Can we really read body language accurately?

Mentalists and ‘mind readers’ claim to be able to guess what people are thinking by reading their body language as easily as they’re able to read a headline in a newspaper. The truth is – they can’t, and this is why…

‘Trick of the mind’ exponents like Derren Brown* are seemingly able to read and manipulate the minds of others, implanting ideas at will and drawing thoughts out of brains as easily as a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat. Their amazing feats of mentalism however are more routinely based on simple trickery rather than a genuine ability to read body language, and you can easily find out how they really do it from any of hundreds of books dedicated to the art of mentalism and mind control, available from any good magic shop or

However, entertainment is one thing – I have no problem with a little mild deception – I mean, nobody really believes the magician is actually sawing his assistant in half – but when reading body language is sold as a valid part of therapy, there is cause, and need, for scepticism.

There is a mountain of vacuous nonsense written about body language. Much of this emanates from Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) and should be viewed with suspicion. However, there is some base-line body language that is possible to interpret.

Language – the words and sentences used to make our intentions known to others and help us understand others’ intentions toward us – are only part of communication. It’s our non-verbal communication skills that tell the real story.

Non-verbal communication makes up three quarters of our ability to communicate. Within weeks of being born we learn the meaning of a whole physical language, from a mother’s smile to a sibling’s frown. From there on, how we sit, how we stand, where we look and what we do with our hands and feet give us clues about the thoughts, sincerity and mood of others.

Most of the time, we can pick up on other people’s non-verbals due to our accumulated experience of what they mean. We can sense the difference between a real and a false smile. (A real smile is in the eyes.)

By the time babies are just seven months old, they have already acquired basic social skills and can understand what their parents are doing. Seven-month-old toddlers can not only observe but can also understand and imitate social interactions.

An innovative collaboration between neuroscientists and developmental psychologists that investigated how infant’s brains process other people’s actions provides the first evidence that directly links neural responses from the motor system to overt social behaviour in infants.

36 seven-month-olds were studied while they were wearing an electroencephalography (EEG) cap that measured brain activity. Each baby observed a member of the research team reaching for one of two toys. Immediately afterward, the baby was allowed to select one of the toys – mostly they chose the toy selected by the researcher.

So this ‘imitation game’ begins at a very early age. Like it or not, and completely irrelevant of what we say, our bodies give away important clues about what we are really thinking. You don’t need a degree in psychology to know when someone is flirting with you (although apparently I do!) or when we find ourselves in a threatening situation.

Quite unconsciously, the direction of our line of sight can give clues to the way we process information. Looking down and to the right may indicate we are processing feelings and emotions, looking up and to the left may show that we are remembering images, while a horizontal gaze may mean that we are remembering sounds.

HOWEVER… as interesting as all this sounds, it does not take into consideration left or right brain dominance or left or right-handedness. Neither does it consider the need to really know someone before it’s possible to pick up very subtle signals.

To make the formula work, it’s necessary to ask a few test questions in order to establish some baseline results that will provide a template for recognisable patterns. But it’s important not to let the person you’re doing this. If they are aware you’re doing it there’s always the danger confirmation bias might creep in. In any case, once someone knows what the point of the experiment is, the results will almost certainly become skewed. The other thing to bear in mind is that psychopaths are known to have an unconscious (and uncanny) ability to both mask and fake signals.

Most important, this whole theory of direction of line of sight is as yet, entirely untested. There has been no serious research into the accuracy of the theory, although devotees of NLP swear by it. So again, fine for the purposes of entertainment, but not so fine if it’s used as a therapeutic tool. What if the practitioner gets it wrong? How will that affect the outcome of the session?

Trying to simulate the correct body language to suit the occasion is a mistake. Putting on a show never works – you can be sure that the person you’re trying to impress – or manipulate – will see right through it.

The way people move and the way they hold themselves plays a key role in identification. Faces and facial expressions are important in the same way the spoken word is an important part of communication, but we also take a mental snapshot of someone’s body, their gestures and mannerisms. The better we know someone, the better we are able to recognise, interpret and predict their body language because we have evolved to be sensitive to human movement. We can even judge someone’s emotional state simply by observing their movement, expression, eyes and even their breathing and this is something we do unconsciously.

Researchers at the School of Psychology at the University of Aberdeen, led by Dr Karin Pilz, have proved this by creating a pair of computer-generated characters, and got 16 participants to identify them by observing their body language. One of the characters performed professional karate movements, while the other did the same but in a more amateur way. When their faces were swapped over, participants were still able to identify them based on their movement.

The study showed that the less we are able to recognise someone, the more we rely on watching them in action. This means that we are able to recognise people from a distance even if we are unable to see their faces. The study confirmed this by using faces that had the same hairstyle, ears and face outline, so that people were not distracted by other factors.

What we really need is a checklist of typical poses and positions in order to try to understand, or at least guess their meaning. But be warned – although interpreting body language might appear to be a matter of common sense – most of what follows is only a rough guide and may not be entirely accurate! For instance, there may be lots of reasons why people sit up straight or slouch back in their seats. There may be reasons why people move from side to side in a swivel chair (try sitting in one and not doing it!) It may not necessarily mean that you’re unconsciously saying no!

So here we go…

Resting your head on your hand with your elbow on the table may show you’re bored – or maybe you’re just tired?

Resting your head on your hand with your with your forefinger on your cheekbone may show that you’re interested – or maybe you’re trying to intimidate the person opposite; it could also be interpreted as arrogance on your part.

Sitting forward with your arms crossed on the desk could indicate a closed and defensive position and could mean you’re probably not open to starting a conversation. Or perhaps you’re having difficulty hearing the person opposite.

Uncrossing your arms and opening your hands could mean you’re open to conversation. Or maybe it’s because you think the other person is talking nonsense.

How you look at a person’s face could possibly have an impact on communication. The direction of another person’s gaze might be of help if you’re trying to work out what they’re thinking and this method is often used in lie detection. It shouldn’t be – it’s not guaranteed to be accurate because it takes no heed of mood or stress!

Focusing your gaze on the nose indicates friendliness (not your own nose, obviously.) Or maybe they’ve got a big nose.

Fixing your eyes on their forehead is a dominating gaze – it entails looking above natural eye-line and it might help you to take control of a situation. On the other hand it might be seen as aggressive or arrogant, even menacing.

Looking at the nose and down towards the mouth area indicates sensual intent. How did they test this?

The direction in which people look might give clues as to whether they are remembering, or thinking about images or sounds. Possibly… but how would you know unless you ask them. In which case, why not just ask them?

If you suspect someone isn’t telling you the whole truth, you could try watching what they do with their hands. If they’re rubbing their eyes or the back of their neck, these can be signs of deception. But not always. Some people rub the back of their neck when they feel fed up with something and people can rub their eyes when they are reluctant to see or understand something. Then again, it could also just mean that their eyes are tired.

The way we position our legs can be a big indicator of how we are feeling. Someone who is sitting with crossed legs and has tucked the toe of the top leg behind the calf of the other is likely feeling shy (or needing to go to the loo) but a person who is sitting with their bottom on the edge of the chair, knees bent, and hands poised on the edge of the seat – as if they are about to stand up at any moment are people who are likely itching to get away. Or they might be waiting to start an argument.

A word of warning for men: if you sit with your legs open, with one foot resting on your knee and your hands behind your head, people will assume you are an over-confident know-it-all and crucially, women won’t like it. Neither do men… actually.

Sitting up straight with your feet on the floor and your hands in front of you makes it easier to communicate with others. This one is true, if only because it’s more dignified.

Someone absent-mindedly touching their sleeve or cuffs might be trying to calm their irritation or agitation. Or, it might be that they are bored. Or they might be Prince Charles.

If someone habitually sits with their arms crossed, with fingers tucked under their arms and their thumbs pointing upwards this is usually a sign that they are at least temporarily, closed and aloof. Or they could just be cold.

If you want to feel more confident and composed you should place your palms together. Then at least you’ll be ready to pray.

Somebody holding their arms behind their backs suggests that they are feeling tense and uncomfortable. Or perhaps they are bored and impatient.

If they’re holding one arm with the other, it usually (but not always) means they are feeling agitated. The higher up they hold their other arm, the more agitated they may be – or maybe they’re just suffering from bad circulation. My grandfather did, and that’s what he use to do to relieve it.

If someone has their hands in their pockets with their thumbs poking out, they are possibly feeling confident and superior. Or are members of the aristocracy.

Someone patting you on the back during a hug is a sign that they feel uncomfortable and are secretly hoping you will let go as soon as possible. This one is true. I do it all the time. The longer they hang on, the more vigorously I pat them, the clingy-touchy-feely creeps.

The direction someone’s feet are pointing might be an indication of how they feel about you. If their feet are pointing towards you it is said they are generally interested. Try facing someone with both your feet pointed in a different direction to understand how ridiculous this assertion is.

However, if you are standing in a group of three and the other two have their feet pointed towards each other, they might be hoping you will go away. Or freemasons.

Obvious really isn’t it? Or is it just wishy-washy pseudo-scientific nonsense? But according to some, it’s all you need to know to practice your people-watching skills and start guessing what they are thinking.

*Note to lawyers. Derren Brown is a contradiction. I admire his unflinching efforts to expose the fakery of spirit mediums, faith healers and religious flim-flam artists, and even the bollocks that is NLP. Derren Brown is first and foremost an entertainer, and a good one – in fact I believe he is the best in his field. His knowledge of the psychology of magic and illusion is second to none. His naughtiness however emanates from his refusal to acknowledge that a lot of what he does is hypnosis. His denial of this one fact makes him slightly hypocritical, especially when he so obviously delights in exposing others. But then again, it’s only entertainment…?

Copyright Andrew Newton 2016. All rights reserved.

About Andrew Newton

andrew newton hypnotist

Andrew Newton has an international reputation as a leading authority on hypnosis. 

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