The Pseudoscience of Body Language Explained

Image for post
Image for post

The other day, my lovely girlfriend and I sat down to watch the new Netflix documentary about Chris Watts, American Murder. As we watched, I felt extremely frustrated about something that’s been bothering me for a long time. What Chris Watts did was terrible, and I’m glad he’s spending the rest of his life in prison. Each of us can think of 100,000 different ways Chris Watts could have left his marriage without murdering his wife and two children. But the acts of Chris Watts isn’t what I’m here to talk about today because many people have already done that. What’s frustrated me for months now is the promotion of the pseudoscience of body-language reading that’s exploded since the charges were brought against Chris Watts.

Much like the bad science around polygraph tests, the pseudoscience around body language has even less evidence. With the millions of views that body language videos get, I’m sure many people will try to argue that body-language reading works, but I ask that you wait until the end to see if your opinion has changed.

As a skeptic, I’ve been annoyed that channels like Derek Van Schaik receive hundreds of thousands to millions of views using this pseudoscience, and now YouTube is promoting a new “body language expert” Believing Bruce. For a long time, I figured it wasn’t a big deal if people believed these so-called body language experts, but now I’ve realized that there are real-life consequences to people not understanding that body language is a pseudoscience.

The Derek Van Schaik body language video about Chris Watts has over 31 million views, and it’s monetized, so he’s made a pretty penny off this video. But him profiting off of this pseudoscience isn’t the main issue. What troubled me was when I found out that Human Resources personnel are being shown this video as a form of training.

My friend’s relative is the regional HR manager for a huge company. For obvious reasons, I’m not going to disclose the company name, but I promise that you know of this company. This company has over 10s of thousands of employees across the country, and HR is responsible for investigating accusations of sexual harassment, racism, and other situations in order to keep the workplace safe and prevent massive lawsuits. These are very serious matters, and entire HR departments are being trained on body language via a YouTube video from a guy with 0 credentials.

Then, I started thinking about how many other people watch these body language channels and think they can detect when a significant other, friend, or family member is lying to them. How many interpersonal conflicts are a result of people believing in this unscientific practice? Can you even imagine a friendship or intimate relationship ending over the pseudoscience of body language?

Although I won’t be able to convince all of you that body language is a pseudoscience, I’m hoping that at least a few of you realize that there’s no strong evidence that body-language reading works. Pulling from books like Not Born Yesterday by cognitive scientist Hugo Mercier, How Emotions Are Made by neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, and Everything is Obvious Once You Know the Answer by professor Duncan Watts, I’m going to teach you about the lack of scientific evidence around body language.

After we analyze the bad science around body language, I’ll conclude with my theory as to why the idea of body language reading is so appealing and what we can do as an alternative.

No, It’s Not That Obvious

The science around body language is non-existent, but there’s one peer-reviewed study that’s often cited that proves how terrible we are at reading body language. In fact, cognitive scientist Hugo Mercier has a whole chapter about how we’re awful at reading body language in his book Not Born Yesterday. In his book, Mercier references the work of famous psychologist Dr. Paul Eckman who has done extensive research into expression and gesture and their role in emotion and deception.

Eckman gives an overview of his research into expression, gesture, emotion, and deception. What you’ll find is that not only is this subject much more nuanced than simply saying each movement or expression means something, what becomes obvious is that these YouTubers have not done the proper research into the subject.

In her book How Emotions are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett explains all of the misconceptions around emotions. Not only does she explain why body-language doesn’t work, she explains the biological and cultural factors that make it so difficult to read emotions. For example, some cultures are taught to not show certain emotions, and in some households, we’re raised to hide our emotions. As anyone with depression can tell you, some of us are even great at faking happiness, meanwhile, nobody knows that we’re suffering inside.

To date, one of my favorite books is Everything is Obvious Once You Know the Answer by Duncan Watts. Hindsight bias is something that we all fall victim too, and it makes is believe that we knew what was going to happen all along even though we didn’t have nearly enough information. When you watch videos from body language channels like Derek Van Schaik, you’ll see these videos on Chris Watts are riddled with hindsight bias.

Chris Watts was arrested on August 16th, 2018, and Derek Van Schaik’s video came out on December 15th 2018. If you don’t believe me about hindsight bias, I want you to ask yourself why someone like Derek Van Schaik didn’t know Chris Watts was guilty prior to when the arrest happened. Derek is just a run-of-the-mill grifter on YouTube, but if body language was a legitimate science, you’d think each police department would be far more accurate with arrests and convictions.

Aside from hindsight bias, body language channels like Derek manipulate their audience by using confirmation bias. They find out what the popular narrative is, and then they point to the pseudoscience of body language to confirm what people already believe. This is the second biggest problem with people believing in this pseudoscience because they accuse innocent people of lying when it fits the narrative.

What do I mean? Recently, he’s made 2 videos about Ellen DeGeneres, which have gained a total of over 700,000 views. And of course, the body language fits the popular narrative. While, in my opinion, Ellen isn’t that great of a person, right now, I’m simply pointing out a pattern of behavior. The real issue is when you look at Derek’s video on James Charles that has over 1 million views.

In this video, he used body language to “prove” James Charles was lying after Tati Westbrook’s original video came out. For anyone who remembers this massive story from 2019, the video Derek used to call James a liar was a quick video James did while out of the country when everything blew up. Later, when he returned home, James made a more thorough video proving without a doubt that he was telling the truth. One year later, Tati even made a video apologizing to James for her false accusations.

Unfortunately, not only has Derek not apologized for accusing James of lying by using this pseudoscience, nobody is holding him accountable either. I know the word “witch hunt” gets thrown around loosely these days, but how is this pseudoscience any different? People like Derek have convinced people that the way a person’s hands or eyes move proves their guilt or innocence, and when we find out they were wrong, these channels still continue these unscientific practices.

So Why Do We Fall for It?

Yes, channels like Derek Van Schaik and Believing Bruce are promoting a pseudoscience that can have real-world consequences, but I think it’s important to discuss why we fall for it. My theory is that we fall for body language channels for the same reason that we fall for all sorts of other forms of pseudoscience; we want control.

Which world would you rather live in? One where we could tell if someone’s lying based on their body language or one where Chris Watts almost got away with murdering his children and wife? We want to believe that liars will get caught, and we want to believe there are skills that we can use to catch liars. While this would be a great world to live in, believing in this pseudoscience leads to the indictment of many innocent people.

Think about the regional HR manager I told you about earlier. What if they thought a black man was lying about workplace racism based on his body language? Or what if a woman was falsely accused of stealing from her job and was fired due to her body language in an interview with HR?

A more serious example is the work of The Innocence Project, which is a non-profit that was created to reverse the charges of those who were wrongly convicted. Since it began, the Innocence Project has helped 375 people be exonerated by DNA testing, and 21 of these people were on death row. Think about how many of these people were wrongfully convicted because of how a jury read their body language.

I’m sure some of you may feel that watching these body language videos is just a fun hobby, and that might be true for you. If these videos are just a source of entertainment for you, do your thing. But for those who take this pseudoscience seriously, I hope I’ve convinced you to do some more research and become more skeptical about the subject. Personally, I find it extremely unethical for these channels to get hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of views while accusing people of lying with this pseudoscientific technique.

You can follow me here as well as on Twitter and Instagram The Rewired Soul, and make sure you’re following me on GoodReads too.

If you need help with your mental health, I highly recommend the service I use, BetterHelp. They’re an affordable online therapy service, and by using this affiliate link, you help support The Rewired Soul.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store