Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Seeing Kavanaugh's Testimony: Contempt, Distaste and Regret?

Kavanaugh said a lot, but what did his nonverbal behavior tell us?

The Supreme Court is a big deal in the U.S. political system. It’s one of three co-equal branches of government, and a decision by five of its nine members can invalidate the combined work of the President and 535-member Congress, the other two branches of government.

When a nominee to this powerful group is accused of sexual misconduct, as Judge Brett Kavanaugh has been, you have a toxic brew of power and sex that’s almost impossible for people to ignore. Indeed, reports indicate that cable viewership of Kavanaugh’s Senate hearing on September 27 averaged 11 million total viewers from 10 am to 6:45 pm and peaked at 13 million during Kavanaugh’s testimony between 3:15 and 6:15 pm.

Both Kavanaugh and his accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, made long statements and answered a multitude of questions. But there’s more than a spoken record to be examined. We can also glean valuable information from their nonverbal behavior.

So I contacted my colleague and nonverbal behavior expert, Dr. Patrick Stewart, to find out what the nonverbal behaviors of Kavanaugh during the hearing told him about this spectacle of a confirmation process we’ve been enduring. He uncovered some interesting patterns, and I'll let him tell you in his own words what they are.

Take it away, Patrick…

Like many Americans, I watched the Senate Judiciary committee hearings with Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh intently. While I was certainly struck by the terror displayed by Dr. Ford during her testimony and the sadness signaled when she was reminded by Senators of the immensity of her actions for all Americans, Kavanaugh’s testimony presented a unique opportunity to gain insights into an exalted member of the American elite, someone bred, born, and trained from an early age with the expectation they would control the levers of American government.

If Kavanaugh is indeed confirmed as a U.S. Supreme Court justice, this hearing may be one of the few unhindered opportunities to evaluate the character of one of the most powerful of individuals serving on the most undemocratic of all American political institutions, especially as the Supreme Court bans video coverage of their proceedings(1).

Even when video can be easily accessed, observation of nonverbal behavior by political figures, especially during their speechmaking, can be a chore that may reveal little. This is especially true as speeches tend to be highly rehearsed and strictly managed affairs devoid of passion. This, however, was certainly not the case with Kavanaugh’s 45-minute testimony.

Understanding elite nonverbal behavior often requires choosing the physical channel to focus on, whether posture, vocal tone, body movements, or facial displays, and then considering how the nonverbal behavior fits with what is said. While the movement of the body, hands, and arms is unimpeded by speech, facial movements, especially in the lower face, are driven by the act of forming and pronouncing words. However, in the pauses between utterances, a speaker may punctuate their statements with distinct and identifiable facial behaviors.

With Kavanaugh’s speech, three specific facial displays stood out: contempt displays, tongue shows, and cheek bulges caused by the tongue. Below, each is considered based upon what they look like, how often they were seen during Kavanaugh’s Senate testimony, and what their “punctuation” of Kavanaugh’s statements could potentially tell us about the type of Supreme Court justice he might become.


The prototypical “contempt display,” which involves the one-sided tightening of a lip corner, is associated with the perception of community values being violated by in-group members(2). This display, sometimes seen in conjunction with a half-smile as one side of the face’s lip corner is pulled up and at an angle, can occasionally be seen in politicians after making derogatory comments towards their opposition(3).

Contempt display.
Source: C-SPAN

During his testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee this past Thursday, I observed 12 times when Kavanaugh’s left lip corner was markedly tightened after making a comment. Of these, the great majority (eight) came after addressing allegations by Dr. Ford; the others occurred upon his referencing his partisan past. Specifically, contempt and anger, as seen in Kavanaugh’s forehead, punctuated his statement midway through his testimony that “One person on the left even paid a million dollars for people to report evidence of sexual wrongdoing, and it worked. Exposed some prominent people. Nothing about me.”


One way individuals of all ages and across all ethnic groups, and even other primate species, show their antipathy towards others is through tongue shows. Here the tongue is thrust beyond the bounds of teeth and open mouth into the air as if rejecting something already taken into the mouth. As can be expected, such actions are associated with averting or rejecting social interaction(4). While not extensively studied in political figures, it has been observed in politicians listening to attacks on themselves and their policies, reinforcing prior observational and experimental research(5).

Distaste display.
Source: C-SPAN

Behavioral analysis of Kavanaugh’s speech lends support to tongue shows being related to aversion, with him referring to his opposition before this display occurred seven of the 13 times it occurred. An example of this occurred within the first 10 minutes of his testimony when Kavanaugh, referencing the Democratic Senators on the panel, stated “You sowed the wind for decades to come. I fear that the whole country will reap the whirlwind.”


The cheek bulge, while evident throughout Kavanaugh’s speech, is not as well studied or understood as many other facial display behaviors. However, it may be considered as a variant of the tongue show as the mild aversion being communicated is de-amplified through cultural display rules(6). Here, the pressing of the tongue to the inside of cheek, instead of extending it outside the mouth in the tongue show, limits who can see it. Like other concealed displays such as embarrassment, the act of masking this display may indicate inward focused appraisal of regret for prior actions.

Regret display.
Source: C-SPAN

Given that this behavior was observed in Kavanaugh 78 times during the course of his 45-minute speech, and that these bulges on the left side of his cheek tended to occur whenever he discussed the effect of the allegations of sexual assault in light of his family and friends, this may be seen as a reliable indicator of him experiencing stress and having an aversive response. For instance, during one sequence when Kavanaugh talked about having “…a lot of close female friends. I’m not talking about girlfriends; I’m talking about friends who are women” from the local Catholic all-girls schools, cheek bulges were evident seven times.


Judge Kavanaugh’s patterns of nonverbal behavior during his U.S. Senate Judiciary committee testimony not only provide insight into a man under stress, but also the legacy of a privileged upbringing and parochial career. While we cannot tell when or even whether he lied, we have nonverbal evidence that goes beyond parsing the words he spoke.

By considering discrete and identifiable patterns of specific facial display behavior, we see what Kavanaugh holds in contempt and finds distasteful; perhaps we even see his regret.

Whether his sheltered and exclusive upbringing prepares him to represent less fortunate Americans can and should be questioned. Regardless of whether he ends up serving on the U.S. Supreme Court, understanding Kavanaugh’s nonverbal behavioral repertoire will provide insights even for the non-elite yet to be affected by his judicial decisions.


1. Schubert JN, Peterson SA, Schubert G & Wasby S (1992) Observing supreme court oral argument: A biosocial approach. Politics and the Life Sciences 11(1): 35-51.

2. Rozin P, Lowery L, Imada S & Haidt J (1999) The CAD triad hypothesis: A mapping between three moral emotions (contempt, anger, disgust) and three moral codes (community, autonomy, divinity). J Pers Soc Psychol 76(4): 574-586.

3. Stewart PA, Bucy EP & Mehu M (2015) Strengthening bonds and connecting with followers: A biobehavioral inventory of political smiles. Politics and the Life Sciences 34(1): 73-92.

4. Smith WJ, Chase J & Lieblich AK (1974) Tongue showing: A facial display of humans and other primate species. Semiotica 11(3): 201-246.

5. Stewart PA & Hall SC (2016) in Exploring the C-SPAN Archives: Advancing the Research Agenda, ed Browning RX (Purdue University Press, West Lafayette, IN), pp 103-129.

6. Matsumoto D & Hwang HC (2013) Cultural similarities and differences in emblematic gestures. J Nonverbal Behav 37(1): 1-27.