Monday, July 22, 2024

Bullshit in the name of science.. why not trust body language experts?


I read here or there on social media about a body language expert saying that a head of state rubbed his nose with his hands while sitting with US President Joe Biden. First idea, or he feels cheated. Another YouTube expert would say that the forward and upward movement of this Arab president’s chin indicates defiance, as if to say to Biden, “Go ahead, I challenge you.”

It doesn’t stop there, international platforms and more moderate TV channels host these kinds of experts during important events like presidential or parliamentary elections, there are thousands of books, courses and YouTube episodes to talk about the body. Use it to understand language and other people’s secrets, and we’re not even talking about their use in courts in some countries around the world to expose criminals.

Body language is defined as the movements people make using their hands, facial expressions, legs, shoulder or head shrugs, or the tone of their voice, in addition to words. . In fact, the first (1) recent research on body language, in the 1960s and 1970s, aimed to show the universality of facial expressions and the agreement of all people about their common meanings.

Since many of the messages we give to others are in the form of body movements, this topic has attracted research interest from many areas, and not just understanding and analyzing the behaviors of ordinary people, but neuroscientists as well. , has a strong interest in body language and psychiatric disciplines, particularly in diseases such as autism or schizophrenia in which a person loses part of their facial expression, as well as in anthropology, sociology, computer and robotics engineering.

Not a language

This means that we are on a slightly different level from the nonsense of energy therapy, NLP, or other pseudoscience that only has widespread interest among believers in the “human enhancement” craze that attracts a lot of research. Vincent Dino, professor of psychology at McGill University in Canada, and his colleague Pierre Bloskelek, who specializes in the field of nonverbal behavior, focused on this point and collected more than a thousand studies in a study published in 2018 (2). Cited papers in this domain over the past decades examine the scientific consensus on whether body language is really useful in understanding the behavior of others.

For starters, psychologists and other researchers agree that body language can indeed convey emotional states, but bold claims linking a specific movement of the arms, legs, or face to a specific emotion are not supported by solid scientific evidence. For example, Sanghatis say that a person is trying to isolate himself from others with his arms stretched across his chest or saying that he is not sure about himself, and rubbing his hands together indicates waiting, or his chin when he puts his hands is a sign of thought, meditation and so on.

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The relationship between tears and grief is simple and very self-evident to us laymen, but it is not always so.

Associating mental states with specific gestures, or concluding that these specific gestures will have a specific effect on the viewer, is scientifically-questionable pseudoscience, and indeed, this fact alone is enough to undermine most body language claims. Social media has spread in circles as a science analyzing politicians and actors, for example, “the body never lies”, or “body language is an open book” or “reading the face helps you read the soul”, or even simple statements like tears express sadness. A direct source of sensation!

The relationship between tears and grief is simple and very self-evident to us laymen, but it is not always so. In a study published in 2019, Judith Hall (3) of North Boston University says, “There is no dictionary of meanings for nonverbal behavior because it is so context-specific.” According to Hall, the first mistake one of us makes when judging the rightness or wrongness of an outcome or event is to ignore the context that can strongly change the meaning of facial expressions, and we’re talking about all kinds of contexts here. , starting from the psychological state of the person speaking in front of you, to the race, nationality and culture of the community to which he or she specifically belongs.

Another American researcher, Susan Pandis, in a study published in 2013 (4) reveals that even simple facial expressions such as crying in cases where someone is arrested or brought before a court are not considered expressions of grief because it is excessive. The intensity of events in such situations, with the nature of a person who can make him cry, Pandis straightens the lines that there is nothing in a person’s body language that indicates grief.

Pinocchio’s nose

Both Dino Hall and Bandis are particularly interested in the subject in the areas of the judiciary and the police, as it is particularly dangerous because police officers and judges tend to use body language “experts” when working with the accused. Very harmful, especially when people from a certain culture tend to gesture in a certain way that can be interpreted as an indicator of guilt, it puts the officer or judge in a predicament of homogeneity against a certain class. Blacks, women or farmers.

This matter extends to the attribute of representing a “golden trophy” in the world of crime, which is false. Humans have always believed – since ancient times – that there are signs that can expose us to liars, like Pinocchio’s nose. He could be exposed, and because he was lying, they would tell you that this led to the development of a whole body language associated with lying, nose touching, mouth closing, eyes closing, and hyper-larynx lying. But there is no consistent research evidence to suggest that there are specific movements that mean someone is lying, an idea popularized by one of the most popular Egyptian movies, “The Blue Elephant,” in which Karim Abdel Aziz plays a psychiatrist. Many strange facts, and comments in one’s body language, reveal his lies in one scene.

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In a similar vein, a 2020 study from the University of Portsmouth (5) found that “body language experts” were trying to identify smugglers at US-Mexico crossings by comparing videotaped encounters with regular people. Looking for signs of stress, especially in traffickers, based on the claim that the body reveals its secrets. As a result, only 39.2% of them identified the traffickers with a level of accuracy that was far below the level of natural chance.

A statistical analysis of dozens of studies (6) that included more than 1,300 research evaluations of 158 potential signs of lying found that cues people sometimes associate with lying, such as restlessness or avoiding eye contact, were absent or weak. Connections with lies. So, Pinocchio’s nose seems like a tough target for humans so far. Other areas such as lie detectors and truth serums are also subjects that do not find much scientific support, although cinema has promoted them as scientific facts.


These types of statistical analyzes are not familiar to the public, for example, take “meta-analysis,” which is the process of using statistical methods to examine the results of multiple studies that may be consistent or conflicting with each other. This type of scientific mechanism is used to generalize the results. In a large number of samples subjected to experiments, to improve the accuracy of those results, to better connect them to hypotheses, and of course to prevent bias in a particular experiment, so it is very useful in medicine, psychology and social sciences, which have a large number of human beings to develop their theories. Faced with the problem of needing samples.

Because you don’t know about this type of analysis, you can easily be fooled when someone shows you a study that can partially track the body language of public figures. The study is real and exists, but when researchers link it to hundreds of studies we find that there is a strong statistical trend that suggests this effect is not real.

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Another mistake that promoters of this type of pseudoscience make has to do with not specifying the degree of deviation from direct communication, because body language “experts” tend to talk about a direct and concrete relationship between certain gestures and specific feelings, but this is supported by very little evidence that describes body language as “fake”. Even studies are not true, there are always apparent inconsistencies, and researchers disagree on which gesture represents a particular emotion.

Trace of ignorance

Dino and his colleagues in one of their studies on the subject (7) state that there are many reasons why government organizations (such as the judiciary) or non-governmental organizations (such as organizations that use body language to understand customers and employees) Employing body language experts is, firstly, ignorance of science on the subject, and secondly, lack of interest in what the scientific basis says, especially as the owners of these false claims show themselves quickly and easily. Solutions to major problems leave officials drooling.

It is common, for example, some US military organizations and some major sports clubs in Europe still use NLP to improve the performance of their employees, although it is pseudoscience, and many companies still use the Myers-Briggs test. There is no reference book that cites it, even if it is unscientific, to assess the personalities of their employees.

But Dino has one last reason for the popularity of this kind of pseudoscience, the underestimation of side effects, as a company director would say that using body language evidence might not be useful, but at least it’s harmless. True, so a judge tends to suspect the accused, which – unknowingly – leads to a harsher sentence, or misread the evidence, and a manager’s tendency to judge people by body language may make him racist against a class. Unknowing people. This is unfortunately pseudoscience at its worst; A serious ignorance of the depth of its harmful, sometimes destructive impact.



  1. The truth about reading body language
  2. The 1000 most cited papers on observable nonverbal behavior: A bibliometric analysis
  3. Non-verbal communication
  4. Remorse and criminal justice
  5. Science or pseudoscience? An important distinction for police officers, lawyers and judges
  6. Body language pseudoscience is thriving on YouTube
  7. The science (and pseudoscience) of nonverbal communication.
Nadia Barnett
Nadia Barnett
"Award-winning beer geek. Extreme coffeeaholic. Introvert. Avid travel specialist. Hipster-friendly communicator."

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