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Body Language Misreads

Common interpretations of signs and how they can be misleading.

Key points

  • Emotional expression has been studied through observing body language, although there are cultural differences.
  • There are gender differences in how physical attraction is expressed through body language, such as smiling or leaning in.
  • Body language signs of self-confidence vs. self-doubt can be misinterpreted due to anxiety or neurological differences.

Interest in body language has risen sharply in recent years. Over the past two years, body language experts have built significant followings for their videos on YouTube. Popular among these are “The Behavior Panel” and “The Behavioral Arts,” both of which offer tips for interpreting body language.

The popularity of these videos has been boosted by the public interest in several media events that provide examples for body language interpretation. Recall the March 2021 interview of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry by Oprah Winfrey, in which viewers were curious to learn from body language experts whether the young Royals were being honest in their description of the actions and prejudices among the British Royal Family.

This was followed by the Will Smith and Chris Rock incident in March 2022, for which body language experts discussed whether or not the entire incident was staged. (They concluded that it was not.) More recently, in April 2022, the trial of Amber Heard and Johnny Depp provided plenty of snippets for studying body language and indicators of who was lying about what.

Most of the interest in body language studies is about four major types of behavior:

  1. Emotional expression (What is this person really feeling?)
  2. Deception (Are they being truthful?)
  3. Physical attraction (Does the body language signal attraction?)
  4. Self-confidence vs. self-doubt

Emotions: Fear, Anger, Sadness, Surprise, Happiness, Disgust

Paul Ekman’s work on emotional expression and deception set the groundwork for the study of body language among modern social psychologists. In his book, Emotions Revealed, he reported his study of how certain emotions are innate to being human and are universally expressed in similar ways. These basic emotions are happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, contempt, and disgust.

Ekman’s ideas have been very helpful in catching inconsistencies between words used to express feelings and the facial expressions that go along with the words. Of course, the assumption is that body language is a more reliable sign of what’s really going on.

However, no one sign can lead to the same conclusion across gender, culture, or personality types. For example, it has been noted that emotions such as disgust and contempt are differently expressed in certain cultures, including Japanese culture. Many cultural groups have accepted norms for the expression of feelings, and these should be considered.

Deception

Being able to spot deception is probably the most important skill gained from knowledge of body language. Most of us have an instinct that something isn’t quite right when someone is telling a lie or is withholding part of the truth. Those instincts are often correct, but it can be helpful to have some way to judge the chances that we are being deceived. There are many behavioral signs of deception, only a few of which are the following:

  • Frequency of eye blinking, compared to the norm for that person
  • Pressing together of lips, as if to stop words from coming out
  • Showing a number of self-soothing behaviors, which could be used to ease anxiety about deception
  • Not answering the actual specific question, but rather addressing a more general question
  • Promoting oneself as special, as if building a resume of character to prove one’s honesty

A key point with all of these signs is that any particular one should not be taken alone as a sign of deceit; they are only meaningful when they occur in clusters. Any one behavior could easily have another explanation. For example, someone who has dry eyes might blink very frequently. A person who is generally anxious and yet honest might do a lot of self-soothing, such as massaging their own hands or shoulders. However, when several different behaviors are seen together, the odds increase that the person is being deceptive.

Physical Attraction

Most people are familiar with some of the body language that signals attraction, particularly seemingly obvious signs such as maintaining eye contact, smiling, and leaning in toward the other person. However, there are some gender-related differences in how attraction is signaled.

In general, research has shown that men smile less often, mirror the other’s behavior less, and are less prone to lean in but rather maintain more physical distance, even with close friends. While women tend to fidget when feeling attracted, men may fidget simply to burn off some energy. The body language of physical attraction is clearly more complex than most people assume.

Self-Confidence vs. Self-Doubt

There are many behaviors that might be interpreted as showing a lack of confidence. Following are some of the most commonly noted signs:

  • Avoidance of eye contact
  • Poor posture, not sitting or standing up straight
  • Chin lowered or looking down most of the time
  • Too much fidgeting with hands or tapping feet
  • Keeping hands in pockets
  • Walking too fast or generally moving too fast without any reason
  • A limp handshake
  • Speaking too slowly or too quietly

When making assessments of another person’s confidence, in addition to looking for clusters of behaviors, it helps to consider the normal behavior of that person. For example, a socially anxious person may have several of these behaviors, which suggests low self-confidence. It is very possible that they are experiencing a fear of rejection or embarrassment. It does not mean that they lack confidence in their abilities. Another example is the person who is neurodivergent and hasn’t acquired these social skills, yet is very capable and self-confident in their abilities.

Final Thoughts

Observing body language and considering it when trying to read another person’s motives, confidence, or feelings can be extremely helpful, as long as it doesn’t lead to quick judgments. Whenever possible, it is better to consider the norm for that individual and give them some benefit of the doubt.

References

Ekman, Paul (2007) Emotions Revealed, Second Edition: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life. Holt & Company, Henry.

The Behavior Panel, YouTube

The Behavioral Arts, YouTube

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