying," she says. In her opinion, lying takes effort, and liars tend to tell more simplistic stories with less detail.
Navarro, when asked about such concerns, defends his methods. "Nonverbal cues are easier to spot, reliable, and highly accurate," he says. Navarro recalls that adults can understand a child's feelings even before they learn to speak, thanks to nonverbal signals. They also help you understand whether a person feels safe with potentially dangerous behavior. According to him, people even choose a couple based on nonverbal signals. But he also agrees that some behaviors can be interpreted more reliably than others, and that nonverbal behavior is ineffective in reliably detecting deception.
Despite experts ' doubts, body language analysis has been used in criminal cases. Police, Federal agents, and prosecutors used these methods to determine whether a suspect was telling the truth or whether a person convicted of a crime was remorseful.
But like many other types of forensic medicine, body language analysis has proven unreliable. This method can influence judges and juries in trials, says Deno, who considers a number of these decisions pseudoscientific. Unsubstantiated claims about body language seem like simple solutions to a complex problem like evaluating witness testimony, but evidence-based research doesn't really provide simple answers, he said.
However, verified the findings with the scientific consensus, can benefit professionals in the field of security, justice, and other officials. For example, police officers can build their behavior based on them, so that suspects feel more at ease and easier to contact.
Whether it's a politician or a suspect who is being evaluated, Sweet says it's easy for people to jump to conclusions that only reveal their bias. A person may look confused, nervous, or scared at the moment, but observers rarely know why. The observer may think that they have noticed a characteristic gesture that suggests what the other person is thinking, but in reality, they are just looking for a reason to justify their initial belief that this person is lying or aggressive.
Matsumoto urges people not to trust every media analyst who explains their body language. "There is a lot of useful information that a person can get from nonverbal signals," he says. "But you need to be more careful."