What does scientific literature tell us about the idea that body language reflects our real feelings? One experiment carried out about 10 years ago by Ross Buck from Carnegie-Mellon University in Pennsylvania suggests that spontaneous facial expression is not a very good index of real emotional state. Buck and his colleagues tested the accuracy with which people could identify the emotions felt by another person. They presented one set of subjects with colour slides involving a variety of emotionally-loaded visual stimuli – such as “scenic” slides (landscapes, etc), “maternal” slides (mothers and young children), disgusting slides (severe facial injuries and burns) and unusual slides (art objects). Unknown to these subjects, they were being televised and viewed by another matched set of subjects, who were asked to decide, on the basis of the televised facial expressions, which of the four sets of slides had just been viewed. This experiment involved both male and female pairs, but no pairs comprising both men and women; that is men observed only men, and women observed women. Buck found that the female pairs correctly identified almost 40 per cent of the slides used – this was above the level which would be predicted by chance alone. (Chance level is 25 per cent here, as there were four classes of slide). But male pairs correctly identified only 28 per cent of slides – not significantly above chance level. In other words, this study suggests that facial expression is not a very good index of “real” feeling – and in the case of men watching and interpreting other men, is almost useless.
Paul Ekman from the University of California has conducted a long series of experiments on nonverbal leakage (or how nonverbal behaviour may reveal real inner states) which has yielded some more positive and counter-intuitive results. Ekman has suggested that nonverbal behaviour may indeed provide a clue to real feelings and has explored in some detail people actively involved in deception, where their verbal language is not a true indication of how they really feel. Ekman here agrees with Sigmund Freud, who was also convinced of the importance of nonverbal behaviour in spotting deception when he wrote: “He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his finger-tips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.”
Ekman predicted that the feet and legs would probably hold the best clue to deception because although the face sends out very quick instantaneous messages, people attend to and receive most feedback from the face and therefore try to control it most. In the case of the feet and legs the “transmission time” is much longer but we have little feedback from this part of the body. In other words, we are often unaware of what we are doing with our feet and legs. Ekman suggested that the face is equipped to lie the most (because we are often aware of our facial expression) and to “leak” the most (because it sends out many fast momentary messages) and is therefore going to be a very confusing source of information during deception. The legs and feet would be the primary source of nonverbal leakage and hold the main clue to deception. The form the leakage in the legs and feet would take would include “aggressive foot kicks, flirtatious leg displays, abortive restless flight movements”. Clues to deception could be seen in “tense leg positions, frequent shifts of leg posture, and in restless or repetitive leg and foot movements.”
Ekman conducted a series of experiments to test his speculations, some involving psychiatric patients who were engaging in deception, usually to obtain release from hospital. He made films of interviews involving the patients and showed these, without sound, to one of two groups of observers. One group viewed only the face and head, the other group, the body from the neck down. Each observer was given a list of 300 adjectives describing attitudes, emotional state, and so on, and had to say which adjectives best described the patients. The results indicated quite dramatically that individuals who utilised the face tended to be misled by the patients, whereas those who concentrated on the lower body were much more likely to detect the real state of the patients and not be misled by the attempted deception.
These studies thus suggest that some body language may indeed reflect our real feelings, even when we are trying to disguise them. Most people can, however, manage to control facial expression quite well and the face often seems to provide little information about real feeling. Paul Ekman has more recently demonstrated that people can be trained to interpret facial expression more accurately but this, not surprisingly, is a slow laborious process. Ekman’s research, suggests that the feet and legs betray a great deal about real feelings and attitudes but the research is nowhere near identifying the meanings of particular foot movements. Ray Birdwhistell of the Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute has gone some way towards identifying some of the basic nonverbal elements of the legs and feet, and as a first approximation has identified 58 separate elements. But the meanings of these particular elements is far from clear and neither are the rules for combining the elements into larger meaningful units. Perhaps in years to come we will have a “language” of the feet provided that we can successfully surmount the problems described earlier in identifying the basic forms of movement following Birdwhistell’s pioneering efforts, of how they may combine into larger units, and in teaching people how they might make sense of apparently contradictory movements.
In the meantime, if you go to a party and find someone peering intently at your feet – beware.