It's well known that facial expressions and body language are useful for gaining an idea of how someone is feeling beyond the words they say. Understanding the connection between physical movements and felt emotions can be particularly useful for market researchers, but it remains unclear how reliable body language cues are. We hear a lot about how certain behaviours give an indication of what a person is thinking or feeling – many believe that a person playing with their hair is an indication of attraction and that looking upwards and to the right signifies lying, to name a couple.

Body language myths

There are many common beliefs about what we can tell from a person's body language, and not all of them are strictly true. For example, it's not really possible to tell if someone is lying based on their facial expressions alone – but they may give some idea of how the person is feeling while speaking, offering clues as to when they may be concocting a porky. Fear can be clearly identified on a person's face for instance, and a sudden expression of it at the end of a sentence may show that they're afraid of being caught telling an untruth.

A behaviour that definitely doesn't correlate with lying, however, is avoiding eye contact. Many people believe that this is the first thing to look for when trying to tell whether someone is telling the truth, but this is simply not a reliable method. Because eye contact is often seen as a sign of confidence and trustworthiness, some people will deliberately make eye contact to hide a lie, often to the point of overcompensation, knowing that the person they're talking to may be looking out for it.

There are other reasons for looking away from another person's gaze too, such as social awkwardness or anger. In fact, even looking in a certain direction is not necessarily a sign of a lie, despite research suggesting that when someone looks upwards and to the right, they're accessing their imagination and therefore making up an answer.

Crossed arms are another oft-misunderstood social cue. While crossing one's arms may indicate resistance, as many people believe, it can mean many other things besides, including discomfort at a situation, feeling cold or simply finding the most relaxed position while sitting or standing.

Are facial expressions a clear indicator of emotions?

Everyone is different, so the way they express their feelings through body language and facial expressions, whether consciously or unconsciously, may vary. However, there are certain universally-observed phenomena. For instance, researchers have found that there are seven basic emotions that can be categorically identified through facial expressions – anger, contempt, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise. These seven emotional expressions are common to every culture, although more complex emotions are not so easy to identify.

If someone is experiencing two or more emotions simultaneously or feeling something beyond the seven basic emotions, there may be a lot of variation between the way they express that and the way another person would. New research seeks to use technology to find common expressions of more complex emotions, with one study by the University of Ohio mapping 21 different emotional facial expressions including apparently contradictory ones such as happily disgusted – but there is no consensus as yet as to whether these can be universally applied.

How can we be sure about how someone's feeling?

When it comes to figuring out a person's emotional state based on their facial expressions, technology can help. In market research, it can be useful to observe a respondent's involuntary facial expressions (known as micro-expressions) and body movements in order to tell what they're really thinking. This is easier to do if the research makes use of a video recording of people's responses, as a lot can be missed in a live setting.

Facial emotion analysis, which is used by Plotto's video survey platform to automatically identify and categorise emotions of survey respondents, can give insight into how someone is really feeling, even if the words they say seem to contradict this. It can also provide greater emphasis and passion on key points than would be possible using the words alone.

The use of facial emotion analysis is already taking hold in industries such as gaming, ad testing and health.

When it comes to automatically detecting and categorising body language with relation to felt emotions, there is still some work to be done – given how useful this would be, it could well be the next step in video market research technology. 

Photo by Tim Gouw