Body Language Bias at the Ford Kavanaugh Hearing

For many, the Ford/Kavanaugh hearing on September 27 cemented already formed opinions, but it did not resolve the issue at hand. As a body language specialist, I followed the hearing with great interest; though not to witness the predicatable he said/she said statments. I watched to take note of the non-verbal indicators that filled in a rich subtext during yesterday’s hearing.

Body language is the primary form of non-verbal communication (the process by which meaning is conveyed without words) and an enormous amount of physical behavior was on display during the Ford/Kavanaugh hearing. For this post, I’ve chosen to focus on Brett Kavanaugh’s opening statement only. Most non-verbal spectators would skip his prepared remarks in exchange for more “genuine” body language indicators divulged from unrehearsed responses, but I found his prepared remarks to be suffused with signals revealing a hidden truth he practiced to obscure.

Brett Kavanaugh had been well trained to speak in public. Considering a simple summary of body language best practices including eye contact, visible hands, deliberate posture, and calculated tone of voice, he incorporated each of these studiously. He knew to keep his hands visible to appear more trustworthy. He knew to keep his head and body leaned forward to show he was fully engaged in delivering his message to the committee. He knew that his words must match his body language in order to appear authentic. He spoke loudly. He knit his eyebrows together to convey an angry facial expression. He emphasized his indignation with punctuated pounding on the desk. And thanks to his practiced effort, Kavanaugh’s message did come across clearly; he showed everyone in that room and everyone watching on television how exasperated he was with those who do not support his nomination to the Supreme Court.

The great thing about body language is that even if you are well trained, like Brett Kavanaugh, you cannot completely control your non-verbal messages. Your real emotions will always reveal themselves. After Kavanaugh finished speaking yesterday, I went online, found a recording of his full opening statement and watched again with the sound off to avoid being distracted by his words. I focused on his face, and he did not disappoint. Brett Kavanaugh’s predominant and deliberate anger was sprinkled with flashes of fear, sadness, disgust, and contempt.

The subtle change in his facial expressions could have been easily missed by an untrained eye, and in fact most of what he exhibited was not at all surprising. He would surely be feeling fear at the possibility of losing of his Supreme Court appointment. He was undeniably sad that his family was subjected to such terrible stories, and he never tried to hide his disgust with the Democrats who he blamed for dragging all this up. Contempt, however, is the one to watch. So, when Brett Kavanaugh flashed contempt, I turned the volume back on.

Two of the phrases Brett Kavanaugh spoke immediately prior to showing contempt:

“I’m innocent”

“I’m here today to tell the truth”

Contempt is a defined by Merriam-Webster as “the act of despising, willful disobedience, and open disrespect for a court, judge, or legislative body.”

I do not consider myself an expert in lie detection, and I am aware that any lie detection specialist relies on a cluster of red flags before suggesting a subject is being untruthful, but an inability to hide his contempt did not do Mr. Kavanaugh any favors.

Though contempt alone is not considered hard evidence, I will offer another bit of science about lie detection. When someone lies, the tissue in the nose becomes inflamed. As a result, the liar tends to touch/rub the nose. Kavanaugh, being carefully trained, would have known to actively avoid reaching his hands to his face for any reason. Yet anyone watching him speak surely noticed that Brett Kavanaugh suffered from a terrible case of the sniffles. He sniffed and sniffed and sniffed his way through the prepared statement.  Did you find it odd for someone with such persistent sniffles to never reach for a tissue?

There were enough non-verbal observations from the hearing to fill a book (when he leaned away from the questioner, when he shrunk down in his chair, when he reached across his body and squeezed the opposite arm) but the final body language indicator that stood out from the rest was one unfamiliar to me, though it was hard for anyone to miss Kavanaugh repeatedly thrusting his tongue into his cheek during the second half of his prepared remarks. The conspicuous act of pushing at your cheek with your tongue is not a definitive gesture. It could be an act of self-soothing, an indicator of uncertainty, or simply show the person is being pensive. It would take greater familiarity with Brett Kavanaugh as an individual to understand what this particular body language cue indicates about him. I plan to watch for it again in the future.

Overall, despite his large degree of preparation to come across strong and defiant, Brett Kavanaugh came up short. Subconscious and involuntary body language cannot be controlled or faked for an extended period of time, and his body language during the hearing uncovered red flags that muddied the innocence he professed. Though his body language did not uncover any certainty, it did raise plenty of additional questions. The only complete truth that came out of the hearing was that Brett Kavanaugh and most of his Republican supporters will not back down, and that might mean America ends up with Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court.

Authors Note: When I set out to write this piece, my intention was to share observations from my background in body language science. The expected result was impartial data. However, by the time the particulars had been included, my bias was obvious. After careful consideration, I decided not to extricate my opinion from my observation. Instead, I encourage other trained observers of the body language to provide alternative interpretations. Thank you in advance for your expertise.

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