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The pseudoscience of body language is flourishing on YouTube


“When specific gestures are associated with specific meanings, and when this is implicitly or explicitly presented as scientific, it begins to fall under the umbrella of pseudoscience,” says Denault. Although scientists codify certain behaviors to better understand communication in certain contexts, Denault says these systems cannot be used to “decode.”

“People believe that wordless behavior is only good for one thing: to detect who is lying and who is telling the truth. It’s not like that, ”says Denault. One University of Portsmouth 2020 study assigned people to identify smugglers on video-recorded ferry crossings; While observers said they were looking for signs of nervousness, only 39.2% identified the smugglers accurately, “significantly below the level of opportunity.”

In his September 2020 video about Amber Heard, Portenier films himself reacting to the actor’s testimony, laughing, smiling and rubbing his face in disbelief, eating a snack and seeming reluctant “which is not a good indicator for Amber. “It’s a very good indicator for someone who has been abused.” Looking back, Portenier admits to the statements in the video, but says he “probably spoke a little louder” and that it would be “a little more humble” if he made a video like that now. Perhaps surprisingly, he agrees with Denault about the dangers of pseudoscientific analysis.

“On the internet, nowadays it’s very easy to say you know things, and there’s no one who opposes you … I’m sure that’s what worries me,” he says. Portenier’s knowledge of body language is largely self-taught, although he also took some psychology classes at university. He says he has been studying the subject for a decade, consuming the work of former FBI agent Joe Navarro (also has made several videos with WIRED). Portenier also examines the micro-expressions of psychologist Paul Ekman, facial expressions that last for a fraction of a second and are difficult to hide. (Accepted by Ekman himself, Micro-expressions that reveal hidden emotions are less common, and academics say they have not published data to prove that empirical expressions can be used to detect lies.)

Bruce Durham, a 41-year-old from Newcastle, England, showed him making a video “Exact Moment” Meghan Markle “Lies” To Oprah, she’s also self-taught. Durham says he has been working as a performance coach for more than 20 years. “I’ve spent thousands of hours sitting in front of people and letting them talk,” Durham says. “When you spend a lot of time looking at people and working on your observation skills, you can quickly develop trends and analysis, you add points.” His channel, Believe in Bruce, Has just over 200,000 subscribers.

Both Portenier and Durham emphasize that they are not leading experts in their field, and both say they try to convey the limits of what they do to the audience. “A lot of people are looking for who is lying and who isn’t, but you can never really say that. All you can do is fall into two categories to be comfortable and uncomfortable, ”says Durham (Mark’s analysis of the 1940 Disney film interspersed with clips of Pinocchio’s growing nose). Durham says identifying when someone is uncomfortable provides a starting point for asking more questions and is not in itself a consequence, but acknowledges that the thumbnails and titles of his videos make him “more suggestive” for clicks. However, he says, “I always start or end my videos: ‘You have to be fair and balanced.’ And I always say that more than once.”


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