Written by Christopher Hadnagy and Dr. Abbie Maroño
There is no denying the appeal of body-language focused blogs, particularly those with alluring claims of being able to read people’s minds by observing their behavior. For example, we recently came across one post suggesting that you could identify if someone is manipulating you through their gestures and another arguing that you can recognize your partner wanting a divorce by their foot movements. As hilariously outlandish as these claims are, the spread of misinformation should be stopped in its tracks.
When making assumptions based on body language it is important to avoid making casual statements and unfounded assumptions between the WHAT and the WHY.
It is critical to me (Chris) as an expert social engineer, and me (Abbie) as a behavioral scientist, that we help dispel some of these myths.
THE WHAT AND THE WHY
I (Chris) have had the wonderful privilege of being mentored by both Dr. Paul Ekman and Joe Navarro, in addition to working with Dr. Abbie Marono as part of my team here at Social-Engineer. Being surrounded by such heavy weights in the nonverbal world has undoubtedly helped me in this realm. Additionally, I have spent the last 15 years as a practitioner of social engineering using nonverbal communications to recognize the emotional states and intentions of others during Social Engineering engagements.
Being able to effectively read body language is undeniably a powerful skill, but it has its limits – you can be taught to read the WHAT, but you cannot know the WHY without further investigation.
For example, imagine you observe an individual showing behavioral indicators of anger (tight jaw, furrowed brow, clenched fist). The ability to read these signals allows you to recognize his emotional state and respond appropriately. However, you do not know what caused the emotional response, only that there is one. As I said previously, you know the WHAT not the WHY.
There are many myths and misunderstandings surrounding the field that threaten its perceived integrity, so let’s discuss some of the claims we have seen.
MYTH #1: Foot Tapping
As we noted at the start of this post, we came across a post that associated foot tapping with an individual being a manipulator as well as wanting to break up with their partner. There exists no empirical evidence to support these claims, none. I (Abbie) have personally spent years robustly investigating lower body behaviors, and I can confidently tell you that the feet may be an important source of information as to someone’s true emotional state but that’s as far as it goes. Can you identify malicious intent or the desire for a divorce based on foot movements? Absolutely not.
MYTH #2: Hand or Neck Rubbing
Have you ever watched a Disney movie and the villain suspiciously rubs their hands together whilst plotting a deliciously evil scheme to manipulate the hero? Well, another post suggested if we see an individual rubbing their hands together, as a Disney villain, it indicates that they are scheming to manipulate someone. The science behind this one is more than questionably, in fact, it’s nonexistent. Hand gestures are a powerful means of communication, from greeting displays to indicators of distress, discomfort, and confidence. Hand gestures can absolutely facilitate cognition and cognitive states, but to suggest they can be unequivocally linked to malicious intent is false.
MYTH #3: Chin Touching or Scratching
The sheer number of posts we have come across suggesting that touching or scratching our chin indicates deceptive intent is shocking. Self-touch behaviors, including touching our faces are hardwired responses to stressors because they help to calm down the nervous system response to stress. The emotional intensity is also evident in the intensity of the muscular contraction or pressure applied, meaning that often scratching does indicate more negative affect than touching. Although sometimes we are just itchy. However, to propose that chin touching, or scratching indicates deception is a big leap from science to pseudoscience.
These are just three of the many myths we have seen. So, let’s avoid making causal statements where they are not warranted. Doing so is a dangerous road and one that can lead to so many miscommunications.
Why So Dangerous?
Let me (Chris) give you a personal example to help show why this could be so dangerous to teach and publicly print such false narratives. When my son was younger, he had a foot that never stopped twitching, he was constantly touching his face, rubbing his chin and his hands. According to those two articles my son was the worst of all manipulators and wanted to divorce the family. Is that really true?
No, my son was a normal teenager that was fidgety who also had asthma and allergies. It is vital we take the time to fact check, as well as being careful not to express authority on topics that are outside of our expertise.
How Do You Do That?
It would an amazing feat to read all the peer-reviewed scientific papers written and determine which ones to believe. Reading blogs and articles is often a more realistic way to access this knowledge, but it is important to identify if what you are reading is accurate or not.
Here are a few tips that might make that easier:
- Use reputable sources. If the article is not written by someone doing the actual research, are they referencing solid research or just other blogs?
- Check the references. Is the science current, is it supported, do other scientists support it?
- Use critical thinking. Try to think about the advice you are reading, are the claims being made justified or do they provide a surface level understanding on the topic. Remember “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Whatever you do, keep that curiosity alive. But do not let the pseudoscience overshadow the extraordinary discoveries being made each day by dedicated scientists. Finally, learning about nonverbal communications will make you a better communicator.
Dr. Abbie Maroño, is a behavioral scientist and the Director of Education at Social-Engineer, LLC. Abbie specializes in perception management, leadership, and the psychological mechanisms underpinning human decision making.