The pseudoscience of body language is thriving on YouTube


“When specific gestures are combined with specific meanings, and when they are implicitly or explicitly presented as scientific, they begin to fall under the umbrella of pseudoscience,” says Dino. While scientists codify certain behaviors to better understand communication in different contexts, Dino says these systems cannot, in turn, be used to “decode”.

The public believes that nonverbal behavior is good for only one thing: figuring out who is lying and who is telling the truth. “It’s not like that,” says Dino. A 2020 study from the University of Portsmouth tasked people with identifying smugglers at videotaped ferry crossings; While monitors claimed to look for signs of stress, only 39.2 percent accurately identified smugglers, “well below the level of chance.”

In his September 2020 video about Amber Heard, Portenier films himself reacting to the actress’s testimony, laughing, smiling and massaging his face in disbelief before claiming that her snacking and seeming unmotivated “isn’t a good indicator that Amber is the victim. It’s a good indication Too much for being offensive.” In hindsight, Portenier stands by the statements made in the video but says he “maybe he spoke a little aggressively” and would be “a little softer” if he were to make a video like this now. Perhaps surprisingly, he agrees with Denault about the dangers of pseudoscientific analysis.

“On the Internet, it’s so easy right now just to pretend you know stuff, and nobody’s really against it… It’s something that definitely worries me,” he says. Portenier’s knowledge of body language is largely psychology, although he did take some psychology classes at university. He says he’s been studying the subject for a decade, consuming the work of former FBI agent Joe Navarro (who also made multiple videos with WIRED). Portenier also studies psychologist Paul Ekman’s work on microexpressions, facial expressions that last for a split second and are difficult to conceal. (By Ekman’s own admission, micro-expressions that reveal hidden emotions are not very common, and academics note that he has not published data empirically demonstrating that micro-expressions can be used to detect lies.)

Bruce Durham, the 41-year-old from Newcastle, England, who made a video showing “exact moment” Meghan Markle “lies” to Oprah, is also self-taught. Durham says he’s been in performance coaching for over 20 years. “I would sit thousands of hours in front of people and let them talk,” Durham says. “When you spend that much time looking at people and practicing your observational skills, you can quickly develop trends and analyzes, and join the dots.” his channel, Bruce’s sincerityShe has less than 200,000 subscribers.

Portenier and Durham stress that they are not the leading experts in their field, and both say they try to communicate the limits of what they do to the public. “A lot of people look for who is lying and who is not, but you can never really tell. What you can do is that they fall into two categories of looks comfortable and uncomfortable,” claims Durham (his analysis of Markle is peppered with clips of Pinocchio’s nose growing in film Disney for 1940). Durham says that identifying when someone seems uncomfortable provides a starting point for asking more questions rather than a conclusion per se, but he admits that it makes his video title thumbnails “more interesting” in order to get clicks. However, he says, “I always start or end my videos with ‘You have to be fair and balanced.’ And I always say that many times too.”



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