The Frontal Cortex

Analyzing Body Language

Maybe I’m just ignorant, but this sort of body-language interpretation, as featured in the NY Times today, struck me as about as scientific as palm reading and hand-writing analysis:

Tonya Reiman and Maxine Lucille Fiel do not know much about football, but they are fluent in body language, one of many areas in which the Giants have appeared suspect recently.

Reiman and Fiel noticed Coach Tom Coughlin crossing his arms. In their playbook, that was a defensive posture. They saw quarterback Eli Manning biting his lower lip and said that was a sign of regret. They watched the Giants’ players bowing their heads when they were still way ahead.

“This is extremely important in sports,” Reiman said, referring to body language. “If you’re trying to work together, you need some kind of rapport. You show rapport through body language.”

I know scientists like Paul Ekman have constructed a detailed map of facial expression, but is crossing your arms really a “defensive posture”? I mean, that’s just so vague. I have a nagging feeling that if the Giants had won the game, Coughlin’s arm crossing would have been a gesture of steely authority, not defensiveness.

But maybe the Times was being tongue in cheek. One can hope. But then I came across this Gladwell article on Cesar Milan and “movement analysis,” which treated the analysts like bona fide scientists:

Movement analysts tend to like watching, say, Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan; they had great phrasing. George W. Bush does not. During this year’s State of the Union address, Bush spent the entire speech swaying metronomically, straight down through his lower torso, a movement underscored, unfortunately, by the presence of a large vertical banner behind him. “Each shift ended with this focus that channels toward a particular place in the audience,” Bradley said. She mimed, perfectly, the Bush gaze–the squinty, fixated look he reserves for moments of great solemnity–and gently swayed back and forth. “It’s a little primitive, a little regressed.” The combination of the look, the sway, and the gaze was, to her mind, distinctly adolescent. When people say of Bush that he seems eternally boyish, this is in part what they’re referring to. He moves like a boy, which is fine, except that, unlike such movement masters as Reagan and Clinton, he can’t stop moving like a boy when the occasion demands a more grown-up response.

Is that really rigorous research? I’m genuinely asking the question, because I don’t know. Can our body language really be broken down into nebulous categories like “adolescent movements”? And would a Republican “movement analyst” still consider Bush’s gaze to be “primitive” and “regressed”? When we analyze somebody’s body language, how much of the meaning is in the body, and how much is in the act of interpretation? If anybody knows the answer to these questions, please enlighten me. I’m genuinely curious, and more than a little bit skeptical.


  1. #1 Mark
    November 29, 2006

    I share your skepticism. I suspect that body language is one of those ideas like the four (or six or whatever it’s supposed to be) stages of grief that come to have a cultural acceptance despite having no rigorous analysis to back them up. I’m sure there are stages in grief, and I’m sure there is body language. Ever seen anyone make a threatening gesture? But I also think it’s possible, indeed likely, that the proponents read more into it than is really there.

  2. #2 Pablo
    November 29, 2006

    I’ll bet Tonya Reiman and Maxine Lucille Fiel have never played football, or any sport for that matter. Emotions run wild during a game, and every player is at times defensive, or exuberant, or regretful, even in games they win. Did Manning bite his lip right after an interception?

  3. #3 Joshua
    November 30, 2006

    There are universal signals. It’s definitely a valid area of research that probably needs a more scientific eye bent to it. (If there isn’t a whole field toiling in obscurity already.) But, yes, I would be extremely skeptical of any one particular analysis, especially the more detailed the conclusions it draws. If there is meaning to body language — which is a premise I fully accept — then the universals are going to be very, very broad. Any given individual might vary from the universals, in addition to having their own individual tics. Or a poker player might call them tells. 😉

    On a related note, there’s a very fascinating Non-Verbal Dictionary out there. I’ve consulted it in the past as part of my acting, using it to give physical habits to characters. The interesting part is that, wherever possible, it cites research studies to support its claims.

    For example, here’s the entry on the arm cross. With the commentary: “Though often decoded as a defensive barrier sign, the arm-cross represents a comfortable position for relaxing the arms, e.g., while speaking, as well.”

  4. #4 EANMDPHD
    December 1, 2006

    “Body Language” and any single gesture can have many meanings. This is the fundamental problem of psychology; some progress is made when the context in which a behavior occurs is understood. Still, overt behaviors are often interpreted in the context of the viewer.

    from Reuter’s
    “The Pope’s dreaded visit was concluded with a wonderful surprise,” wrote daily Aksam on its front page.

    “In Sultan Ahmet Mosque, he turned toward Mecca and prayed like Muslims,” popular daily Hurriyet said, using the building’s official name.

  5. #5 Your sister
    December 1, 2006

    Movements Analysis is a well established field that primarily focuses on deconstructing elements of movement such as Body, Effort, Space and Shape. These elements, in Laban Movement Analysis (which is just one type) were developed for Modern dance but have very wide applications. For example, there is amazing work being done in the study of Hitler’s movements during his public speaking, and some movement analysts work with lawyers as a type of lie detector test, and have proven very reliable.

    The quotes from the NYTimes seem very skimpy but it is very possible that they have a deep level of understanding and analysis of the human body and its reactions to certain environments. It seems more like bad editing than bad science.

    The very unscientifc element of Movement Analysis is the interpretation. There is no objective system of interpretation. Valuable interpretation only come from extensive experience with observation, though there are certain developmental patterns that do offer some help with interpretation and allow analysists to say things like “He moves like a boy” as in the NYer piece.

  6. #6 Neurontic
    December 2, 2006

    I don’t know much about movement analysis, but it doesn’t strike me as being terribly different from Paul Ekman’s facial recognition analysis, highligted in Gladwell’s piece The Naked Face. I was personally intrigued by the idea of facial recognition. It makes a certain amount of sense that we’re evolutionarily predisposed to being able to pick up subtle cues from people’s expressions, so why not their bodies as well?

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