Enough with the body language!

Enough already with the “body language expert” segments on TV news shows, especially hard news and hard news analysis programs!  When shows invite these people on to opine about serious matters like the honesty, guilt, innocence, mental status, and personality traits of criminal defendants, politicians, etc., they might as well bring on one of Dionne Warwick’s psychic friends in my opinion, and I really think it’s reached the point where it risks undermining the overall credibility of some otherwise-highly-credible programs.

Yesterday, for example, I heard a “body language expert” assure a TV audience that Casey Anthony’s father, George Anthony, is a narcissist.  The guest said that she was certain of it because of Mr. Anthony’s body language during a taped sit-down with Dr. Phil McGraw.  If a forensic psychologist or psychiatrist made that diagnosis, based on a defendant’s body language, and testified in court that he or she was “certain” of it, it’d be malpractice (just today, a convicted murderer in Texas received a stay of execution from the Supreme Court because a psychologist’s poorly-substantiated testimony may have influenced the man’s sentencing).

That’s one of the big problems with these “body language” folks (who, by the way, I don’t doubt are generally both nice people and true believers in what they do) — there’s generally no “license,” no assurance of training, competence, etc.  Pretty much anyone can claim to be a “body language expert,” and pretty much everyone is.  I mean, sure, they’re probably right about some things, but when they are, they’re probably no more “expert” in my opinion than the average observant adult.

For example, if someone meets you for the first time and smiles broadly, there’s a good chance that the person is open to having a positive interaction with you.  (Wow, what insight!)  And if someone flips you his middle finger, it’s a safe bet that there’s some animosity being expressed.  (How fascinating!)  Likewise, if someone’s sobbing, there’s a good chance that there’s some sadness there.  (Are you dazzled by this brilliance?)  And if a guy in an airport keeps looking in the same trash can, walking away for a while, then coming back and looking in that trash can again and again, it’s probably reasonable to wonder why he’s so apparently interested in the contents of that trash can.  (You’ve got to be impressed by now!)

Sure, it’s reasonable to train the security folks at the airport to take note of the trash-can guy, but that’s actually getting beyond “body language” to a broader level of behavioral observation and analysis.  Interpreting those three previous examples — the smile, the finger, and the sobbing — better approximates the level of “science” that I hear from the typical “body language expert” on TV.  If you ask them, they’ll go on and on about all of the supposed “research” supporting the independent use of nonverbal communication to make judgments about people.  They’ll try to tell you that far more information is conveyed through nonverbal communication than through verbal communication.  Personally, I’ve never seen any convincing data to support such claims.

Test them yourself if you want.  If you ever have access to a “body language expert,” tell him or her some truths and some lies and have him or her tell you which is which.  Or have him or her watch a video clip of you talking calmly, with the sound off, and then have him or her tell you what you were thinking and feeling while you were saying whatever you were saying.  I’ll bet his or her accuracy’s no better than what you’d get from chance and common sense respectively.

Nevertheless, a couple of weeks ago, I caught a “body language expert” opining  that the “West Memphis 3” (three men who were convicted — they say wrongly — of horrific child murders back in the 1990’s) were probably innocent because of their body language.  I think it was utterly irresponsible both to say that in the first place and then to put it on the air.  I’ve never once seen a “body language expert” recognized by a court of law as an actual expert, qualified scientifically to render an opinion about someone’s honesty, guilt, innocence, mental status, personality, etc., based on that person’s body language — not in any of the cases in which I’ve participated as an expert witness, and not in any of the cases in which I’ve participated as a lawyer.

Sure, if you yawn all through a conversation with your boss, it’s reasonable for the boss to think that you’re tired.  People yawn when they’re tired.  It’s physiological.  But if your boss puts his hands on his hips while he’s talking to you, he might be conveying power over you by making himself appear bigger and broader, or he might just want to air out his armpits.  I don’t know, you don’t know, and the “body language expert” doesn’t know.  Or if the boss makes gestures with his palms down, he might be conveying confidence, or he might not want you to see his sweaty palms.  I don’t know, you don’t know, and the “body language expert” doesn’t know.

That’s why psychologists and psychiatrists are trained to look for convergent data from multiple sources, like the content of an examinee’s verbal communication, the results of statistically-validated clinical tests, the examinee’s documented experiential and behavioral histories, his or her behavior as observed by close others, his or her behavior as observed by the clinician including, yes, his or her nonverbal communication, but generally only to the extent that it’s congruent or incongruent with the content of the verbal communication (e.g. if someone’s sobbing but telling the clinician that she’s happy, there’s an incongruity between her reported mood and her affect that warrants further inquiry but NOT the automatic conclusion that the nonverbal message must be the more accurate one).

If “body language expert” segments are that popular with viewers, which I presume they must be, given the frequency with which I’m having to suffer through them, then producers should book them to speculate — because that’s what they do, speculate — about pure entertainment topics, like whether or not Miley Cyrus likes Justin Beiber, not about serious matters like people’s honesty, guilt, innocence, mental status, personality, etc.  If George Anthony looks down, or up, or touches his nose while talking with Dr. Phil, he might be a liar, he might be a narcissist, or he might just be a guy with something in his eye or an itchy nose.  Please, enough with the body language!

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