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Published: Friday January 5, 2018

“Alternative facts” about nonverbal communication: How to distinguish facts from fiction

The following article by Vince Denault PhD student, Lecturer (Comm.), Co-Director of CESCNOV Department of Communication (UdeM) Université de Montréal Canada was first published on LinkedIn on the 4th January 2018 and is reprinted in full with the permission of the author. It articulates with clarity and depth the issues surrounding nonverbal communication and in particular separates the facts from the “pseudo science”.

“Introduction: A primer on nonverbal communication

Nonverbal communication plays a central role in our daily interactions. Physical and vocal characteristics, nonverbal behaviours—including gestures and facial expressions— touch, proxemics, environment, odours, and time each influence how we see the world and how we adapt to it (Burgoon, Guerrero & Floyd, 2010; Knapp & Hall, 2013). Whether it is at home, with friends and family, or at work, the silent aspect of communication plays a huge role in understanding others, and being understood:

” Interactants simultaneously act with, and form impressions of, their partners. Thus, individuals are encoding information, feelings, intentions, scripts, or other reactions into behavioural expression while, at the same time, decoding the behaviour of the partner and experiencing feedback from their own behaviour”. (Patterson, 1995, p. 6)

While it is safe to say that the general public’s interest about nonverbal communication exploded with the American television program Lie to Me (Levine, Serota, & Shulman, 2010), the subject has drawn attention for thousands of years (Troville, 1939). Circa 900 B.C., an ancient sacred papyrus described how poisoners could be betrayed by their demeanor:

“There are copious directions regarding the manner of detecting a person who gives poison: He does not answer questions, or they are evasive answers; he speaks nonsense, rubs the great toe along the ground, and shivers; his face is discoloured; he rubs the roots of the hair with his fingers; and he tries by every means to leave the house”. (Wise, 1845, p. 394)

However, while the subject has drawn attention for thousands of years, the interest that could be described as scientific goes back to the nineteenth century, notably to the work of Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne and the English naturalist Charles Darwin. Duchenne de Boulogne, a French neurologist, studied extensively the muscles of the human face and published Mécanisme de la physionomie humaine [The mechanism of human physiognomy] (1862) that Darwin used and cited a few years later in The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). While Darwin’s work offered breakthrough ideas on the universality of facial expressions of emotions, research on the subject remained scarce until the work of Silvan Tomkins and Paul Ekman who furthered Darwin’s ideas. Since then, a worldwide community of researchers from different disciplines study extensively various features of nonverbal communication, and the result of their work is peer-reviewed and published in scientific journals.

Unfortunately, although thousands of peer-reviewed publications provide very important insights on the impact of nonverbal communication in social interactions, the general public as well as professionals whose work require sorting the truth from the lies are exposed to a plethora of false beliefs, stereotypes, and pseudoscientific techniques to “read” nonverbal behaviours. While these “alternative facts” related to nonverbal communication might seem harmless at first, they can cause very real problems, notably in the search for the truth of Certified Fraud Examiners (hereafter “CFEs”). Therefore, this article aims to offer analytical tools to identify false beliefs, stereotypes, and pseudoscientific techniques in order for CFEs to make informed choices when trying to develop better evidence-based practices.

  1. Deception detection: What if what you see is not what it is? 

Perhaps one of the areas of research where a plethora of false beliefs, stereotypes, and pseudoscientific techniques related to nonverbal communication is disseminated is in the detection of deception, that is the detection of “a successful or unsuccessful deliberate attempt, without forewarning, to create in another a belief which the communicator considers to be untrue” (Vrij, 2008, p. 15). For example, specific gestures and facial expressions are promoted by so-called body language experts as signs that someone is lying. Others argue that no firm conclusion should be drawn from one gesture or one facial expression, but that combinations of nonverbal behaviours might be signs that someone is lying (Denault & Jupe, 2017). However, even if it mirrors the prudence of advocates of science, this word of caution is of no value if the specific gesture or facial expression, or the combination of nonverbal behaviours, associated to deception is not reflected in peer-reviewed publications, but is rather the result of flawed observations or experiments supposedly carried out by so-called body language experts.

While some pseudoscientific arguments related to nonverbal communication can be easily identified, separating facts from fiction is not always an easy task. There are unquestionably many ways of dealing with this issue. One of them is to know the state of science about nonverbal communication and the detection of deception, including notions that are generally agreed upon by the worldwide community of researchers who studied extensively the subjects. For example, science has shown the absence of nonverbal behavior similar to Pinocchio’s nose (Vrij, 2008). As Vrij, Meissner, Fisher, Kassin & Kleinman (2017) emphasise:

Meta-analyses summarising the findings of over more than 100 separate research studies conclude that nonverbal cues to deceit, particularly those promoted in interrogation training manuals (e.g., gaze aversion, shifting position, and fidgeting) are faint and unreliable. (p. 13).

In other words, more than 60 years of research on nonverbal communication and the detection of deception has made it clear that there is not one gesture nor one facial expression, nor one combination of nonverbal behaviours, always present when someone is lying and always absent when someone is telling the truth. Similarly, science has shown that specific nonverbal behaviours with similar unequivocal meanings or interpretations across situations are very rare:

Unlike certain facial expressions, there are few, if any, body movements that have invariant meaning within or across cultures. Some hand and head actions (e.g., shrugging, various insulting hand movements, head nodding) can be interpreted in a language-like fashion by individuals within a culture, and between cultures who are knowledgeable about each other’s nonverbal behaviours, but even within a culture, body movements do not carry the same meaning each and every time they are displayed. (Harrigan, 2005, p. 139).

Therefore, any claims that specific nonverbal behaviours have similar unequivocal meanings or interpretations across situations, including that specific nonverbal behaviours are signs that someone is lying, could be deemed extraordinary, and one should expect so-called body language experts to back them up with extraordinary evidence (Deeming, 2016). Another notion that received worldwide support by the research community is related to our ability to detect liars:

Discerning whether someone is telling the truth or not, in the absence of any other information than that provided within the interview, is extraordinarily difficult. A meta-analysis of more than 120 studies [primarily laboratory studies where ground truth was known] […] with approximately 25,000 participants, showed that when someone tries to determine veracity based on speech or behaviour alone, they achieve only about 54% accuracy, where 50% accuracy is achieved by chance. The researchers found that in real-world police interviews, accuracy is, at best, 65%. (High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, 2016, p. 33)

Thus, while there are limitations to those numbers (Levine, 2017; Vrij & Granhag, 2012), as in any kind of scientific knowledge (Larivée, 2014; Lilienfeld & Landfield, 2008), such a finding should not be taken lightly. In fact, not only is it a reminder that sorting the truth from lies can be a very difficult endeavour, but it is also, and most importantly, a call to engage in critical thinking towards claims by so-called body language experts about the efficiency of their pseudoscientific techniques, more so considering that training scrutinised by science produced only small to medium improvements in deception detection accuracy (Hauch, Sporer, Michael, & Meissner, 2014). In other words, methods or approaches that, according to their proponents, significantly enhance deception detection accuracy should be met with severe skepticism.

Moreover, if those methods or approaches are not supported by substantial evidence, or if those methods or approaches attribute unfounded meanings to nonverbal behaviours, their ineffectiveness may be an issue far less problematic than their potential disastrous impact when CFEs debate with colleagues, meet with new clients and interview suspects. Amongst the numerous dire consequences of false beliefs, stereotypes and pseudoscientific techniques, it is worth noting the possibility of severely distorting the CFEs’ search for the truth through misguided credibility assessments.

Credibility is the characteristic subjectively attributed to others that makes them believable and convincing (Köhnken, 1989; Doyon, 1999; Brodsky & Pivovarova, 2016). Thus, when debating with colleagues, meeting with new clients, and interviewing suspects, the CFEs attribution of credibility to colleagues, clients and suspects, or the lack thereof, will influence the weight given to the statements and opinions of the colleagues, clients and suspects.

However, despite the fact that credibility is a “critical attribute fundamental to all forms of human communication” (Buller & Burgoon, 1996, p. 207), credibility assessments are distorted by false beliefs and stereotypes about psychology and communication (Porter & ten Brinke, 2009; Denault, 2015). In other words, the reasons why someone is identified as believable and convincing is subject to a variety of irrational standards. Moreover, credibility is also the main factor underlying deception judgments:

“The largest determinant of a deception judgment […] is the credibility of the person being judged—some individuals appear substantially more truthful than others. In fact, a person’s credibility has a bigger impact than the person’s honesty on whether s/he will be seen to be telling the truth. High credibility liars are more likely to be believed than low credibility truth tellers!. (Bond & DePaulo, 2008, p. 487)

Thus, when trying to understand others, and to be understood, and to discern whether someone is telling the truth or not, these alternative facts related to nonverbal communication can cause very real problems, notably in the CFEs’ search for the truth, more so considering their effects can be unconscious (Porter & ten Brinke, 2009). Thinking that someone is lying when, in fact, he or she is telling the truth, can seriously undermine CFEs’ investigations. While knowing the state of science about nonverbal communication and the detection of deception is a first step to identify false beliefs, stereotypes, and pseudoscientific techniques, pseudoscientific arguments should also get CFEs to consider what so-called body language experts are promoting.

  1. Science versus pseudoscience: How to distinguish facts from fiction

Pseudosciences are combinations of notions that, from the outside, bear a resemblance to science but, from the inside, deflect from the characteristics of science. While some can be easily identified, other pseudo-scientific arguments related to nonverbal communication can be particularly convincing for those who do not fully know and understand the characteristics of pseudosciences, including the lack of peer review, the absence of connectivity, the faulty methodologies, and the extraordinary claims without extraordinary evidence (Larivée, 2014; Lilienfeld & Landfield, 2008).

Essentially, after research is conducted by researchers, a manuscript of the research thoroughly explaining the process leading to results is submitted to a scientific journal where it is reviewed by other researchers who possess knowledge about the subject of the manuscript. The peer-review process is generally blind. The authors of the manuscripts do not know who the reviewers are, and the reviewers do not know who the authors are. The editor of the scientific journal is the only one to know the identity of the authors and the reviewers. Following the review, the manuscript can be (i) accepted for publication as it is or with minor modifications, (ii) rejected, or (iii) the authors can be invited to make major modifications and resubmit the manuscript, in which case the peer-review process starts again from the beginning. Therefore, when a manuscript is published in a scientific journal and becomes what is known as a scientific paper, it has been subjected to an initial assessment by researchers who possess the adequate knowledge to do so.

However, the biggest strength of scientific knowledge lies in the fact that it is available for anyone else to approve, criticise, and correct, and since the process leading to the results is thoroughly explained in the scientific paper, everything is put into place to facilitate approvals, criticisms, and corrections:

“Therefore, while science usually does not provide simple and definitive answers to a research question, scientific knowledge about nonverbal communication is a key component to the development and the implementation of evidence-based best practices […] because it is the best available knowledge. Relying on pseudoscientific techniques claiming to have developed revolutionary paradigms that avert the peer review process is, on the other hand, an act of blind faith”. (Denault & Dunbar, in press, p. 263)

On the contrary, pseudosciences are generally not peer-reviewed and published in scientific journals. In other words, pseudosciences regarding nonverbal communication and the detection of deception are secretly developed between their proponents, in isolation from the extensive literature about nonverbal communication and the detection of deception, thus the absence of connectivity. Whereas science is a cumulative process of approvals, criticisms, and corrections to limit the impact of biases and errors in trying to understand various phenomena, proponents of pseudosciences typically try to prevent criticisms in any way possible (Larivée, 2014; Lilienfeld & Landfield, 2008). For example, the process leading to “pseudo scientific results” is typically secretive and not available for public approval, criticism, or correction. Such a process can sometimes only be available to proponents of the pseudoscience at the highest level of the hierarchy or members of the general public willing to pay.

“Unfortunately, such an availability is only relevant if the proponents and the members of the general public possess analytical tools to identify the fallacies and the will to accept they were intellectually and financially misled, and even maybe that they intellectually and financially misled others. Ultimately, if the pseudoscience is challenged, their proponents can associate critics to conspirators and reply with ad hominem attacks” (Denault, 2017; Loftus, 2016; Mann, 2016).

However, even without peer-reviewed publications, the process leading to results can sometimes partially be known and the faulty methodology, another characteristic of pseudosciences, can be revealed. For example, proponents of synergology, a pseudoscience where different meanings or interpretations lacking any form of peer-review are attributed to nonverbal behaviours (Denault, 2015; Denault, Larivée, Plouffe & Plusquellec, 2015; Denault & Jupe, 2017; Lardellier, 2008; 2017), assert they “accumulated and compared thousands of television clips where people perform similar gestures in order to identify links between them” (Denault & Jupe, 2017, p. 2). While the assertion that thousands of television clips were accumulated and compared may look particularly impressive, the fact that the methodology of the accumulation and comparison is unknown because of a lack of peer-reviewed publications (Denault, 2015; Denault, Larivée, Plouffe & Plusquellec, 2015) makes such an assertion worthless. “Science is built up of facts, as a house is built up of stones; but an accumulation of facts is no more science than a heap of stones is a house” [our translation] (Poincaré, 1917, p. 168).

While methods or approaches that claim scientific legitimacy but show a lack of peer review and an absence of connectivity and a faulty methodology should raise serious ethical and professional concerns, it is worth noting that such shortcomings will not stop their proponents from promoting extraordinary claims without extraordinary evidence. Their extraordinary claims will rather be promoted using sophisms and logical fallacies such as calls to authority and to tradition (Denault & Jupe, 2017; Larivée, 2014; Lilienfeld & Landfield, 2008). However, the use of a method or an approach by famous professionals or organizations (i.e., call to authority) is not a demonstration of the scientific value of the method or the approach, nor is the fact that a method or an approach has been used for a long time (i.e., call to tradition). The use of torture by the CIA, for example, is not evidence that torture works, nor is the fact that torture has been used for thousands of years. In fact, information elicited by torture is typically unreliable (Vrij, Meissner, Fisher, Kassin & Kleinman, 2017).

  1. Conclusion: Ambition and good will are not synonyms of good practice 

Debunking pseudoscientific arguments related to nonverbal communication is more time consuming than what is required to produce them. However, because of their adverse effects when trying to understand others, and to be understood, and to discern whether someone is telling the truth or not, it is of the utmost importance for CFEs to possess analytical tools to identify the fallacies. In other words, for professionals whose work requires sorting the truth from lies, knowing the state of science about nonverbal communication and the detection of deception as well as the characteristics of pseudosciences and the sophisms and logical fallacies used to promote false beliefs, stereotypes, and pseudoscientific techniques are key to making informed choices when trying to develop better evidence-based practices. Otherwise, even without an iota of bad faith, CFEs might think they are presented state of the arts methods or approaches when in fact, their value is similar to that of methods and approaches used during the Middle Ages’ trials by ordeal.

However, while resorting to false beliefs, stereotypes and pseudoscientific techniques should not go unnoticed; it is worth noting that the emphasis on scientific knowledge advocated in this article should not be done at the expense of experiential knowledge crucial to real-life decision making under uncertainty (Shön, 1991; Lowman, 2012; Lilienfeld, Ritschel, Lynn, Cautin, & Latzman, 2013). In fact, experiential knowledge and scientific knowledge are not in competition; they complement each other because they each have their strengths and weaknesses. However, when thousands of peer-reviewed publications provide very important insights on various phenomena such as nonverbal communication, ignoring science in favour of false beliefs, stereotypes, and pseudoscientific techniques (or experiential knowledge) is an impediment to the development of better evidence-based practices.

Finally, while this article offered a critical appraisal of false beliefs, stereotypes, and pseudoscientific techniques to “read” nonverbal behaviours, one should keep in mind that there is usually no reason to question the good faith of their proponents who likely believe they can really help professionals whose work requires sorting the truth from lies. Unfortunately, even with all the ambition and good will in the world, if what they promote is not supported by substantial evidence, it should be ignored by CFEs. Ambition and good will are not synonyms of good practice.


The author would like to thank Louise Jupe for her constructive comments on an earlier version of this article.

Author’s note

This article is a slightly modified version of a conference paper presented at the 2017 ACFE Fraud Conference Canada.


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