Dr. Patricia Farrell on Medika Life

Questioning the Truth That “Body Language” Tells All

Experts have come out of the woodwork to offer their insights into the true meaning and what body language reveals about someone, but is it cross-cultural or are there other considerations here?

The idea that how we position parts of our body, our facial movements, and even the direction we turn when speaking reveal the truth about everything about us has been around since Ray Birdwhistell, an anthropologist, proposed body language. He wasn’t the only one interested in this phenomenon because Albert Mehrabian, too, found it revealing.

One thing needs to be made clear here, and that is the difference between a theory and a hypothesisTheories are based on scientific facts that result from stringent experimentation, while hypotheses are assumptions yet to be proven and not based on scientific facts; if they were, they’d be theories.

Unquestionably, having insight into what motivates someone, how they are feeling emotionally, or whether they are attempting to deceive us would be an important skill, and body language has been seen as that inroad to the unconscious. But not always, and here is where we must consider the mental state of the individual in question.

According to research, individuals who suffer from bipolar disorder (BD), as well as those who suffer from autism spectrum disorders or schizophrenia (among other types of psychopathology), frequently exhibit deficiencies in social cognition that have a detrimental effect on their relationships and their quality of life. Body language in their cases may be quite faulty at best.

But that leaves out those with personality disorders who may have developed a means to avoid detection—or can they? Do their bodies still betray them and send messages they don’t want to be seen? We do know about the lying brain, don’t we? And then there are what are referred to in poker as “tells.” These are small, mostly unconscious, moves that let the other players know what the player is considering or if he’s holding a winning hand. Why do you suppose some of them wear sunglasses while playing?

Research has produced some interesting results with people who are not police officers (yes, they are better at this). When people try to tell the difference between lies and truths in real time, without any special tools or training, they get 54% of the time right, correctly identifying 47% of lies as false and 61% of truths as true.

What’s a coin toss chance of getting something right? Fifty percent of the time? So, it’s a bit better than this. But there may be one area of the body that holds a host of significant signs regarding attempts to lie or tell the truth, and they are mixed and not always what we believe.

But is body language universal and can we use it in other cultures? Some body movements and gestures are unique to certain cultures. However, it is worth looking into whether more subtle nonverbal communication gestures are understood by people from all backgrounds. Birdwhistell did not think that there were universals in human behavior when it came to body language, but research by Dr. Paul Ekman showed that there are some similarities between cultures.

Attempting to bring science to body language, or at least in terms of facial expressions, has resulted in the Facial Action Coding System. The FACS is responsible for computer encoding the movements of individual facial muscles based on the minor variations in face appearance that occur from moment to moment. Both animators and psychologists have used it.

Another software program that can be used to monitor facial expressions for a variety of purposes is Facial Expression Analysis. The website for this computerized module notes: “While no single sensor is able to read minds, the synthesis of multiple data streams combined with strong empirical methods can begin to reach in that direction.” They further indicate its uses:

  • Measure personality correlates of facial behavior
  • Test affective dynamics in game-based learning
  • Explore emotional responses in teaching simulations
  • Assessing physiological responses to driving in different conditions

The company indicates it’s for use with academics but does not list on their website the studies used to verify their results.

But body language isn’t restricted to humans; it is reaching into the animal domain to see what various postures or expressions mean. One area is now receiving interest because of an increase in raising alpacas and how their actions can be interpreted.

An accurate understanding of these animals’ behavior makes sure they are raised and used in a way that meets their needs, improves their health, and helps people build a good relationship with alpacas. In one internet study, people who had degrees in agricultural sciences, forestry, or veterinary sciences were better at recognizing the signals that the alpacas were sending in the pictures presented to them than people who had degrees in biological sciences or other fields.

Previous research has indicated that when dealing with many types of animals, like horses, alpacas, cattle, and dogs, you should pay attention to where the ears, head, and tail are. There seems to be evidence for their body language and, in terms of dogs, this is particularly important when they are interacting with children.

Is body language sufficiently scientific? It may not meet all the criteria, but it appears to be useful in multiple situations across cultures and even with animals.

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Pat Farrell PhD
Pat Farrell PhDhttps://medium.com/@drpatfarrell
I'm a licensed psychologist in NJ/FL and have been in the field for over 30 years serving in most areas of mental health, psychiatry research, consulting, teaching (post-grad), private practice, consultant to WebMD and writing self-help books. Currently, I am concentrating on writing articles and books.


Medika Editor: Mental Health

I'm a licensed psychologist in NJ/FL and have been in the field for over 30 years serving in most areas of mental health, psychiatry research, consulting, teaching (post-grad), private practice, consultant to WebMD and writing self-help books. Currently, I am concentrating on writing articles and books.

Patricia also acts in an editorial capacity for Medika's mental health articles, providing invaluable input on a wide range of mental health issues.

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