Being Hung. . . up on X Factor Politics and Body Language Myths

Throughout the analysis to the run up to the 2010 UK General Election, the subject of ‘body language‘ or non-verbal communication has dominated. Faced with the first presidential style leaders’ debates, it’s often the simplest most televisual form of analysis. So, why discuss politics or policies when we can be discussing ties, smiles and hand gestures? The whole spectacle seems to have placed hair-line recession far higher on out list of priorities than global recession. So as the three leading men took to the stage and sound like the new cast of ‘The Last Of the Summer Wine’ it’s all became rather ‘X-Factored’.  When when faced with a buffet of mediocrity, the one with the nice smile gets the vote. It doesn’t matter that they have a voice that sounds like the wind whistling through an aardvark’s rectum. Better than the rest is not always that much of an endorsement when there’s not much on offer.

Part of the problem with the media’s obsession with body language is that it easily passes for ‘scientific’ analysis. Unfortunately this is at the expense of more serious, evidence-based analysis. It’s also partly due to fakesperts who have either not read or not understood the research available on non-verbal communication. What happens is that a misunderstanding is so routinely and frequently passed off as ‘fact’ that it has been accepted. I refer of course to the 7% myth.  I’ve blogged about this on several occasions and there’s not a week goes by tha some ‘expert’ repeats it on twitter, with all the originality of a bigot, who regurgitates, parrot-fashion, the old unfounded, unsupported myths of prejudice.

So let’s be clear.  Non-verbal communication does NOT account for just 7% of any communication. Just try watching a foreign language film without subtitles. Would you really understand 93% of the film? Non-verbals take precedent when we are forming a first impression. So for instance, in the first leaders’ debate, Nick Clegg’s non-verbal communication was probably more important than Brown’s or Cameron’s. This is mainly because he was the least known of the three due to lesser media coverage. It helps to explain why he did so well in the first debate. He’d made a really good first impression. In the following weeks, we’d already formed a first impression and so his words became more important, and the ‘nice bloke’ style wasn’t as impressive.

Non-verbal communication is also important when trying to decide whether someone is lying. If there’s a mismatch between words and gestures we suspect that someone is lying or trying to hide something. Now the cynical might argue that using body language to try to decide whether a politician is lying is a pretty redundant activity.

Non-verbal communication is also very context dependent. So for instance, we tend to behave quite differently with family and friends as we do with work colleagues or at an interview. Now put on the spot-light, turn on a few cameras, invite an audience and realise that you won’t be seeing natural non-verbal indicators of private thoughts or personality traits. Instead you will see the different levels of ability in media training. But coping well in front of the camera doesn’t necessarily make a good Prime Minister. However, it is a good skill for would be politicians. Far from helping us to see the truth, good media training can help to control and obscure it.

If you’ve ever seen those confessional chat shows you’ll notice that the guests are often placed centre stage on a chair without arms. So they are forced to do something with their hands. If they fold their arms to feel more comfortable, it doesn’t mean they are being defensive and lying. It may just mean that they feel at a loss what to do with their arms because there are no arms on the chairs. The fact that they are caught out lying has little to do with ‘reading the body language’. Of course someone on the stage is lying.  That’s the whole point orf the show. But let’s not pretend that the ‘expert’could tell from a producer-contrived defensive geature.  Now consider the leaders’ debates. All three stood at a podium and could grip the sides. This certainly helps control the upper body. So people who want to present themselves as truthful or calmer will make fewer and smaller upper body gestures. Too little moving of the arms and it comes across as disinterest. Too much waving of the arms and it looks like someone who needs to get a grip (on themselves, and on the podium). Analysing the three leaders and David Cameron was more controlled in his upper body, compared to when he is out on the streets in his shirt sleeves. Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg used bigger gestures so that their hands were visible in close-up shots. Cameron’s were not. Now how you read this depends on your politic beliefs since you interpret everything through the filters of your attitudes.

Smiling often increases likability but only if it’s a genuine smile. Gordon Brown’s smile looks forced or nervous. Or else it was  attempt to seem less dour and serious as he has been portrayed in the media. So we saw lots of Gordon Brown’s teeth. However, we barely got to peek inside David Cameron’s mouth. He was quite tight-lipped. Clearly smiling wasn’t so important in this case. So whereas Brown did more smiling or shaking his head when challenged, Cameron did more brow furrowing, which could mean he didn’t agree or he didn’t understand. Again the interpretations come down to your political persuasion.

Nick Clegg perhaps came across as the most ‘human’  and natural of the three. He was less evasive and did answer questions the most directly. However, none of that was by chance. There were lot’s of techniques involved designed to create that impression.  Although by the third debate there were shades of ‘game show host’ in his performance.  By contrast  Cameron throughout each  debate avoided answering direct questions put to him. Brown’s often resorted to  repeating facts and figures almost like as mantra. I suspect some people will never want to heat the phrase ‘tax credits’ ever again. A key strength of both Clegg and Cameron was that they both used simpler terminology whereas Brown was more wordy. For instance, Brown referred to ‘remuneration’ when they other two were more likely to refer to ‘pay’. In a fast paced debated, people often don’t listen, they scan for key words that match or conflict with existing attitudes.

Post-debate analysis  showed that those surveyed in the studio responded favourably when key words were mentioned. So for instance when Cameron mentioned ‘discipline in the classroom’, there was a peak in audience ratings.  In some ways it showed that people were voting with their attitudes.  If you ask someone to rate a like or dislike or something then an attitude is formed on limited information very quickly.  Key buzz words and phrases are far easier than statitistics  to process in the context of existing attitudes. Except when the figures were soundbyte simplifications such as ‘£700 back in your pocket’.

In the first debate Nick Clegg was very diligent in remembering names and making visual context with the audience. However after having established contact he made contact with the TV audience by looking into the camera. This made his approach appear more personal. Cameron followed this lead and adopted this approach more after the first debate although his demeanor was more formal than Clegg’s. By contrast Gordon Brown addressed the studio audience and his opponents on the stage, which although this would have been more personal for the studio audience it was less so for the TV audience. Simply put both Clegg and Cameron made more ‘eye contact’ with the TV audience.

Another interesting point that I have not seen discussed is the stage positions throughout the debates. Gordon Brown was the only leader not to occupy the centre stage. He appeared in the same place throughout the three debates. He also moved his upper body from side to side more that the other two. It’s possible that Brown did not move position from week to week because having his opponents on his right was better for him on account of his blindness in the left eye.  During the first debate, relative newcomer Clegg occupied centre stage which again may have contributed to his high ratings. Context is everything when interpreting non-verbal communication.

Finally, we need to consider the attitudes we held prior to the debates. This will have coloured our expectations and perceptions. It’s become a common phrase in everyday conversation that ‘we need a change’ and Clegg and Cameron in their opposition roles were better placed to work the word ‘change’ into their answers. Brown begun from a defensive position although he did ‘go on the offensive’ throughout the three debates. The problem is that he appealed to ‘finish the job’ and to some this may have been interpreted as ‘more of the same’. It was also notable during the post-debate analysis that those surveyed liked it least when the leaders ‘attacked’ each other. So Brown’s strategy didn’t resonate with the audience whereas Clegg’s ‘let’s work together’ did. Common perceptions of the House of Commons is of a bunch of school children fighting in the playground (and stealing from the tuck shop). Clegg’s appeal to work together to ‘sort out the mess we’re in’ struck a chord that things could be a real difference. However, ‘working together’ and ‘hung parliament’ have very different connotations following lots of media scaremongering.

So did the ‘Browny, Cammy, Cleggy’ show really  enlighten or inform or did it merely entertain? Was it all about the style and soundbyte substance? Although there were appeals to values during the debates, nothing was particularly well articulated instead relying on the old chestnut of ‘family values’. Anyone who actually belongs to a family will know that families aren’t all they are cracked up to be. It’s just a short-hand way of saying ‘wholesome and decent’ and often  a back-door to sneak in sexism and homophobia.

Values are important. They are certainly far  more important than body language debates. Out attitudes support our values and they in turn should inform our politics. Our opinion that they have the X Factor (or not) shouldn’t be the defining quality. We don’t even have to like them, we just have to chose the candidate that represents the party that most closely matches our vision of the world – our values. And if we happen to face a parliament that’s well hung, let’s not get too excited! And as for your vote, it’s not just having one that matters, it’s what you do with it that counts.

For quizzes to help you decide how to use your vote see:

For more on the 7% myth see:

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Introducing PsyStore – for recommended psychology and self-help books

PsyStore for Psychology Books

Click here to visit PsyStore for recommendations of books (and other resources) with a psycholohgical and personal development emphasis

For book recommendations with a psychological and personal development emphasis, click on this link PsyStore (or link in the sidebar). Overall the store focuses on evidence based books and resources. So many self-help books tread, re-tread and veritably trample outdated research,  so the aim of the recommendations in PsyStore, is hopefully to raise the self-help bar!

Items in the store are grouped according to category for ease of browsing. New recommendations will be added as and when including brief reviews of each item. As PsyStore is an Amazon-based store, it will also show ‘similar items’ and ‘listmania’. However, these are not necessarily recommended items.

Any recommendations for items to be included in PsyStore are welcome, so please feel free to comment.

Happy Browsing.

Links:

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Become Your Own Time ‘Lord’

Become a time 'lord'

Becoming your own time 'lord'

Where did the year go?

If you’ve found yourself uttering this, you’ve recognised that time speeds up as you get older. The main reason is that as we age, each new year becomes  an ever diminishing proportion of our total time on the planet. Between the age of one and two that year represents living half of your life again. Whereas by the age of ten, another year means living a tenth of your life. And on it goes, the incredibly shrinking year. When you were a child and you were told ‘we’re going out in a hour’, you’d think ‘No! Do I have to wait a whole hour?’ Now if someone says you’ll be going out in an hour you’d complain ‘An hour? I’ll never be ready in time’.

So the question is, can we do anything about it? Can we slow time?

Slowing It Down, Spicy Style
In Making Time,  Steve Taylor sets out the psychological laws of time and how we can change our perception of time. One law follows the theme of ‘variety is the spice of life’ or ‘a change is as good as a rest’.  So to slow down time you need to seek out new experiences and new environments. Do you have any secret goes or ambitions that you forego for a few hours in front of the television? Just breaking up your routine can help. Have you ever noticed that the first time you go somewhere no, the journey seems longer than the next time? That’s because the second time you go your brain has mapped out the journey and it’s already started to become familiar and for some of the decision you react automatically. So mix things up a little. Take different routes on familiar journeys, try a new food every week, go shopping at different places, read a type of book or newspaper different to your normal choices, try out some classes and so on. Try some personal experiments doing different things to see if you can slow time. Also, write down some short-term, medium term and long term goals and act on them.

Speeding It Up (but being happier)
Another psychological law of time is something of a paradox. When we are absorbed in something we love doing then time seems to go more quickly. However to balance this, time spent in these states of total absorption is one definition of happiness. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Chick-sent-me-high) calls this state of absorption being in ‘flow’. At the heart of his philosophy is also goal-setting. I remember a conversation with my granddad when I was about 14 years old. I asked him if he had any regrets. He had two: getting a tattoo and not planning for his retirement. I never understood the significance of ‘planning for retirement’ until I read Flow. We can set goals for just about anything, they are promises to ourselves – something to get out of bed, or off the couch  for.

The Alternative
Now there is an alternative ways to slow down time. Just sit there and do nothing just staring blankly into space. Paradoxically, each day will drag interminably but years will seem to fly by.

It’s Your Life So Take It Personally
As a teacher and a coach I subscribe to the philosophy  ‘It’s your life so take it personally‘. So don’t ‘kill time’ and don’t complain about having too much time on your hands or not enough time to do the things you like. Many of us waste time by choosing to do nothing else instead. You don’t have to look back over another year and ask ‘where the hell did the year go and what have I done with it?’ Okay, so you may not become a time ‘lord’ in the sense that you can travel across the universe but by using the psychological laws of time you can take charge of your destiny. So take a deep breath and get started. Time flies – seize the day.

Links:

Self-Help Videos

Gender, Cave People & an Apology for Psychology

If I have to hear another ‘it’s a throwback to cave people’ explanation to explain gender social roles, I’ll scream. In fact I do! Much to the dismay of people sitting in the same room.  It’s all the worse when it comes from people who should know better. I mean, we expect it from stand-up comedians but here’s an example of a  psychologist who should really know better even though s/he is speaking outside of her/his field of expertise (and appears to make a habit of it). The subject is computer games and gender.

Computer games are ideally suited to men we are informed because. . . wait for it. . .

‘[B]ack when they were cavemen, men had to focus on the animal they were trying to kill. If they were distracted by anything from a woman to their own emotions, they’d miss the target. The real appeal for men is escapism though, because they’re not as evolved to deal with emotions which is why they like games more than us’.

(It’s not clear whether the venerable ‘expert’ means that men like computer games more than they like women, or more than women like computer games. However it is clear that the use of the word ‘us’ clearly shows that the person is not speaking as a psychologist but is giving a personal opinion as a ‘not-man’)

It gets ‘better’. . .

‘Competition is important to men because it let’s them work out who’s “the best”, an instinct going back to the days when they had to prove to the cavewoman that they’d be superior providers for them’.

So where is the evidence for these sagely insights? Now I’m not aware that this particular expert has done any research whatsoever on why people enjoy computer games. The person in question doesn’t look quite old enough to be from Palaeolithic times, so it can’t be from personal experience. As for the evidence of gender roles in cave people, this largely arose from the views of a once male-dominated archaeology who often made the cardinal error of using modern-day Western living as a lens by which to view historical and cultural data. It wasn’t until the 1960s when female archaeologists had the opportunity to question the orthodox, androcentric view that an alternative view began to emerge.   The meat content of  cave people is most likely exaggerated. Some sources suggest that it was about 80% gathering (vegetarian), so those archaeological spear-like, in some instances, could just as well be scraping and digging implements. Meat was more likely a ‘special occasion’ thing which is why it appeared as paintings on cave walls. Meat consumption increased with agriculture. Plenty of sources now agree that there weren’t the super-defined gender roles of the 1950s. It’s certainly ridiculous to assume that ‘cave people’ society was based on lots of little semi-detached caves containing nuclear families with mummy sitting at home making apple sauce on the off chance that daddy comes home with a pig. It makes no sense! The societies were probably more cooperative and egalitarian with everyone ‘mucking in’.

The case for gender differences is massively overstated in popular sources (and a few academic ones). When gender differences are scrutinised in meta-analyses, taking into account confounding factors what invariably results are no differences or relatively small (statistically significant) differences. Although these are often reported as ‘significant’ in popular sources there is often a basic misunderstanding of what the word ‘significant’ means in the context of research. It means that it passes a statistical test. However, this does not necessarily translate into a real-world significance.  Furthermore, the differences that do occur can be diminished or eradicated by training. This suggests strongly that even these small gender differences are determined by social factors. Overall, the body of research on gender demonstrates that there is a greater difference within each gender than between them. It also shows that the similarities between the genders are far greater than their differences.

Whenever, ‘experts’ resort to the ‘cave person’ analogy, this is a substitute for considering the evidence. It’s a smokescreen.  It taps into a commonly held myth and therefore, on the surface, appears to ring true. Now we expect the host of ‘fakexperts‘ to resort to  ‘cavepeople’ analogies because many of them may well not be expert at interpreting research data or know where to find evidence-based resources. However, for the seemingly respectable psychologist, there really is no excuse for this kind of slap-dash, ‘say-the-first-thing-that-pops-into-your-head’ kind of laziness.  So the next time you hear cave people and gender used, uncritically, in the same sentence, question the credentials and the motives of the speaker (or writer). The same goes for the ‘Mars-Venus’ analogy. It’s just another smokescreen.

More often than not, the appearance of psychologists in the media are missed opportunities to communicate evidence-based psychology. Invariably,  what we have is not even an apology for psychology but  bull-shit based psychobabble and ‘gossipology’. So often the definition of a ‘celebrity’ psychologist is ‘someone who should know better’. We certainly deserve better!

Recommended Books on Gender:

Links:

Welcome to PsyCentral with Gary Wood

Hello and welcome to my blog. As you may have gathered, the key theme running through it will be psychology. I’ve recently become a ‘tweeter’ on Twitter.com and to be honest I’m still a bit bemused by it all. However, I noticed that a friend had integrated his blog and his ‘tweets’ and was inspired to do the same. So I’ve set up the blog in the hope it will inspire my tweets. Hey, it’s not the greatest of motivations but it’s got me started.

The goal for the blog is to discuss news stories that have a psychological angle and ‘critique’ a few of the nonsense bits of research that do psychology a great disservice. Performance artist Laurie Anderson has derided blogging as ‘Me-search’ (as opposed to ‘research’), so I will be bearing this in mind and keep the emphasis on evidence-based research. Although, I’m not ruling out the odd rant or a bit of ‘thinking out loud’.

Bright Moments

Gary Wood