Two Experts “Read” Politicians’ Body Language. Can You?

About 10% of communication is spoken words. What are politicians' bodies saying?

Posted Mar 20, 2014

Erik Bucy and Patrick Stewart are pros at reading nonverbal communication. Can you do it too?

Take this Body Language Quiz or Micro-Expression Test to find out. 

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His actions are startling, at best, in our post-Cold War world. And a lot of people are trying to figure out what his motivations and intentions are.

Putin has said a lot about the situation in speeches and press conferences, but according to some estimates less than 10% of actual communication consists of the words actually spoken. Most communication comes through body language and some through tone of voice.

So what is Putin’s nonverbal communication actually “saying” about his bold Ukrainian move? I’m fortunate to have two friends and colleagues who are internationally recognized experts in nonverbal communication. You can see some of their previous comments about Putin at NBC News and New Republic

Dr. Erik Bucy researches media and communication at Texas Tech University with an emphasis on cognitive and emotional processing of televised leader behaviors. Dr. Patrick Stewart is a political scientist and certified Facial Action Coding System (FACS) coder at the University of Arkansas who studies facial expressions and emotional responses of followers to leaders (he also guest authored two “Caveman Politics” blog posts on the NFL bullying incident here and here).  

Erik and Patrick were nice enough to answer a few questions for me about nonverbal communication and what they think Putin’s “body language” is telling us about Russia's incursion into Ukraine.  


GM:  What is non-verbal communication or "body language"? 

PATRICK: Nonverbal communication is an incredibly broad category concerning how human and non-human animals attempt to influence others to do things they want them to do through social signals. We’re not just talking about facial displays and body language, we’re also talking about haptics (touching), proxemics (how close you are to someone), vocalics (what comes out of your mouth that isn’t specifically language), and even odors.

For instance, my dogs don’t have to actually speak English to get me to feed them, they just look at me and then at their bowl (body language), nudge me and/or lick me (haptics), or even pick up and drop their bowl and/or bark (vocalics). As a result, they have a pretty comfortable life.

When it comes to humans, Betsy App and her co-authors suggest we have a preference for and greater accuracy in the production and interpretation of social status emotions in body posture (pride, embarrassment, guilt, and shame), intimate-relationship emotions with touch (love and sympathy), and survival-based emotions in the face (anger, disgust, fear, happiness, and sadness). The latter often come in the form of “micro-expressions,” which are not necessarily under the conscious control of the communicator, and may be considered as revealing of an individual’s internal state.

ERIK: Patrick set it up well, but I’ll add that political research for far too long has treated verbal meaning as the only important part of a message, when in fact much persuasive influence happens nonverbally. The way a political figure appears, their visual image, is much more likely to be remembered than the specifics of any particular statement or policy pronouncement.

There are several reasons for this, but the brain is configured with a large visual cortex that makes processing of visuals relatively effortless. Verbal information, by contrast, requires a good deal of textual literacy to interpret, store in long-term memory, and have available for recall.


GM:  What are a few of the key non-verbal behaviors you look at/for when evaluating a political leader or political situation?

ERIK: Political visuals carry a good deal of social information about a communicator’s intent, state of mind, and truthfulness. Once you know what to look for, it becomes relatively easy to determine whether someone is angry or evasive, or whether a smile is truly felt—or false and insincere. One visible indicator of expressed emotion is the visibility of teeth. It sounds odd, but bared lower teeth are reliably linked to displays of anger and threat. By contrast, visible upper teeth are typical of smiles and displays of happiness and reassurance. Coordinated muscle actions surrounding the mouth and eyes offer further confirmation of a felt or false expression.

PATRICK: I try to look at the face when the target of my analysis isn’t speaking. This can be during questions, applause, or laughter, and gives me insight into how the target is reacting to the social situation. When an individual is talking, he or she can fall back on prepared messages and social scripts, but when they are responding to their environment, they can be caught off guard.

And more specifically, I try to look for quick and subtle facial displays, which might be termed “micro-expressions.” These displays are often controlled very quickly by the communicator once they slip out, but reveal their immediate appraisal of a situation. While my analysis usually involves watching video frame-by-frame once I catch a trace of micro-expressions, people generally respond emotionally to them without necessarily being aware of their presence.


GM:  What messages did Putin's non-verbal behaviors send regarding his intentions about Ukraine?

NOTE: They refer here to the video of Putin’s March 4th press conference.  

ERIK: Putin appears to feign contemplation at first and then becomes increasingly insistent, even aggressive, throughout the course of his comments. At first his gaze is averted and down, as if he is searching for an answer. Nonverbal cues like that are equated with evasion, or avoidance. Then he looks more directly at the journalists in attendance.

He’s trying to make a case for his position calmly, although his words about illegitimacy, foreign interference, and radical instigation (from a transcript of the press conference) are combative. Nonverbally, this is Gorbachev; verbally, we’re listening to Brezhnev. In this sense his demeanor is deceptive, precisely because it doesn’t appear outwardly belligerent. His other nonverbals—tone of voice, head nodding, hand gestures to punctuate points—are all calculated to seem reasonable, as if this is the only course of action that could be taken.

By the end of the statement, he’s rhetorically emphatic about his position but not outwardly aggressive. He does stare down several of the journalists in attendance, however, and it is very clear—even though he is sitting—that he needs to be dominant and they need to be subordinate.

As time goes on in his comments, Putin shows much more aggression in his facial expressions, frequently baring his lower teeth—a clear anger/threat display—furrowing his brows, accelerating his rate of speech, and using an angry tone of voice. His hand gestures, even though cupped, also become increasingly demonstrative—open hand gestures transform into fist pumps that are used in coordination with angry verbal expressions.

At the same time, his repeated gaze aversion (pauses, filler utterances, head tilts, eyes darting upward and to the right) suggests that he’s searching for a narrative, constructing it on the fly.  The journalists in attendance are riveted and show an odd mixture of surprise, disbelief, amusement, and concern, reflecting both the gravity of Putin’s remarks and the after-the-fact nature of his narrative.

PATRICK:  I mainly considered Putin's facial displays while he was being asked a question and/or immediately before or after speaking. Looking at the Russian leader's performance as he listens to reporters’ questions, he reveals some interesting patterns.

I think Putin is a highly competitive man. When he does display enjoyment smiles – which involve pulling up of the lip corners and constriction of the eyes – they typically come when Putin was taking a reporter to task for asking a question he felt he had dealt with earlier, as indicated by him starting to smile while the reporter was still talking. This is supported by his display of three enjoyment smiles (27:28; 42:36; 47:30; 1:02:44). These smiles were interesting in that there was mainly movement of the lip corners, which appeared to involve the eyes (although it is hard to tell from the video), and he didn’t exhibit a jaw drop, which is an indicator of playfulness.  

Putin showed brief facial displays at a few points. These are very interesting and verge on being “micro-expressions” that are not necessarily under the conscious control of the communicator, and may be considered as revealing of an individual’s internal state. Here, the brief displays that flashed across his face suggests a fear/stress response and occurred in the first instance after he was asked if the authorities in Ukraine were legitimate (11:09). The movement was the lips being pulled back and stretched wide across the face.

A second very interesting display occurred at 29:57 just before he responded to a question concerning army units that wore uniforms strongly resembling the Russian Army as his lip corners appear to be pulled straight back. A similar sequence happened again at 53:33.

This display behavior is reminiscent of US President George Herbert Walker Bush’s rally speech when the United States decided to attack Iraq in the first Gulf War of 1991. There he displayed a similar fear “smile” with his lip corners pulled back quickly in what may be considered a micro-expression. This was not unexpected, as our 41st president saw combat and knew the consequences of going to war. In this case, we’re likely seeing a similar response from Putin.


GM: OK, this is pretty cool. How can I learn how to do this?

PATRICK: I’d suggest Paul Ekman’s site. He’s one of the pioneers of the analysis of facial expressions. His site includes a lot of the original research, too. 

ERIK: Read the copy of Image Bite Politics (with Betsi Grabe, Oxford 2009) that I gave you last summer. [NOTE: Erik said this with a smile I’ll leave up to Patrick to interpret…I’ve been busy, OK?—gm] It has a lot of details on the coding and analysis of televised leader displays and other political visuals.

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Thanks to Erik and Patrick for taking the time to talk about this.

Remember the Body Language Quiz and Micro-Expression Test mentioned at the top? I did OK on body language (16 out of 20) but terrible on the micro-expressions (only 4 out of 10). I’m going to read Erik’s book now!

How'd you do on the body language and micro-expression tests? Let us know...

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For more information:

App, McIntosh, Reed & Hertenstein. 2011. "Nonverbal Channel Use in Communication of Emotion: How May Depend on Why." Emotion 11(3): 603-617.

Grabe & Bucy. 2009. Image Bite Politics: News and the Visual Framing of Elections. Oxford University Press.  

Stewart & Ford Dowe. 2013. "Interpreting President Barack Obama's Facial Displays of Emotion: Revisiting the Dartmouth Group." Political Psychology 34(3): 369-385. 

Stewart, Waller & Schubert. 2009. "Presidential Speechmaking Style: Emotional Response to Micro-expressions of Facial Affect." Motivation and Emotion 33(2): 125-135.

In addition to writing the "Caveman Politics" blog for Psychology Today, Gregg is the Executive Director of the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas Tech University

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