The witness on the stand pauses before answering, then looks briefly up and to the right while giving a response. While listening to the next question, she places a finger over her lips, angles her head slightly, and raises one shoulder a bit higher than the other. Does any of that mean anything? To some who hold themselves out as nonverbal communication experts, each gesture and movement can be broken out and interpreted as having a distinct and defined meaning. But, by and large, those interpretations will not be supported by valid and replicable science. That doesn’t always stop practical communicators — including attorneys, witnesses, and even jurors — from putting stock in the idea that our nonverbal postures, movements and gestures carry definite meaning. Even the phrase “body language” implies that physical action can be interpreted with precision comparable to verbal speech. The problem is that it cannot.

To be sure, there is real science with reliable methodology and published in peer-reviewed journals on nonverbal communication. But there is also a lot of pseudoscience: claims that may come with the trappings of science but lack the open data, the methods, and the protections of science. In this post, I’ll take a look at why this area is especially rife with pseudoscience and consider one recent example that’s been pitched to lawyers and law enforcement as a way to read nonverbal communication and assess credibility. I’ll also draw some more general conclusions about the reliability and use of knowledge on nonverbal communication.

Why the Fake News on Nonverbals?

One broad explanation can be found in a recent article from the website for the Center for Investigative Learning, CFIL Global, called, “‘Alternative Facts’ About Nonverbal Communication.” The author, Vince Denault, a lecturer at University of Montreal, writes,

Unfortunately, although thousands of peer-reviewed publications provide very important insights on the impact of nonverbal communication in social interactions, the general public as well as professionals whose work require sorting the truth from the lies are exposed to a plethora of false beliefs, stereotypes, and pseudoscientific techniques to ‘read’ nonverbal behaviours.

It is not always easy to separate the false from the true. The real claims tend to be nuanced, contextual and often subjective. The pseudoscience claims, on the other hand, tend to hold themselves out like a decoder ring: E.g., when someone places a finger over the lips, that means they are holding something back that they don’t want to say. Maybe, but maybe not. Claims like that deserve to be taken with quite a few grains of salt. And when the research is only conducted by the people selling a service, and isn’t appearing in peer-reviewed scientific publications, that’s a good indication that it is pseudoscience.

The bottom line, according to Denault, is that “Science has shown that specific nonverbal behaviors with similar unequivocal meanings or interpretations across situations are very rare.”

A Case Study: Synergology

The history of communications research is littered with perspectives that have offered more than the research supports. Vince Denault teamed with a colleague in the UK, Louise Jupe, to write an article (Denault & Jupe, 2017), taking a close look at one more recent entrant, a school of thought that goes by the name “Synergology.” It describes itself as a science and a “discipline that enables us to decode gestures and decipher the workings of the human mind based on a person’s body language in order to improve communication.” The perspective has made inroads into the legal community with the Bar of Quebec hosting an online training for approximately 2000 attorneys. In that training, attendees were told, among other things, that lying is associated with a face turned to the left, and truthfulness with scratching the front left side of the neck.

The Denault and Jupe article takes a close look at a post published on the Synergology site analyzing the nonverbal communication displayed by an accused serial killer during three and a half minutes of video taken during a bond hearing. The suspect is seen only from behind and says only 15 words during the hearing. So, for the most part, the analysts are looking at the accused’s posture and head positions. Based on his head tilt, the angle of his chin, and his shoulder positions, they draw conclusions about his lack of empathy, feelings of superiority, and attempts to mislead the judge.

Denault and Jupe look at the article claim by claim and find that neither the Synergology authors, nor any published science that Denault and Jupe can find, provide any scientific support for the associations made by the Synergologists. Their analysis is “riddled with a plethora of scientific and logical inaccuracies,” and their conclusions indicating that someone we would assume to be an unrepentant and dangerous criminal actually is an unrepentant and dangerous criminal. In other words, confirmation bias.

When conclusions like those of the Synergologist are offered with full confidence, one might wonder about their foundation. The founders claim to have an accumulated dataset consisting of thousands of televised clips of similar gestures and postures in order to identify the meanings behind each. But as Denault and Jupe note, apart from one publication focusing on just seven video clips, this set has never been made public and its conclusions have never been submitted to peer review.

Who Believes Nonverbal Pseudoscience?

While you may not have heard yet about “Synergology,” chances are quite good that you have heard, and maybe believed, pseudoscientific claims about nonverbal communication. The best example is probably the claim, most often unattributed, that “communication is 93 percent nonverbal,” and most meaning comes from physical movement and intonation and not from words. The origin of this belief can be traced back to a study by UCLA Professor Albert Mehrabian. The problem is that this interpretation of what he meant has been repeatedly debunked, but the claim has proved to be stickier than the refutation. The study did not show, and Mehrabian did not say, that in any general sense communication is 93 percent nonverbal.

Another chestnut is the belief that looking up and to the right indicates that someone is lying. I have talked to jurors who believe that this is established scientific fact. But it isn’t. It is a common belief promoted by practitioners of a perspective called “Neuro-Linguistic Programming” or “NLP,” but it has never received scientific support, and several years ago, a study (Wiseman et al., 2012) effectively refuted it.

Behind these and many other pseudoscientific beliefs about nonverbal communication, there is intuition and folk wisdom that causes these beliefs to be repeated and passed on by some lawyers, consultants, and witnesses. There’s certainly a role for practical experience, and even for intuition. But when specific beliefs are used to guide advice on good communication in high-stakes situations like a trial, then those beliefs should be grounded in facts and science. As Denault and Jupe emphasize, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

What Are the Implications for Communicators?

One implication is simply to avoid the false confidence in nonverbal cues, particularly when it comes to judging credibility in high-stakes legal contexts. In Professor Denault’s article, for example, he reports on an analysis of more than 120 studies involving roughly 25,000 participants which showed that when people are trained to determine truthfulness based on speech or behavior, they achieve a success rate that is only four percentage points higher than pure random chance.

Ultimately, for practical communicators, the main takeaway is that it is about overall credibility, and not about decoding the specific meanings of various physical gestures, postures, and movements. Anytime you are exposed to advice suggesting that a given instance of nonverbal behavior conveys a specific meaning, it is best to be skeptical. It is better to ask how it impacts credibility rather than to ask how it will be read. As I’ve advised in the past regarding claims about nonverbal meaning, 1) It is best to ask “How you know?” and 2) If it seems too definite, it probably isn’t true. There are a few examples, (e.g., shrugging and nodding) where the gesture can be interpreted like a language, but in most cases, meaning is far too dependent on the person and the situation to permit any generalized reading.