Human Hacking – The Art of Reading Body Language

By on February 11, 2019

You likely don’t need me to tell you about the importance of body language. While the oft quoted ‘fact’ that 93% of communication is non-verbal may be unfounded, it is certainly true that we convey a huge amount of information through our stance, gestures, and expressions. Often that includes information that we would otherwise attempt to hide.

Dwayne Johnson Body Language

By learning to interpret body language then – both our own and that of others – we can become better communicators. We can engage, entertain, persuade, negotiate, lie, detect lies, and social engineer. And there has never been a time where this gives us a greater advantage.

With that said, this post would always run the risk of becoming a long list of positions and gestures to look out for: crossed arms means X, crossed legs means Y. Not only would this be next-to-useless unless you were able to rote learn every single tell, but it would also be largely misguided. After all, body language is extremely sensitive to factors such as individual differences, and context.

Reading Body Language

Instead then, my aim is to try and better understand broader concepts. Why do we express ourselves the way we do? What are some general themes we can look out for? And how can we avoid errors in judgement?

Why We Emote the Way We Do

First then: where does body language come from? Why do we gesture and grimace and lurch when we’re trying to employ our best poker faces?

There are actually many reasons, and during my own research, I found it helpful to categorize these into several groups. There is some crossover, and it’s far from a perfect system, but maybe it could help you too. These are:

  • Communication (conscious)
  • Embodied cognition/Unconscious communication
  • Physiological
  • Vestigial/Preparatory
  • Learned

So, the first reason we use body language is to communicate consciously. We intentionally employ the use of gestures, stances, and facial expressions when we are trying to make a point or express ourselves. We might choose to point for emphasis, or we might choose to pull a silly face to imply humour.

The second – embodied cognition – refers to a psychological theory seeking to explain the nature of thought. I’ve made videos and posts on this in the past, but essentially it is believed that we understand language and all concepts ultimately by visualizing them and relating them to experiences we’re familiar with. If I tell you I’m cold, you recall what coldness feels like through faint firings in your brain, and this way I have shared some of my experience with you. Likewise, when talking we use visualization in order to explain and describe what we mean to others. We might therefore also gesture or pull expressions to literally ‘paint the picture’ and convey meaning in an unconscious manner.

Body Language

This also extends to the use of additional language that isn’t planned. The choice of certain adjectives for instance.

Body language arising from physiological factors refers to visible changes in the body that result from the production of certain neurotransmitters. That might mean shaking from adrenaline for instance, or flushing red when blood rushes to the face. This type of body language is perhaps the hardest to fake.

Learned body language is closely related to both communicative and embodied cognitive. These are the gestures that have been learned over time and may be cultural or functional. For instance, the first time a baby reaches for something and a parent hands it to them, they learn that they can gesture towards things they want. Similarly, we learn to smile at people we pass, and we might learn to bow when meeting our superiors; depending on our cultural background.

Finally, vestigial/preparatory are those body language traits that would have served a purpose during our evolution and have since stuck around. For example, we furrow our brow when angry to protect our eyes in a fight, and we might point our feet toward an exit in preparation to run. We wouldn’t engage in those behaviors in most modern situations, but the survival impulse is too strong. Again, this is hard to fake.

Reading Body Language – An Introduction

So, what can you do with this information?

Joe Navaro Body Language

The aim is to look out for situations where one or more of these aspects of body language provide useful information – without jumping to conclusions. In particular, when looking for signs that someone is concealing their true feelings, we should try to identify multiple aspects of their body language that can serve as tells. The more signs we can spot, the surer we can be of our conclusions.

Uncomfortable Social Situations

Let’s say that someone is uncomfortable in a situation or wants to leave a conversation then. One thing we might look for is a foot pointing toward an exit. This is a vestigial behavior in preparation for running or leaving.

In fact, according to Joe Navarro – ex-FBI agent and author of What Every Body is Saying – the feet are the ‘most honest’ part of the body. The reason for this is that preparing to run has such strong survival value, that it is very difficult to override. Not only that, but whereas we have learned to disguise our expressions, many of us forget to consider what we are doing with our feet (especially as they are often concealed under a table).

Frasier Awkward Scene

But of course, it may just be that the person is comfortable in the position they are in.

Therefore, we also need to look for other potential signs that a person is not comfortable in that current conversation. To this end, we might look for the absence of isopraxism – body language mirroring. Normally, when we are establishing a good rapport with someone, we will unconsciously adopt their same positioning. If they lean forward for example, then often we will too. This is both a vestigial behaviour (as it would have helped improve social interactions for our ancestors) as well as an embodied cognitive one – as we can better understand the thoughts of someone else by adopting their same positioning and expressions. (Just as you might pull a shocked face when drawing someone with a shocked face!)

If someone is not comfortable in a social setting, they won’t exhibit this behaviour. In fact, they might struggle to maintain eye contact with that person as they are effectively trying to ‘block them out’.

Aggression

Similarly, when someone stands very close to another person – invading their personal space – this is often a sign that they intend to follow up with an act of aggression. This is ‘proxemics’.

But while this is true, we once again must keep in mind context and other signs. Did you know for example, that according to the book Body Language: How to read other’s thoughts by their gestures by Allan Pease, our sense of ‘personal space’ is dictated by both culture and upbringing? More specifically, those of us who grew up in densely populated spaces are used to standing closer to others than those of us from rural backgrounds. Which makes sense when you think about it.

Aggressive Body Language

Likewise, we might get closer to someone if we are feeling intimate. So, we shouldn’t instantly assume closeness = an upcoming altercation.

Other signs in this instance might include a widening of the stance. This preparatory movement spreads the centre of gravity and readies us for action. You would never see someone with crossed legs unless they were very relaxed (or desperate for the toilet – although interestingly adrenaline would likely override this urge anyway!).

Sonic the hedgehog body language

THAT’S how he be so cool!

Likewise, we might expect to see physiological changes. The nostrils flare as the individual takes in more oxygen, then knuckles might tense, and the heart rate might increase leading to a subtle reddening of the skin. Now you can fairly safely presume a fight is about to break out, and you can take the relevant action.

Lying

Detecting lying is incredibly difficult, and in fact it is thought by many that this can’t be done with much reliable accuracy.

But there are tells.

Often, simply looking for anxiety and stress can suggest someone isn’t being entirely truthful. This is how a polygraph works. By trying to assess someone’s base level of stress, we can then look for signs that they are becoming uncomfortable (fidgeting, increased heartrate, pacifying behaviours such as nail biting).

Poker Face Body Language

The well-documented problem with this approach, is that people tend to be nervous while being interrogated. So, either you avoid making it seem like an interrogation, or you look for other potential signs of lying.

One cognitive sign would be noticeable pauses. Inventing lies is more cognitively demanding than telling the truth, and so the person might use more filler words and take longer when explaining themselves.

Likewise, you might see signs of incongruence with their body language. For instance, if someone tells you they went left while gesturing right, this is certainly a cause for suspicion. This happens once again due to embodied cognition – the person is picturing themselves running right as they recall what happened.

Watch how someone gesticulates when they describe their home and you might find you can ascertain all sorts of interesting things non-verbally – such as the height of their cabinet, or where their bedroom is in relation to the front door.

Body language foot pointing

While someone might remember to lie with what they are saying, it’s much harder to remember to control your gestures!

More often, a liar will simply gesticulate less as there is less emotional engagement with what they are saying.

Developing Powers of Observation

Those are just a few examples of how you might use an understanding of body language to read a person’s intentions or beliefs. Hopefully, by understanding the root cause of these gestures and movements, you’ll become better at drawing your own conclusions without the need for a huge long list of different gestures and stances.

Body language stance

But most people will read this and then forget all about it. Understanding body language and reading body language are two very different things. Most of us – myself included – simply aren’t observant enough to remember to do it!

That’s why if you’re serious about learning to read people, you need to actively practice it. Think of it like a workout. Like any other workout, you’ll take a slot of time every day or week and use it to actively watch body language. If you commute to work, or often go to coffee shops, then this would be a perfect time. Practice trying to read the subtext in the conversations around you just a few minutes at a time, and eventually it will start to become second nature.

Body Language Practice

Another tip is to start very basic. One really easy question to ask in any situation to begin with is: is this person comfortable? The fight or flight response is one of the most difficult physiological responses to disguise, and it makes itself known in a host of interesting ways.

This also is why I haven’t delved into micro-expressions or osulesics (eye movements) – seeing as it would likely be pretty much useless in a practical setting.

Controlling Your Body Language

As well as reading body language, there is also great merit in learning to control your own body language, and thereby to better express yourself/manage the impressions you make.

If you want to appear more confident, then adopting relaxed poses, taking up more physical space, using haptics (e.g. touching people on the shoulder), and avoiding pacifying behaviour (nail biting, or head scratching – things we do to calm ourselves down) or nervous ticks will do the trick. If you want to get someone to like you, subtly mirroring their body language can go a long way and also makes you more persuasive.

And if you want to come across as more charismatic and engaging, then you should use large gesticulations and really embody the story you are trying to convey. Pause for dramatic effect, and use visual story telling. Gesticulations make us appear more engaging because we look like we really believe in what we’re saying (which makes us seem genuine, and makes the message seem more important). At the same time, it makes it easier for us to follow and to really picture the narrative being conveyed.

The problem though, is that trying to ‘force’ these things will very often come across as fake or unsettling – and can ultimately have the opposite effect to that which is intended. You might be able to control what you are saying, to handle your gestures, and to avoid nervous habits. But it might be much harder to control your physiological response – and if you are shaking, or flushing, then that can give the game away.

Awkward body language

Likewise, it’s all too easy to let an old vestigial trait creep in: you’re mirroring that body language perfectly, but your feet are pointing toward the door!

So, what can you do?

The answer might be to take genuine control over your own cognitive and physiological processes. In other words, we appear calm and confident by controlling our breathing and training ourselves to thrive in stressful situations. And we appear more charismatic by genuinely enjoying the company we’re in and really believing in what we’re saying.

Meditation and Body Language

And if you want to know how to achieve those things, then there are a few things you can do: meditation can help, practice definitely helps, acting lessons or stand up comedy can help, and cognitive behavioural therapy is certainly useful. There is a fair amount of relevant content on the Bioneer that you can check out too. Start with my post on CBT, then check out the flow state stuff, and the MI5 ‘soft skills’ video/post. I’ll be returning to these topics more in future too: stay tuned for posts on social engineering, persuasion, lie detection, and more!

 

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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