1653430_486427458133402_99531138_nRecently a friend had posted this image on Facebook tagging me with the caption, “where do I go from here?”

Where is the best place to start when beginning to study the science of nonverbal communication?

This past week I was consulting on the Commonwealth Vs. Howard case for attorney Lawrence Fisher when it occurred to me that one thing about nonverbal communication, specifically regarding deception detection, that is often either never mentioned or is forgotten about all together in conversation is, quite accurately, the most important aspect all of all.

The concept is that of establishing a baseline. Now why is this important and why is it so often forgotten or glossed over?

Firstly, I feel it is rarely mentioned because it is, for lack of a better term, boring. Secondly, it is likely rarely mentioned because pop culture lie detection has rarely, if ever, made use of it and pop-lie-detection is, unfortunately, most commonly what is believed to be what the science is.

In the, severely exaggerated, show “Lie to Me,” I think the main character only ever once referred to the concept by saying that another character wouldn’t let him get a “read on him” by answering all of his questions with only lies and consequently providing a false baseline. 

After I had sat through the entirety of the trial I went to lunch with Fisher to discuss my evaluations. I pointed out how enthused I was that, when a witness is called to the stand, lawyers establish a baseline of an individual’s communication prior to, so to speak, drilling them.

The witness takes the stand and is asked his name, to spell it, to state his relationship to the case, where he is from etc. All of this allowed me ample time to see just how his body conveys information nonverbally while he is following a train of thought that he believes to be true; and since we have the actual information in front of us – we have control questions with verified answers so that we can be certain of this baseline.

As it turns out – these questions are asked simply for the record. They are asked for the purposes of documentation.

At this point in the conversation I was able then to explain that during the witness’s baseline he does a consistent set of A B and behaviors with his body and these variables were severely absent or interrupted when he discussed X Y and Z.

When the witness stated, and spelled, his name, his address, his relation to the case etc. He sat calmly with his hands folded, his shoulders slightly hunched. His head nodded up and down slightly when approaching or speaking into the microphone. These behaviors did not change while he recounted the details of the case as he understood them to this point. These behaviors are this witness’s baseline behaviors of nonverbal communication in brief. The longer one pays attention to the answers of control questions the more accurately can one know the baseline of another person.

After establishing this baseline we then can see emotional hot-spots when the person speaking. We see these emotional hotspots when the person speaking executes either what Ekman labels as subject/object-manipulators or what Egolf labels a self/objects-adaptors. Whichever term you prefer their meaning is the same.

A self-adaptor/manipulator is a hand-to-body gesture and an object-adaptor/manipulator is a gesture of hand-to-objects in the immediate environment.

In either case a manipulator indicates emotional interruption;  the narration that one is delivering is thrown, surprisingly,  off of its own tracks and is momentarily derailed – revealing that the subject matter is more in depth than we are realizing if we only listen to the words spoken and not to the body language spoken.

hands-wringingBack to the witness on the stand; when he was asked a specific question regarding knowledge of what was located in an empty lot near his house he leaned towards the microphone, placing one hand on top of the other hand where he began to wring his hands and nodded up and down as he said, “no, I didn’t know if there was anything there.” What was noticeable and needed to be understood were two important details that indicated his narration was being interrupted emotionally; first was the wringing hand gesture which trial lawyer Maria Katrina Karos succinctly explained as something people do when they, “are very uncomfortable with a question, topic, or situation.” Second was the contradicting head nod (up and down to indicate yes) while he was saying the words, “no, I didn’t know…”  The hand wringing was a subject-manipulator and the contradictory nod was leakage. And the body always leaks when it is ignored.

(It was later revealed that he did, in fact, know that that’s where his bag of marijuana had been tossed during the scuffle he was in.)

Accordingly, it was when his nonverbals broke away from his patterned baseline that his lie was exposed; and it was exposed because an emotional interruption of fear (of not succeeded in his lie most likely) caused his baseline behavior to alter.

I don’t really have any interest at all in discussing deception detection on this blog, I feel that it is too easily persuaded by confirmation bias and used, ignorantly, for, all too often, manipulative purposes.

However, I want to quickly discuss why baselining is so important and why it is the first thing that a student of nonverbal communication should learn…

If one can formulate a pattern of nonverbal behaviors from a person with whom they are in relations then when the nonverbals stray or differ in anyway from the pre-established pattern we know that that is a, so to speak, hot spot worth exploring.

The applications outside of deception detection are many and much more important –

    • Parents can establish the baseline nonverbal behaviors of their children and if they child is struggling with some form of emotional turmoil they can begin to empathetically approach them in order to help them therapeutically solve their situations. Naturally, in this case, ask questions instead of making statements.
    • Teachers too can have a better understanding of when something is negatively or harmfully impacting their students and can, as a result of this knowledge, approach them with, again, empathy in order to help them assuage their difficulty.
    • Partners can, upon establishing each other’s baselines, have better accessibility to knowing the emotional needs of each other.
    • Any plenty more. Can you think of any?

In each of the above examples it is always necessary to keep both Othello’s Error and Confirmation Bias in mind.

Approach objectively, neutrally and never manipulatively.


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