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January 18, 2015

Reading Body Language - Perceptual Bias

Are you reading right?
I can clearly recall one incident which would perfectly explain what I’m trying to put here in this article. This article is all about how an individual's own strong desire or unsettling urge can and does influence the individual's ability to interpret body language of others, especially those who are targeted, selected or chosen to fulfill the desire or urge.

At one fine afternoon, I went on a walk with some my friends and colleagues from my office team in Pune (India) after lunch. After covering some distance, we reached in a large and open public space as we did several times before. All of us sat on a bench except one special person. He stood right in front of us by resting his hands over his hips, ultimately making himself look bigger. Inside the office, he was my team leader.

I would like to mention here that he used to claim himself as a body language expert publicly, most of the time only in my presence and right on my face. It didn't stop there too. One day, he challenged me to interpret his body language in front of a few colleagues which I humbly denied, right on his face. Actually, he was alluring me into his trap, wanted me to go wrong anyway and make fun of me.

Well! Let's come back to the incident which ultimately resulted into this very article. While we were chatting among ourselves, a small group of boys and girls came there and all of them sat 50 to 60 feet away from us. What happened after that moment only added to my deep interest about the social readings out of unconscious desires.

Right from the moment the group arrived at the spot, a really good looking girl caught attention of the self-proclaimed body language expert. He started to look at her continuously and without batting his eyelids but she somehow didn’t realize about same. Apart of other girls in the group, she had dressed up very well indeed.

She sat 5 to 6 feet away from rest of her friends, only to talk with somebody else privately on her cell phone. This only added to excitement of the guy and perhaps few others too in our group, as most of them were unmarried and looking out for suitable partners. She kept talking on phone and he started looking at her only, almost continuously.

The girl on her cell phone
Just a couple of minutes passed and an unexpected event occurred. The so-called body language expert suddenly asked me a question, “What’s your interpretation of that girl’s body language?”. Without wasting a single moment, I answered to him, by saying, “She’s just busy in talking with someone in private. Other than that, she’s not conveying anything.

It simply didn’t just end there and the whole incident took a new turn. Matter of fact is I was expecting the same derogatory comments from him at that moment when he was quite busy in looking at her continuously. Undoubtedly, he was enormously attracted at her beauty and wanted her to look at him in return.

The so-called body language expert tried to simply turn me down in front of others in our group, by saying, “Sachchidanand, you simply didn’t fulfill my expectations by answering this way. The girl is doing nothing but trying to grab attention (of him only?) by sitting away from her friends. What all she wants is to get attention (of him only?).

Well! The guy indirectly conveyed his own desire or urge even when she never looked at anybody else other than her own group of friends. She wasn’t giving away any nonverbal clues of attention grabbing, grooming and/or flirting. She never looked at him and anybody in our group. She was just sitting there, glued to her cell phone and busy talking with somebody.

Like all others in our group, I was quite aware and experienced about sarcastic, jealous and derogatory commenting style of the guy. Definitely, he was quite skillful in reading people and has done some good social readings, according to my personal experience. However, his unconscious desire or urge took hold of his mind while reading her body language clues.

The only reason behind his wrong, incorrect or biased interpretation about the girl was his own desire or urge to attract her attention at himself as he couldn’t move towards an unfamiliar but nice looking and well-dressed girl. Not just with him only but this exactly happens with almost everybody, everywhere and quite frequently!

Subjective Perception
When our instincts, emotions, impulses, desires and urges are stronger than rational and logical thinking, we simply look at people and/or situations in false colors only. We unconscious try to convince ourselves or (openly) defend our own biased or individual-centric viewpoint(s) about the individuals we are looking at and/or the situations we are in.

We try to interpret people and/or situations on the basis of our own intentions, motives, emotions or desires that we harbor for/towards them. Very few of us can throw away, override or keep aside what we unconsciously need, want or expect from the individuals under observation. Only those are called as the real experts.

Moreover, an individual assumes that he/she is the only target or center of attention of the individual or a group of the people that he/she is looking at the moment. This frequently and widely prevalent psychological phenomenon, which I personally call it as Perceptual Bias for Unconsciously Desired Result (PBUDR). In other words, it can be shortly called as ‘Subjective Perception’.

We don't just misread or misinterpret facial expressions and body language of people but also appearances, placements, arrangements, sequencing and links among different objects and entities. Don't you really believe in what I'm saying? There are plenty of real life examples and there's a single best one to put here. Just take a simple test of yourself!

What you personally think after looking at this woman’s face? Does she look jealous, angry, bored or lustful/flirtatious? Without any doubt, your answer would reflect your own subjective perception or desire about her especially if you're a male seeking female attention.

Are these eyes jealous, angry, bored or lustful?

Just to mention here that this face has been included in a small quiz created by me. By clicking on this link, you can test your social reading skills and know your score. Go ahead with it!

Related Articles:
1) Hand Gestures 2) Facial Expressions 3) Postures 4) Para Language 5) Micro Expressions 6) Context 7) Proxemics 8) Congruence 9) Clusters 10) Challenges 11) Interpretation 12) Baseline 13) Observation is the key 14) Are you Jealous? (of me) 15) Artificial Intelligence and Body Language


  1. I watched a video the other day suggesting that one nonverbal identifier should not be trusted, instead better to find a cluster of signals. What do you think?

    1. A single clue or multiple isolated clues should hardly be trusted. Probably, you might know the 'Blind Men and an elephant' story. Better to look for a whole cluster...always!

  2. Swami, I spent some time reading your article. I have read your work before and have found it very intriguing. I also study nonverbal communication as well as personality psychology, human motivation, etc.
    I loved your article because of you description of this "Experts" demeanor. We can draw many conclusions about a person by their words and actions. Body language to me is a useful tool to understand people’s motivations. Motivation is what truly fascinating to me.
    While I can only read your words and I was not there to observe this myself, I agree with you. It seems to me that the man you are writing about here was making an attempt to cover up his own feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy in his biased view of the woman he was observing.
    I have also found pride to be fascinating in my personal study. As you have pointed out, sometimes experts become too sure of their own abilities. An over inflated ego or pride sneaks up on even the expert rather easily. We sometimes assume we are, "an expert" or "the best." When we let pride go too far, it blinds us to our own flaws. When pride sets in, we lose our ability to refute our own incorrect thoughts. We simply accept the first thought we have as the truth of the situation. Even the expert who gives into pride will make more errors than the average observer.
    A true expert remains humble in their observations, knowing he may can make mistakes like anyone else.

    1. Thanks for a detailed comment, Brett! Being a good body language or social reader means to have (total) control on emotions, instincts, prejudices and urges which might emerge while observing subject(s).

  3. Sounds like the man you were describing was talking more about what he wanted to see instead of what was really there. It would have been interesting to hear what a woman who understands body language said about that some girl.

    It would be interesting to ask that man how the woman would behave differently if she was NOT trying to attract attention. What would she have done differently if she just wanted to talk privately to someone on the phone.


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