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Body Language Analysis of "Weinergate" Photo

What Sen. Anthony Weiner teaches us about body language.

Life instructs and this Weinergate affair has been another learning opportunity. And no this article is not about New York Representative Anthony Weiner's wisdom in sending out Twitter messages of himself. Nor is it about lying and deception by public officials. This is an article simply to explain one photograph and only one photograph, taken by AP photographer Richard Drew, which has been seen around the world. Why so much attention to one photograph? Because of what it teaches us about body language.

Before Rep. Weiner admitted that he had sent the photos, that it was him in the photos, and that it was "inappropriate," he appeared on Wolf Blitzer's show on CNN and lied to him as well as others. His statements on that show, which sounded like something Homer Simpson would tell Marge, left many thinking, "this does not pass the stink test." There were many reasons why - here are some that I discussed with CNN's American Morning host Ali Velshi: Rep. Weiner's compressed lips, the tension of the face, the chin down, the elevated shoulders and so forth, all of which attested to there being hidden issues. It is here that we first get insight into Weiner's nonverbals, which then leads us to this photo.

Several days later, Rep. Weiner called a news conference to admit his complicity and to apologize. As a result of that there was a flurry of emails to me as well as tweets on my twitter account about this photograph. The question I am most asked is, "What do we make of the facial behaviors in this photo?" So here is the answer, but first a caveat. Life is a movie, as I often tell my students, it is not a still photo; nevertheless, still photos often give us great insight. In the literature we refer to this as "thin slice assessments" (we can thank Nalilin Ambady for her research in this area). So what is the assessment here? Simply it is this:

We have an individual (Rep. Weiner) demonstrating a high degree of stress, discomfort, and negative emotions, perhaps even contempt. Now some may say it is obvious. Perhaps, but there is a way to break it down so that we can be more precise. Starting counterclockwise:

1. As you look at the face note the overall tension of the face. There are lots of facial muscles and in this instance many of them are really tense. Cause: deep emotional trauma, very negative feelings at the moment the photo was taken.

2. Note the "nose crinkle," the upward movement of the nose. A universal limbic response that says in strong terms (just as a child rejecting spinach), "I don't like." This is a very authentic and often very quick, yet its accuracy is extremely high. What doesn't he like? We don't know precisely but we can imagine: where he is; what he has to say; what he just heard or is about to say; what he faces; or all of the above.

3. The lips stand out because they are compressed. When we are upset, feel threatened, fear something, have worries or have any kind of negative emotion, our lips compress or disappear (blood goes elsewhere such as to major muscles). This is why you see this behavior at the airport when flights are cancelled or when people testify before Congress. It just means "I am under a lot of stress" or "I am very worried."

4. When the chin is contorted as we see in this picture (which is really tough to do), the body is transmitting to the world, "I am struggling here." It is authentic and sometimes takes place very quickly, but as we often see with children about to cry or adults going through personal turmoil, it really says, "I am down and beaten and I lack confidence."

5. When the lips are tight and one of the corners goes up slightly, this is usually a look of contempt or disdain. Here, obviously, there may be good reason for this behavior, as Rep. Weiner has been compelled to apologize and reveal to people, he probably does not appreciate, personal things and therefore this look of contempt. Looks of contempt can be very brief or they can linger; usually they are highly authentic.

6. Lastly, let's consider the specific muscles of the jaw. Jaw tension, in the absence of other indicators, is extremely demonstrative of negative emotions and especially of anger and here they are very visible. Even if we only saw that behavior, we could argue that there are issues (we share this behavior with apes and many mammals, according to Desmond Morris). However, here this behavior complements the aggregate which helps us to make a good nonverbal assessment.

Deciphering the Face

Decoding the Face

Could we draw more inferences from this photograph? Sure, but that would be wrong. It suffices that from what we currently know about body language and displays of comfort and discomfort, we are very reasonable in our assessment. What we cannot say is that this individual is lying as some have stated or tried to argue, that would be wrong - at least from this photograph. We can only say that whatever was on Rep. Weiner's mind at the moment Richard Drew took this photograph was causing him severe emotional distress.

Bibliography

Ambady, Nalilin and Robert Rosenthal. 1992. Thin slices of expressive behavior as predictors of interpersonal consequences: a meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 111, No. 2: 256-274.

Morris, Desmond. 1980. Manwatching. New York: Crown Publishers.

Navarro, Joe. 2011. Clues to Deceit: A Practical List. Amazon Kindle.

Navarro, Joe. 2008. What Every Body Is Saying. New York: Harper Collins.

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Joe Navarro is the author of the international best seller, What Every Body is Saying and Clues to Deceit. He can be reached at www.jnforensics.com or you can follow him on Twitter: @navarrotells or here in the Psychology Today Blogs: Spycatcher. Copyright © 2011.

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