Celebrity Body Language: Fact or Flim-Flam?

Magazines seem to be filled with paparazzi shots of celebrity couples with captions and comments from body language ‘experts’ and speculating who’s in love, who’s out of love, who’s breaking up and who’s faking it. With such amazingly specific analysis, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that it all actually means something and we are getting hot celebrity gossip before the news even breaks. It doesn’t and we aren’t. For every stand-out expert ‘hit’ we remember, there are countless ‘misses’ we  forget.

The body language experts with psychological training know that they are not educating or communicating anything psychologically meaningful but rather just there to entertain.Those without a background in psychology will just make it up as they go along in the hope that if they repeat something often enough it will become true. Ultimately the sound byte caption over the pap snap gives us no insight to celebrity relationships but speaks volumes of our obsession with other people’s lives.

Get out your own holiday snaps and inspect them. Do your red eyes mean you are possessed by the devil? Do you closed eyes mean you are actually sleep walking? If you’re caught in a few snaps with your hands covering mouth does it mean you are an habitual liar or trying to wipe ketchup from your chin or simply that you don’t want your picture taken? So despite the talk of hand positions, finger and positions, the authenticity of smiles, it actually means very little. It’s just gossip with a bit of psycho-spin to give it an air of credibility. But credible it is not.

One of the most important things we ‘know’ about body language is not true! It’s based on a distortion of research by Albert Mehrabian. Body language does not account for 55% of the message in all communication. This figure is only relevant The 55% figure is only relevant when we are forming an attitude (like or  dislike) of someone. The fact that some ‘experts’ incorrectly trumpet this blatant misreading of the research (intentionally or through ignorance) simply distorts our perception of the importance of body language over words, and over context in the case of pap snaps. It really means very little in celebrity snap shots and would have to be so obvious that we wouldn’t need an expert to decode it, such as one person strangling the other. Yes, it offers an example of a particular body language sign but to say it actually applies in a particular case (such as a photo) is at best guess work and most likely flim-flam! It’s there to entertain and titillate not to inform or educate!

Setting aside the fact that psychologist shouldn’t be speculating about the private lives of celebrities, body language (non-verbal communication) isn’t as exact as the ‘experts’ would have us believe.  Context and congruence are all important. One ‘classic’ signal may conflict or be overridden by other signals. A snapshot cannot possibly provide all the information necessary to make an educated guess let alone a definite statement. We need to take a video approach over the snapshot approach. To gain any insight into the state of a relationship the signals we need to consider a broad range of signs and behaviours over a longer period of time, rather than cherry pick based on a snap shot. It’s worth remembering that a turd with a cherry on the top is still crap!

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Britain’s Got Some Thinking To Do.

A journalist friend, Paul Flower, has run with my post on Susan Boyle and Britain’s Got Talent and expanded on some of the issues that have been overlooked at large, which in turn has given me more food for thought.

The current debate seems to be focusing on whether contestants on Britain’s Got Talent should be subjected to psychological screening as they are with Big Brother. However, those jumping on this bandwagon seem to be missing the point that BGT and BB are two very different programmes.  With BGT, people with a modicum of talent are looking for a break, whereas in BB, people without talent are chasing celebrity (at any cost). It’s also worth pointing out that if we applied the same psychological screening criterion to all ‘talent’ and celebrity, a significant percentage would be screened out.

Most of the 350 complaints received by Ofcom related to the treatment of ten year old Hollie Steel. However 80% of the complaints were about the unfairness to other contestants that she was given a second chance. Only 14% were questioning the ethics of having children on the show. The remaining 6% complained about the treatment of Susan Boyle. So for the 14% of complainants, they really need to contrast one crying ten year old with the other kids who appeared on the show. Shaheen Jafargholi gave a vocal performance that a adult would be envious of, and dancer Aiden Davis had to cope with having a moving stage sprung on him at the last minute. Then we have to consider that kids cry all the time. They get extremely upset about things that adults consider trivial. They cry and scream when they have to go to bed early and cry in supermarkets and roll around the floor and wet themselves if they can’t have sweets (I know I did).

There has been a great deal of emphasis on what the producers of BGT could be doing to protect the contestants from distress and in particular Susan Boyle. One thing that springs to mind is 24 hour protection from media intrusion but clearly that’s impractical. Of course BGT stage managed the whole thing from the outset. The run up to the audition ensured that our expectations of Susan Boyle were lowered. Judges sneered and audiences sniggered and rolled their eyes. It was a well-crafted piece of television designed to get strong reactions. We were all manipulated. However, I don’t thing anyone could have predicted the impact this few minutes of television would have, helped along by YouTube and Twitter. And exactly, who is going to regulate those? Paul Flower in his blog echoes sentiments from the first BGT winner, Paul Potts, who pointed out that he only had nine days of press attention whereas Susan Boyle had seven weeks from audition to finals.

One thing we need to turn out attention how we collectively take responsibility and rethink out attitudes to celebrity and whether we condone editors paying fortunes for ‘pap-snaps’ of people in distress. In the hotel incident with Susan Boyle in the run up to the final, two journalists allegedly deliberately set out with the intention of causing her distress. They did not report the news but created it, just for the sheer hell of it.

Susan Boyle has ‘enjoyed’ a lightning speed rise to celebrity-dom, which apparently makes her fair game. Some have commented that ‘she needs to get used to it as it goes with the territory’ but few have questioned the morals of hounding someone who just ‘entered a talent contest’ a couple of months ago. It’s welcome news that the Press Complaints Commission have emailed editors reminding them of their code of practice.

Even seasoned professional media-manipulators would have had problems dealing with the media attention,  speculation and intrusion Susan Boyle is receiving. Let’s hope the banality of Big Brother spectacle will provide Susan Boyle with some respite so that she can recover and pursue her dream of ‘being a professional singer’ rather than the main attraction in a media circus.

I suppose we should at least be thankful that no-one has used the term ‘subogate‘. . damn. . spoke too soon!

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