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Body Language

4 Major Myths About Body Language

4. No, you can't catch liars from facial cues and microexpressions.

Key points

  • New research challenges old misconceptions about nonverbal communication.
  • Nonverbal gestures and expressions cannot be reliably decoded for their meaning.
  • Facial expressions are often used to convey intentions, not emotions.

What do you know about nonverbal communication? My guess is that what you’ve learned, either in college or through popular media and common cultural lore, involves one or more of the following notions:

  1. People communicate using body language cues and gestures that can be reliably decoded for their meaning.
  2. People have a stable “personal space” by which they regulate contact with others.
  3. Certain basic emotions are innate and universal and are represented by similar facial expressions across cultures.
  4. Experts can detect deception using dependable telltale nonverbal clues and discordant facial micro-expressions.

These ideas have come to permeate the culture, and have spawned their own cottage industries. overflows with titles such as How to Analyze People: Decoding Human Behavior and Body Language So You Can Read People Like a Book Effortlessly; Lying and Lie Detection: A CIA Insider's Guide; How to Learn Body Language: A Complete Guide to Speed Read & Analyze Non-Verbal Communication; Understand People and Decode Their Intentions in Love, Life and at Work; etc. On YouTube, you’ll find videos, podcasts, and TEDx talks with titles such as: "How to Read Body Language to Get What You Want"; "How to Read People: Decode 7 Body Language Cues"; "Former FBI Agent Explains How to Read Body Language," etc.

New Challenges to Body Language Assumptions

Alas, science progresses, and new evidence has been challenging these popular notions. A new article (2023) by Miles Patterson at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and colleagues summarizes these challenges.

First, argue the authors, the idea that we communicate using “body language” is problematic since nonverbal behavior lacks the basic ingredients of language. For one, nonverbal behavior lacks “propositionality”—the ability to make assertions about the world that can be proven or refuted.

Second, it lacks a vocabulary—gestures with fixed meanings that constitute a lexicon. A rose is a rose is a rose, but your scowl in response to my question about your health may express your appraisal of your health, or of my question, or of me, or of some unrelated issue that happens to be on her mind when you were asked the question. Third, nonverbal communication lacks syntax—rules for how gestures should be arranged to make them mean something. It is clear how “the dog ate the man” is different from “the man ate the dog.” Such clarity eludes nonverbal gestures.

Nonverbal communication differs from language in additional ways. First, whereas verbal language appears in utterances, nonverbal communication is always “on,” as long as others are present. Second, in conversation, the speaker and listener roles tend to alternate. In nonverbal interactions, individuals can send and receive appearance and behavioral cues at the same time. Finally, nonverbal communication often takes place outside of our awareness. We are aware of what we are saying. We are often unaware of our body position and movements.

The authors argue that regarding nonverbal communication as a language...

"implies a relatively invariant rule book by which to decode specific appearance cues and behaviors. This errant assumption has fostered a multimillion-dollar body-language industry in books, seminars, videos, and other media, dedicated to revealing the hidden codes and subtle strategies that are promised to ensure success in every aspect of social life. This snake oil may benefit some people by making them more comfortable and confident in social settings, just as placebos often help people feel better. Still, consumers should be wary of claims that they can purchase access to any secret language of the body."

Next, the authors challenge the notion of “personal space,” defined as the “invisible, stable, subjective boundary that we claim as ours, defend from intruders, and use to regulate our interactions.” They argue that this notion is oversimplified and stands in contradiction to the literature on interpersonal distance, which shows that “preferred measured distances depend on the culture, gender, and personalities of interactants.” We keep our lovers closer than our friends. And we like the same person to be farther away at the office but closer at a party. You allow a stranger to stand right next to you side by side, but not face to face. Space, in other words, is interactional, which means that it takes on different meanings and dimensions depending on the environment.

The authors conclude:

"There is no doubt that we have personal boundaries and feel intruded upon when they are violated, but contrary to the popular personal-space account, those boundaries are not stable across partners and situations. Rather, preferred distances are malleable across the circumstances of interaction."

The third popular idea, and perhaps the most well-known, is that some basic emotions are innate and universal and are expressed facially in the same ways across cultures. This idea was popularized by the work of Paul Ekman, who argued for the existence of six universal emotions. The notion has over time found its way into self-help books, TV shows, and textbooks alike.

The debate about whether emotions are biological adaptations or learned cultural constructs is ongoing and far from settled. But Ekman's popular claims have since been challenged. First, his work has been criticized for its methodology and interpretation of data. Subsequent studies, looking at broader, more diverse samples found “considerable cultural diversity in the faces people use and how they interpret and react to them.“ For example, research has shown that in multiple small-scale indigenous societies, the supposedly universal “fear” face is seen as a threat display.

Moreover, new research has now shown that the presumed concordance between facial expressions and felt emotions is much lower than was once believed. In other words, your facial expressions often do not communicate what you feel. The authors note that “many faces taken as expressions of emotion are actually paralinguistic forms of social judgment and appraisal…This happens, for example, when 'angry' faces relay condemnation and 'sad' faces disappointment.”

Facial expressions are displays “serving the interests of signalers within their social environments.” We use our faces to communicate intentions and promote our agendas and do so in response to external, situational cues. Our intentions in a situation are often divorced from our internal emotions. Faces, in other words, are social tools by which we influence our social interactions.

Finally, the authors challenge the idea that “the body never lies” and that nonverbal communication can, thus, reveal hidden secrets. They note that while liars indeed produce nonverbal behavior when they are lying, truth-tellers do so as well and may produce the same nonverbal behaviors for reasons other than lying, such as anxiety or stress.

Research has demonstrated that nonverbal behaviors are not reliable indicators of lying. As a case in point, the authors discuss the program for Screening of Passengers by Observational Techniques (SPOT) introduced in 2006 by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, based on the assumption that certain “behavioral indicators” can identify potential evildoers. The program’s failure was colossal. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded in 2013 that “meta-analyses and other published research studies we reviewed do not support whether nonverbal behavioral indicators can be used to reliably identify deception.” Nonverbal behaviors do not provide reliable clues about the true content of speech.

Neither do faces. It is commonly believed that facial expressions can give away a liar, that certain facial expressions denote genuine emotions while others reveal deception, and that facial “micro-expressions,” discernible to a trained observer, reveal hidden emotions. New evidence has undermined these claims.

For example, fake smiles are supposed to differ reliably from genuine smiles. Yet research has shown that so-called genuine “Duchenne smiles” are as affected by social context as non-Duchenne ones and are easily produced intentionally. Moreover, trained micro-expression detectors cannot identify liars at rates higher than chance.

A Systems Approach

The authors conclude that a more accurate view of nonverbal behavior must take a systems approach, noting that “all patterns of NVC are situated within specific interaction contexts.” In particular, the authors highlight two such contexts: the physical environment and culture, the contribution of which to the meaning of nonverbal communication has not been fully appreciated.

Indeed, human behavior in general is largely under the control of the environment. Our responses are shaped by our proximal physical surroundings (e.g., college classes, office meetings, political rallies, religious services) and by the distal, yet powerful, cultural constraints (mores, values, roles, traditions, rituals). The authors note:

"most people behave in line with the physical and social constraints of the immediate environment rather than acting in ways that dramatize their personalities, attitudes, or motivations... any particular outcome, whether it is a nonverbal display, a judgment of others’ nonverbal behavior, or a combination of both, is best understood as emanating from a network of interrelated processes."

In sum, it may be time to give some old trenchant notions about nonverbal communication the thumbs down.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Zivica Kerkez/Shutterstock

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