Debunking Body Language Myths - Some surprising truths
Co-authored by Abbie Maroño, Ph.D.
Every day, we get queries from around the world about nonverbals and invariably about detecting deception through body language. The biggest takeaway from the hundreds of messages is that despite the undeniable importance of nonverbal communication, many myths and false beliefs undermine its importance, relevance, or utility. So, we decided to pool our resources and comment on ten myths about body language that are currently trending, and you may notice some have been trending for a long time.
1. You can detect deception based on an individual’s nonverbal behaviors.
False. While we wish we could, the answer is that we humans are “no better than chance at detecting deception”—a coin toss. So please put this myth away. We have known this empirically since Paul Ekman’s best-seller, Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage, came out in 1985. There is no single behavior indicative of deception, not one. We need to stop associating behaviors indicative of psychological discomfort with deception and acknowledge them purely for what they are: signs of stress, anxiety, apprehension, despair, suspicion, tension, concern, nervousness, etc., but not deception.
Further, in a recently published Ph.D. thesis (2021), Mapala used the latest motion capture, virtual reality, and eye-tracking technology to examine nonverbal indicators of deception and concluded that “the non-verbal cues assessed could not distinguish between honest and deceptive people.”
2. The polygraph can detect lies.
Big myth. The polygraph cannot detect lies; it never has and never will. As the APA reminds us, “The accuracy (i.e., validity) of polygraph testing has long been controversial. An underlying problem is theoretical: There is no evidence that any pattern of physiological reactions is unique to deception. An honest person may be nervous when answering truthfully, and a dishonest person may be non-anxious.”
Lastly, the American Academy of Science reported in 2003 that the polygraph could not be relied on because “Overall, the evidence is scanty and scientifically weak.”
Lastly, courts, including the United States Supreme Court (cf. U.S. v. Scheffer, 1998), have repeatedly rejected the use of polygraph evidence because of its “inherent unreliability.”
3. Scratching with your right hand indicates the need for help, but scratching with the left indicates temporary uncertainty rather than needing help.
This myth was incredulously published in a "body language" book. The basis of this myth comes from research indicating that the right hand is connected to the rational left half of the brain while the left hand is connected to the emotional right half of the brain. It was argued that scratching with either hand indicates different internal states.
Although there indeed exists hemispheric dominance and lateralization for information processing, both hemispheres are deeply interconnected and do not function entirely independently from one another. There also exists no empirical evidence to support a causal relationship between feelings of uncertainty and scratching with a particular hand.
4. There are three different types of people, and you can tell their personalities and communication styles based on their body language.
This myth appeared after a popular talk made its way around the internet and is founded on the ephemeral argument that all human beings fit one of three distinct neurological profiles—unsurprisingly, research does not support this. Humans are far too complex to be leavened into three categories.
It was also proposed that each of these groups has distinctive nonverbal facial features, such as thin vs. thick lips, different preferences for eye contact, self-touching, clothing, and an array of other assertions that are not supported by research and ignore cultural factors.
5. Contempt is the only asymmetric expression shown on the face.
This argument stems from the belief that there is only one distinct emotion present on our face at any one time, which has specific associated features, and that asymmetric features can accompany no emotion other than contempt.
Let’s consider that emotions are rarely felt in complete isolation. They are dynamic and highly fluid, overlapping, contradictory at times, and complex. Have you ever felt both happy and sad, excited about a new opportunity but also nervous about the change?
For example, the “Upper Lip Rise” (#174), discussed in The Dictionary of Body Language, where the person smiles and answers positively, but the upper lip pulls unilaterally, indicating disgust or dislike. Like that, there are various facial behaviors, including “Mouth Stretching” (#165), where the mouth is pulled to the side, usually seen when you realize you made a mistake and others are looking at you, and you fear you got caught. Both of these examples are asymmetric expressions.
Our facial expressions are not always indicative of only one exact emotion and an asymmetric expression does not always indicate feelings of contempt. Please consider reading this on Emotional Chirality.
6. Liars will avoid eye contact.
Another myth that needs to be shut down. As the research of famed psychologist Aldert Vrij (Vrij 2000, 88-89) showed, liars engage in greater eye contact because they want to make sure they are being believed. When we can relax around others, we have the freedom to look away. And, of course, we need to consider that in many cultures, they are taught to look down and avoid eye contact when they are being contrite.
7. Ninety-three percent of all human communication is nonverbal.
The percentages quoted often vary from anywhere between 70-93 percent. This came from a misunderstanding of a classic study by Albert Mehrabian. In his work, Mehrabian never stated that we can put an exact percentage to the verbal vs. nonverbal element of human communication in general, rather in that particular study when only one word was said, the nonverbal component was 93 percent.
Communication is fluid and reflexive as well as situational, in other words, there is no set number.
8. Crossing your arms across the belly, says, "keep away."
This misconception stems from research on blocking behaviors, which show that when an individual feels uncomfortable or threatened they may use parts of their body to create a physical barrier between themself and others. Hence, behaviors like the crossing of the arms signal discomfort. In my own (Maroño) research I have found that these behaviors can be a signal of distress and discomfort.
But, I have also found that more often than not, this behavior is just a comfortable way for us to rest our arms. Arm crossing is often nothing more than a tactile self-comforting behavior when we are waiting for something to start, while engaged in a conversation, or even when we are upset—children do this all the time. What matters is the context and accompanying nonverbals, like the full picture, not just an isolated behavior.
9. If a person answers a question by first touching their nose they are lying.
Another myth that is wrong and can have serious implications as I noted in "Detecting Lies vs. Detecting Truth–Serious Implications." We touch our faces all day long as a means to self-soothe. We naturally do so when we are being scrutinized, talked to, or feel apprehensive. Neither this nor any other isolated behavior, such as mouth touching or wiping, indicates deception. These are pacifiers, and the honest and the dishonest use them.
10. If a person looks up to the right or down to the left to answer a question they are lying.
As David Matsumoto noted in an article specifically written for the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin in 2011,
Twenty-three out of 24 peer-reviewed studies published in scientific journals reporting experiments on eye behavior as an indicator of lying have rejected this hypothesis. No scientific evidence exists to suggest that eye behavior or gaze aversion can gauge truthfulness reliably.
This is a short list of the many existing myths about detecting deception and body language. The reader would be wise to ask,
Has this been validated empirically, are there other possible explanations, does culture factor into any of this, are these universal, who is making these assertions, and in how many cultures around the world have they been observed?
A little scepticism goes a long way and of course there are plenty of empirical studies on the subject to which we should all avail ourselves.
Co-authored by Dr. Abbie Maroño, PhD. and Joe Navarro, M.A.
Dr. Abbie Maroño, PhD. is the Director of Education at Social-Engineer, LLC and is on the faculty at the University of Northampton (UK).
Copyright © 2022, Joe Navarro and Dr. Abbie Maroño, PhD.
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