Body Language and the Search for Hidden Meaning
There is little doubt that body language can exude confidence, anxiety, awkwardness, and charisma. Experts tell us that roughly 80 percent of the meaning of a message lies in the nonverbal expression of it.
No wonder so many seemingly smart people invest a lot of time and money into predicting what people believe and feel from their body language. The idea of gleaning insights into what people are really thinking from specific gestures, such as folded arms or raised eyebrows, is highly alluring.
Unfortunately, it's total horse hockey.
Scratch your neck, touch your nose, push out the tip of your tongue, cross your arms, point your finger, shrug your shoulders, or squint your eyes. According to the cottage industry of body language experts, gestures can reliably reveal important truths about people, especially in high-stakes situations.
Unless your local palm reader convinces you otherwise, it is time to discard this claim. There is not a shred of science that supports it. Not one credible study.
Meaning is context dependent. Even lying is associated with so many varied gestures it is more reliable to watch for deviations from what a person does normally than to look for the Pinocchio nose giveaway.
People use body language to accentuate messages, not to carry them. No one gesture or physical expression means anything void of the context within which it is created.
We use body language to confirm what we are already learning from others. As interpreters, we cobble all the movements and gestures together and add them to our ongoing interpretation of what is being said. This is known as confirmation bias in other circles.
We simply can’t decode the mental states of others exclusively from their body language. No gesture means anything specific, no matter how many times you’ve heard that folding your arms or closing your arms is a sign of closemindedness.
Remember that the next time a news anchor interviews a kinesics expert about what really transpired after a political speech or courtroom drama. The idea of reading body language sells. So do horoscopes.