Why studying nonverbal behavior is hard but worthwhile, with Alan Crawley

A talk with nonverbal behavior expert Alan Crawley, also known by his online handle Sin Verba ( Topics discussed include: why he initially became interested in behavior; the challenges of studying behavior; the practical benefits of studying behavior (including connecting better with others); and irresponsible “behavior experts” who share bad information and pseudo-science.

A transcript is included below.

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Resources discussed in this episode or related to the topic:


Zach Elwood: This is the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zachary Elwood. This is a podcast aimed at better understanding other people, and better understanding ourselves. You can learn more about it at

On today’s episode, I talk to Alan Crawley, who goes by the handle ‘sin verba’ online. ‘Sin verba’ is spanish for ‘without words’. He’s got the website, and has the sinverba handle on Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. 

Alan is an expert in nonverbal behavior. I’ll give his experience in a little bit, but the reason I wanted to talk to him for the podcast is that I’ve had some great conversations with him recently about behavioral analysis and research. Alan is very well read when it comes to behavior, and he’s educated me about quite a few theories on behavior that I wasn’t familiar with and books I wasn’t familiar with. We also had some talks about my work on poker tells, and he got me thinking about some new ideas in that area. So I’ve learned a lot from Alan just in the few talks we’ve had, and I appreciate his expertise and his passion, and I think you will, too. 

Here’s some information about Alan Crawley: he graduated with honors in psychology from the University of Salvador in Argentina. He has a diploma in nonverbal communication from the Universidad Austral in Argentina. He’s the academic coordinator of the postgraduate course ‘Analysis of nonverbal communication’ at Heritage University in the U.S. He was academic director of the 2021 online conference on nonverbal communication, organized by the Behavior and Law Foundation of Spain.  He’s certified in Paul Ekman’s Facial Action Coding System. I could keep going but you get the idea; he’s done a lot of work in the behavior space. For more information about Alan, check out the entry for this episode on my site One video I’ll have linked from there is a great presentation from Alan on facial expressions. 

In our talk, Alan and I talk about why he initially became interested in studying behavior; we talk about the complexity of behavior and why it’s perhaps similar in some ways to complex systems like weather; we talk about whether reading behavior is a science or an art; we talk about the validity of micro-expressions; we talk about the practical benefits of improving our understanding of behavior, which can include connecting better with people and helping other people; and we talk about indicators that someone is a behavior bullshitter who’s spreading bad and irresponsible ideas. Along the way we talk about quite a few behavioral theories, and specific behaviors. So it should be a fun talk for anyone interested in reading people better, or just connecting better with people. 

Okay, here’s Alan Crawley aka Sin Verba.

Hey, Alan, thanks for coming on.

Alan: Thanks for the invitation.

Zach: Maybe we could start with what has made you so interested in behavior. 

Alan: When I was a child, and in my younger years at school, I felt that I was not good with communication. I especially had some rough time connecting with others. I found that psychology and behavior gave me an insight on what people were thinking or suggesting me information on how to connect with others. And once I started to study the subject, I started to see there are some good information and of course there is also bad information. But once you try to apply it, you can see enormous, fruitful ways in which you can use it based on your needs on how specifically to connect with others. That was the thing that motivated me. Well, surely the idea is that you can use behavior as a way to study animals like bird watching– this is something that Desmond Morris explained in his marvelous book, Manwatching 1977– that I’ve been watching and studying birds because it’s nice to see them, you want to understand them, but you don’t use that knowledge to shoot them down. 

The same thing, it needs to be applied to nonverbal communication and trying to read others. But reading others is not reading them like a book, or the mind is not a book that can be read. That’s too simple. We know that that’s not the case. But you can use that behaviors, cues, and signals to try to understand better other people, to connect with them. In a certain way, you’re going to become more humble with our species and evolutionary humility in the sense that we are animals. And we have a lot of things in common with the animal kingdom, but also with other people from different cultures. So to answer the question, the idea that basically I felt that I needed more tools to connect with people and nonverbal communication gave me that.

Zach: It’s interesting you say that because actually I can relate a lot to that because I’ve always felt like I was a bit on the autistic spectrum. I was never very good at connecting with others, eye contact actually made me quite nervous as a child. Then also combined with that, my parents had a lot of psychology books laying around the house, just random psychology books. Those two things I felt like, similar to your saying, they were ways to try to understand other people better to help myself and to make sense of things that I felt were confusing about people.

Then with poker tells, when it came to the poker behavior and poker tells work I did, part of that was also just feeling like I didn’t understand people well in that aspect either. I was like: I really want to dig into this and understand it better and maybe understand some things other people are understanding on a more intuitive aspect and understand it more consciously and more intellectually. That’s interesting you say that. I think we have that in common. Yeah.

Alan: The recent common thread that I have seen, I usually give classes to advanced students and people that already have written books on nonverbal communication, that give classes on the matter – over 60 people with university degrees, like masters on nonverbal communication. One of the common threads is that they have some vulnerability or deficiency on how to communicate. 

I’ve also seen that there are a lot of people with dyslexia studying this field, which seems to be that for many people, this is a tool that can be used to improve in a certain way for their social and professional life and get some rewards with it. Which I think this is very important for people that don’t know that they can improve their public speaking skills, or the ways in how to connect with their partner, or how to talk more gently or tactful with your friends. This is a skill that allows you to connect on another level with people. 

But you need to be of course, careful to the things you read and how you apply it. Because it’s not so simple as a one-to-one correspondence or a simple way of using it. Because that way, and there are some research on the matter, for instance, training police officers with some non-validated methods or contents, that it can worsen your skills to detect lies or worsen your skills to detect emotions. So you need to be careful on the content you consume on the matter.

Zach: Yeah, I want to go back to what you said about the Desmond Morris book, Peoplewatching aka Manwatching was the original title. You shared that book with me. You told me about it and I started reading it. Yeah, it is a great introduction because like you were saying, people tend to focus on the exploitative aspect of understanding behavior. It’s like, what can I use other people’s behavior for in my job like sales or the pickup artists line of stuff, how can I really use it? 

But he was talking about, and you were talking about too, the fact that this is a very human thing and it actually helps us be more empathetic with other people and see how we’re similar to other people, understand them better, helps our human connections with other people. I think that’s a very important point because I think some people can perceive it as being like, how are people going to use this? 

It does often take that form too where people do try to use it, like you were saying, police training and such. But there is that other side of the same reason, like you were saying, people like to watch animals and understand animals. It’s a similar thing like feeling more connected with nature, with humans. I think it’s a great point. 

I was watching your video about facial expressions, which was a great video, for people that want to watch that. I think that’s one of your few English language presentations. I could be wrong about that. Yeah, it was great. You talked about the nuance in that area and reviewed a lot of different ideas. One of the things that stood out to me in that video were your points about why behavior, specifically facial expressions, but I think it applied to all behavior, your points about why it could be so tough to study. Maybe you’d like to talk a little bit about those different aspects, those different factors that make it challenging to study.

Alan: Well, first of all, listeners are already noting that English is not my first language, so I’m doing my best. I speak in Spanish. I give my classes in Spanish. 

Zach: You’re doing great.

Alan: Thank you. Thank you for that. The point of that talk, I was invited by a famous semiotician, Paul Bouissac. He is a marvelous researcher, a very insightful theoretician of behavior, especially in the evolutionary sense of behavior. What I’m trying to show with that video is the idea that we have been understanding wrongly the facial displays. I use the term facial expression which is the most common, but the most certain or more precise way of describing them is display. Because expression has the assumption that the person is showing outside something that he’s feeling in the inside. But display, it’s something you could act or pose, which is a more correct way of framing this complexity. 

There are a lot of reasons why it’s impossible to simplify, hey, he’s moving two or three muscles in the face. That’s the facial expression, the universal facial expression of contempt or anger. The person is feeling angry at this moment. That’s a simplification that’s wonderful for selling some softwares or books or simple ideas of courses. But we know for a fact that animal communication is much more complex than that since the ’70s or the ’80s. Why are we still using an outdated formula that it is not even useful for animals but we think it’s going to be useful for complex animals, which we are, we’re the humans Homo sapiens? Well, it is not. 

One of those reasons is that the face moves for many, many reasons. The face moves as a consequence of speech, but also when you’re eating, when you’re breathing, when you’re talking, when you’re feeling an emotion, of course, but also when you’re feeling a cognition like confusion or doubt, which you’re surprised it’s also a cognition. But you also move your face based on the social messages you want to send on the intentions you have like being affiliative or not, or initiating a competition. 

You move your face based on your personality. Not every person moves the face in the same way. Some traits of your personality are going to, for instance, make some facial actions more probable. Like if you are not amicable, maybe you have your eyebrows frowning all the time. This is usually the case for people working for the law. If you are very amicable, maybe you smile a lot. That has a relationship, not with the emotion you’re feeling at that moment, but with your personality traits or as a result of your profession. So simplifying the idea that if you see some facial muscles moving, you can know the emotion of that person at a given moment is a way of understanding very wrongly and simplifying such a complex thing that behavior is for humans.

Zach: Yeah, it was such a great point because it gets into some juicy behavior bullshit kind of people, the people that take these simplistic views and try to get clicked for them. They focus on these simplistic ideas of you can see in their face this emotion they’re presenting or trying to hide from us, but it’s leaving out the tremendous complexity. Like you say, it’s like we don’t just leak emotions from our face that we’re feeling. We use it to consciously communicate to other people in various ways. 

One thing that comes to mind that often gets a lot of press or a lot of attention is that face that they’ll show, it’s like the sad and ashamed face that you’ll see politicians make when they’re announcing something like the lip pressed together face that the politicians often make or leaders make, anybody makes when they’re ashamed and they’re doing a press conference and people will say like, “Look at all these ways that they’re-” This common expression of shame or whatever. 

I think what that leaves out is it’s a conscious expression that they’re choosing because that’s something that we all know what it means so they’re consciously choosing to put it on. In the same way, that a lot of the things that people interpret in various videos about people’s behavior, it’s like, well, it could be some leak of emotion, sure. But it could also be that there’s reasons sometimes that you want to communicate frustration with someone else or anger or shame or whatever that communication is. So it becomes really muddy to try to determine these things. 

A note here, if you’re curious what facial expression I’m talking about here, there’s a New York Times article from 2011 called “That Look, That Weiner, Spitzer, Clinton Look. To quote from that piece, “The names may change, but the face remains essentially the same. Politician after politician and scandal after scandal faces the camera with his lips pursed and pulled tight, narrowing them. The chin boss, the fleshy bump above the chin bone is pushed upward, pulling the lips into an upside-down smile at a downward cast gaze, perhaps a shake of the head and instant disgraced pull.” 

In that article and another pieces, you’ll find people with various interpretations about how revealing that look is that it, for example, reveals disgust, sadness, even anger, that it tells us something about how they’re really feeling. But the point I was trying to make here probably not very well is that it’s also just an understandable face one might make to try to communicate to the public that one feels bad, one wants to communicate some sadness, some shame, and that one is upset with the situation. Maybe in trying to communicate these concepts, there’s some aspects of phoniness about the expression that make it a common one from politicians and leaders in these situations. 

I was just trying to draw attention to how sometimes people act like a behavior is revealing something deep and secret about someone, when in fact there can be a lot of elements of understandable conscious communication involved or other complexity. Okay, back to the talk.

Very much in the poker tells realm too, the reason it’s so hard to figure out poker tells is because somebody could be consciously doing something and trying to trick you or they could be actually leaking some tell of where their attention is or how they’re actually feeling. Yeah, it’s just tremendously complex. I think you’ve made great points in that video.

Alan: Your example is very revealing because I know the literature on the self-conscious emotions like pride, shame, embarrassment, humiliation. I know for a fact that there is no universal sign of shame, that there has been only just one study that has found some relationship between feeling shameful under certain movements, which one of those was rubbing your neck.

Zach: A small note here. Alan wanted me to point out he meant to refer to the research on guilt here, not on shame. He was referencing a 2020 paper titled, Are There Nonverbal Signals of Guilt, in which they found some actions that were more frequent when someone was categorized as guilty, like frowning and self-soothing behaviors. Okay, back to the interview.

Alan: But the relationship between its appearance and really feeling shame was low. It was not like, “Okay, everyone’s feeling shameful. This experiment is doing this.” No, I think it was two out of 10 or four out of 10, which is the case usually with behavior, the sense that you cannot expect that a certain state is going to produce in all people the same behaviors at a given situation, at a given moment for different personalities. That’s nonsense. We need to understand this complexity and find a way to change the way we frame behaviors. 

I was thinking about this like I think that it’s usually useful for readers to accumulate knowledge in the sense of vocabulary. When you have more vocabulary, you can read more books and you can understand more complex things. So in nonverbal communication, you need to improve your mental dictionary, which is not a dictionary, it’s an encyclopedia of gestures. You need to collect them, not necessarily with specific meanings, but you need to know about a lot of different behaviors and see them in different scenarios. 

But, and this is a huge but, knowing a lot about words doesn’t mean that you can understand how they interact in different syntaxes, grammatics and pragmatics. The same is true with behaviors. You can know a lot about them, but maybe you don’t know how they unravel or interact in interactions. 

One of the problems with this is that it is not the only way to improve your observational skills and interpretation skills of behavior to have a lot of tells or a lot of gestures on your mental recollection or your mental encyclopedia. I have a right to the conclusion that maybe, and this is my idea, I haven’t seen it in any place, that maybe we need to change the way we think about gestures.

Usually when someone hears someone out like when I hear you speaking, Zach, I’m asking myself, “What does Zach means with those words?” That way of framing it means that you have one meaning, that you are expressing one thing to me and I’m trying to understand what are you telling me. But using this formula that’s useful for language it’s not the same when you use it for what is usually called body language. But we know it’s not a language because it has no syntax and other properties that language should have. 

So applying the same mental formula or mental equation is not going to give you the best benefits. I argue that we need to change that framing and ask a different question. Before I tell you the question, I’m going to explain how I got into that or at least what is the correct way to think about gestures. I think the best model comes from meteorology, the prediction of weather. Meteorology as behavior has a lot of factors of influence in the case of behavior, culture, biology, personality, sex, biological sex, gender, sexual orientation, situation, context, profession, and a lot of things more. 

Meteorology involves a lot of complex factors of influence that are constantly changing. So we need to have a specific set of mind in which we approach such nonlinear complex problems. I think that the way to frame it is to think when you see a gesture instead of framing it like, what does it mean, you need to frame it in a way which is very subtle, but it’s different which is, what’s the probable meaning of that gesture? When you do this, you are changing it in a way that you’re asking yourself, “Okay, there are probably more than one meaning. Probably I’m going to miss some of it or maybe I can’t know the meaning, but I’m doing my best to probabilistically infer what could it mean.” That’s the approach I think it’s most useful to understand this, which is very, very complex. 

Let me say one more thing on this. Probability and possibility are not the same. I have been reading the book of Michael Shermer, the creator of the Skeptic’s magazine, and he explains this much better than me, but I will do my best. He says, for instance, that someone could believe, for instance, and this is also mentioned in the Massimo Pigliucci book, Nonsense on Stilts. You could believe that the 911 was an inside job. There’s a possibility that that was the case. But based on all the evidence that exists, the most probable explanation is that it was a terrorist attack. There’s always a possibility of the existence of intelligence in the universe that given all the information we have and the probabilities, maybe it’s useful to think otherwise. 

I’m not trying to frame it in such a way as to give an answer for conspiracies or intelligence. I’m trying to explain that when you see a behavior, there is a probability that it can mean anything. For instance, if you see someone feeling pain, there’s a huge probability based on the literature review article from Koons that there are certain facial actions that are more frequent, like frowning, like raising the upper lip, wrinkling the nose or opening your mouth. Those facial actions are much more frequent than others. When you’re seeing someone in pain, those are going to be more probable expressions. There is a possibility of someone making a yawn when in pain, or someone scratching their nose when in pain. Yes, there is a possibility, yes. What’s more probable? The first, the former. 

I think that once we try to frame gestures or behaviors in a different way as to understand they are probabilistic or related to their meaning, you understand the three complexities of this model. I know there are three, but there could be more. These are the three. Gestures are polysemic. A given gesture may have multiple meanings, except from the famous emblems like saying okay or saying that someone is crazy, moving your index finger in your forehead, both of the gestures are polysemic. They can mean one thing, two things at a given moment. Sometimes they have no meaning. They’re just noise. 

Secondly, behaviors are polycultural, multicultural. They can be caused by several things at a given moment, not just one. For instance, you smile because you want to show your friend you are happy at his birthday, or you want to show that the friends of his work are kind, or you want to show him that I enjoy being around them. 

Also, behaviors are multipurpose. You could smile to show, hey, that joke is funny or I enjoy spending time with you. Sometimes a gesture has no foreseeable purpose. So when you understand that behaviors are polysemic, multicultural and multipurpose, you need to change the way you approach to them with the simplistic idea that a certain behavior has a specific meaning. That’s nonsense. That’s nonsense on stilts.

Zach: Would you agree that a big part of the problem is that I think that people are just generally bad at thinking in probabilistic terms or thinking about statistics. It’s like people really want there to be certain meanings for things. I see that in the poker tells realm where a lot of people will be like, well- Because I’ll go into a lot of nuances in my book so well, this could mean that, but then often it could mean two different things depending on the situation. What I’ve seen is a lot of people just really want simple answers. I think that maps over to the people who like to follow this kind of simplistic behavior analysis, people who really want these kinds of simplistic interpretations.

One that comes to mind is this simplistic idea that if somebody is slightly tilting their body away from you, it means they’re not interested in the conversation. Or if they’re crossing their arms, they’re not interested in the conversation or being a little bit aloof. Of course, there could be many reasons why people do those things, but you’ll see people take these simplistic ideas and just run with them. I think those things really get in the way of, they’re actually hurting their ability to connect with other people or understand their behavior because they’re trying to take these simplistic ideas, as opposed to thinking of them in terms of like you’re saying, like, “Sure, there’s a chance that this could mean that, but there’s going to be many other factors that you have to take into account. I think that’s probably a big part of it. 

Also, the reason why simplistic people who teach simplistic ideas about behavior or anything really find an audience because people really do crave the simplistic like this means that- Because there’s definitely an audience and a market for it basically. People don’t like the subtlety and the nuance. They just want, “Hey, give me an answer.”

Alan: I think you nailed it in at least two points. The first one I have heard Neil deGrasse Tyson talking about this that we are bad at statistics. One reason is that algebra or geometry were created with the Greeks. Statistics is a much more new creation of our way of approaching knowledge. I don’t know if it was the 19th or 18th century, but it is really, really new in comparison with other approaches to meaning. We are not good to understand statistics and we have not evolved to see the world through probabilities in such a way. 

Secondly, I agree that people are thirsty of this knowledge and trying to read the mind of others and consume this idea of body language, which is fine. It’s very interesting. It’s curious. There is two problems. One, which is people that do abuse knowledge and use it in such a way to commercially it’s fluctuating like using it in their advantage to sell courses and be popular. 

I am a young researcher and I’m starting. I am at the Universidad del Salvador here in Argentina. I think that researchers, we have also some responsibility because it is not often to see one of the researchers going to the TV or to documentals explaining why this scientific approach to behavior is not the way to do it. 

In that sense, I think that as Carl Sagan’s approach to the science and science, we have the responsibility, the ethical responsibility of defending the science. If you see someone doing things considered wrong or saying things that contradict the literature, you should call them out because that’s your responsibility. It’s often the case that maybe because of status or trying to avoid such interactions or because researchers are not so much prepared to appear in the media as these pseudo experts, they prefer not to do it. I think that we have some sense of responsibility over that. It’s not only the case that this science is proliferating, which is really as a result of malpractice, doing it wrongly, but also this responsibility of the people that are doing the research and should speak out more often.

Zach: Yeah, I think there is that sense. I have talked to people who have told me that, they said they just didn’t want to get involved in these online drama fights of calling out people. It’s tough. There’s a reason people don’t do it. I think you’re right. It’s like the more we let that kind of thing slide, the more people do it. Calling people out it may be tough and it may be emotionally draining because you get attention and you get the potentially the hordes of the other people’s fans insulting you or whatever it is. I think you’re right. There is a responsibility there because the reason those people are able to do that so easily is simply because people don’t call them out. 

I think it’s the same. I focus on political polarization on this podcast a lot. I think it maps over to a lot of people just don’t like to call out bad behavior of people on their side. It’s different factors at work. But I think there’s benefit in seeing the value in why it’s helpful to call out bad and divisive behavior and untrue, inaccurate framings on your side because those things, it’s not just the benefit of calling out and making your side better. It’s the fact that the bad, divisive framings on your side affect the other side, and so on, and so on. It’s all connected. 

In the same way, I think it’s all connected in the sense that when people who are knowledgeable don’t call out the bullshitters, they’re just more involved. That’s what leads to the bullshit having such prominence. It’s all connected. Yeah.

Alan: I don’t know if I’ve enjoyed, but I tried to do it through my social media and trying to help people to avoid experiencing what I experienced. I had good and very awful teachers because I had no one to guide me into, hey, you should read these books because they have bases, this is an author that has to study this, that is a researcher doing that. Several cases I read books which were not good and they didn’t help me. They even created in me some nonsense ideas on how behavior worked. It took me a while to discover that, hey, that’s not good. That’s not helping. I’m even understanding worse people because of this, because of that supposedly expert that was teaching me this. 

What I’m trying to do with my students, also with my colleagues because we train our colleagues, is to help them follow a path that doesn’t need to learn with those mistakes, learning from my mistakes so that they could follow a better path than mine.

Zach: There’s such real cost to this bullshit of all sorts like the pseudoscience and the bullshit of all sorts, but specifically in the behavior space, the fact that you can have people that will watch something like Jack Brown stuff who I’ve often talked about and written a piece about. He’s popular on Twitter. His takes are just so clearly bad and exaggerated and just not based on anything any respectable behavior researcher would agree with, but he’s filling people’s heads with the idea that they can confidently tell when people are lying or not. 

What really happens in practice is just that people are just applying their own biases. They’re taking Jack Brown’s ideas and just if they see somebody they don’t like in the media, they’ll be just filtering it through that thing where they’re like, “Oh, they did this behavior. I know they’re lying. I saw that on Jack Brown’s videos.” It’s really amplifying the kind of misinformation problem in our society or the polarization problem where people are just using these bad ideas to reinforce whatever, the 911 conspiracy theories or whatever, what have you. It’s these ideas that we can know things certainly about the world and we really can in so many ways, in so many domains we can’t. There’s so much complexity.

It’s just these confident takes that are really just amplifying our problems because the idea that we can have quick certainty about things is to me one of the biggest human problems. We really have a problem embracing uncertainty and humility and taking it slow. We like to jump to conclusions, etc.

Alan: The case of Jack Brown is interesting because I followed his blog six or seven years ago, and I was thinking that he had some, “Oh, that’s an interesting comment. Where that information came? What’s the foundation for that interesting observation?” I’ve tried to reach him and ask him for the evidence, which is something I tell people to do. If you are not sure, if you don’t understand, ask for the evidence. Because usually, it’s the case that the people that has the evidence will share it with you and the ones that don’t have the evidence or if they have, it is used in such a way that it’s not the way it was presented originally, you’re going to be able to better discriminate who is using this in a professional, certified or validated way and who is not. That’s one case. 

I think that if these pseudo experts present themselves as commentators, that will be better. Instead of using a costume of science when they are not being scientific, if they present themselves as, “Okay, I’m a commentator and mentions some comments on behavior based on my opinion and my subjective perspective. This is why I think this is the kind of art I can do,” that would be more respectable because they are saying what they think. But when they say they are certain that there is physical evidence that if that [unintelligible 00:32:23] means something and that raising of one eyebrow that’s a certain message of doubt, that is a wrong way to proceed. You are disguising it as science or as a certainty and that’s not real. 

It could be because of ignorance or it is most usually the case that they don’t know really how it works and what are the areas and the literature, that’s what I think. But some of them could be doing it with other intentions, deliberately using it to have more power and influence. I don’t know. I don’t want to judge. 

What I do want to say is that, please people be skeptics, not only from every supposedly or allegedly expert that’s on TV, on social media, even by my words, be a skeptic of what I’m saying. If you want more information, ask me or look it on the internet. Because that’s the way to think scientifically. Science is less a body of knowledge or more a way of thinking, an attitude of approaching to empirical evidence to being able to reframe your theories to change your mind based on the evidence. Most of these pseudo scientifics don’t change their mind when they are presented with hugely contradictory areas. When you do that, you’re using ideology, not science.

Zach: Yeah, I think that’s a great point. If we were going to make like a list of signs that someone is a bullshitter, one of the top things would be the fact that they can’t really engage with critics, that they are unwilling to- That comes up with what happened with Jack Brown if anyone even like respectfully tries to get him to engage in or criticizes or take offense, he’ll just block them. I think that’s a good example of when someone’s just not even willing to talk through like, hey, maybe you have some valid points about your criticism, or here’s a defensive of why I said this in the experience I had that supports this. I think that’s one of the top signs is just not being able to engage with criticism and that maps over to cult mentality where cult leaders just can’t engage in well-meaning and criticism and challenges. Then the other thing I would say is if they were making a list of that kind of thing is they just have way too many takes on things. It’s like you watch some of these behavior people and they’re just saying something like almost every second about behavior. It’s like there’s not that much there. Sure, you might have- I think it comes back to what you were saying about being very humble and being like, well there’s a chance this could mean that. But what do you often see is this means that and here’s another thing. A few seconds later that reinforces this idea. It’s like it’s just way too much certainty and just way too much to say. I was curious, would you agree with that, too?

Alan: Yeah, definitely, definitely. I have some indications, some cues I use to help people to discriminate fast who is not doing this properly. One of those things is that when they defend themselves, they say the words like, “Oh, this is science. I know for a fact that that smile is authentic. It’s science.” No, it’s not. There’s a very nice quote from Jeff Thompson, a police officer from New York. I read his thesis, his PhD thesis on mediation and nonverbal communication, very interesting one. 

He says that nonverbal communication is a science. For many, many reasons, I don’t want to expand myself too much. But there are at least 30,000 articles published in at least 297 different journals, academic journals. He says that nonverbal communication is a science. But when it is applied, it will always remain an art. That’s a specific point we need to address. If people say they’re doing science when they are in fact making interpretations of behavior, they’re not recognizing a biological pattern that has a specific one to one correspondence with meaning. That’s nonsense. Behaviors are related with meaning in a probabilistic fashion, realistic way.

You cannot do this one-to-one correspondence, except maybe with reflexes, the knee jerk, something like that, or the physiology or the pupil dilatation. But even the pupil dilatation may be a response based on interest, sexual attraction, cognitive load, being deceptive. There are a lot of reasons considering difficult choices. So that’s not the case. If someone defends his interpretation as this is science, okay, turn the bullshit alarm and try to look for more information. 

The second one is when they present themselves or their courses or information, where the 93% of all communication is nonverbal. That’s a huge red flag mostly used for rookies in the field. Because that’s a formula that comes from the ’60s by Albert Mehrabian, as I call an engineer turns psychologist, which is very, very interesting. But the formula has nothing to do with how communication really works out of the laboratory. That’s the wrong way to proceed. 

I have just one more, which is the presentation of microexpressions as a religion, as a faith that, oh, this will save your career, the tech microexpressions and improve your life. No, that’s, not- Microexpressions were discovered in the ’60s, not by Ekman, by two psychologists, psychiatrists Haggard and Isaacs and they named them micro momentary facial expressions, I think it was. At the onset of when they were discovered, they were not thought as expressing specific emotions as it is today. The first scientific review studies on the matter were published this century. Most of the studies shows that they are not frequent. They tend to appear in honest and liars, which was not thought before that study. They don’t help you to discriminate better lies. There’s a couple of studies on that. I think one is from Judee Burgoon or Jordan and colleagues. 

Usually, microaggressions are presented as something you need to discover because it’s going to show you certainly that a person is feeling an emotion and is trying to conceal it. Well, I don’t think that’s the case. I think that the evidence is more nuanced to that and it shows that usually they don’t last. So brief as they thought they were like in a paper from Matsumoto a couple of years ago, he changed the duration because it was conceived 1/24 part of the second, and the facial muscles don’t even move so fast. They move fast, not so fast.

What I’m trying to say is that when someone presents microexpressions as a direct relationship with meaning or emotions, be a skeptic. Because usually, and you can see this in animals, animals can also perform micro-gestures, micro-movements, very, very brief, but are not directly correlated with a specific emotion. Why do animals do this? This is an observation from Alan Fridlund, which I think is one of possibly the biggest or the best expert on facial displays. Here is that micro-expressions of these movements show conflict for that person or for the animal. It’s a moment of conflict between I need to attack or I need to flee. Maybe I should tell these people what I think about the subject, or maybe I should keep it to myself.

But if there is no conflict, for instance, and this is something I have read from Alan, which I think it’s not as polished yet, if you think about a serial killer, maybe that person speaking about the assassinations, there is no conflict at all. Why? It’s going to show a micro-expression if there is a conflict. So instead of thinking that micro-expressions are emotions, maybe we should reframe it and think about maybe it’s more general and they express us what it was introduced by Haggard and Isaacs and it’s more developed by Fridlund moments of conflict.

They could also mean one more thing. They could be somehow like balloon trials in which a person shows you something briefly to test if you are going to be able or fond or open to discuss something about what is going on. If that trial balloon doesn’t work, a person doesn’t proceed with a path of revealing certain information. If it works, maybe that person opens. But the simplistic idea that microexpression reveal emotions, it’s true simple. We know for a fact behavior is much more complex than that. Even the evidence of microexpression attenuates and discard this simplistic approach. 

But we are still using it for several reasons, and I will tell you at least one, which is explained in a book. It’s called the Atlas of AI. In chapter six, the author explains that at the moment, the market for facial softwares is worth, I think it’s $17 billion, which is an amount too big for it. It’s enormous to think about it. Most, if not all, 90 something percent of the softwares are based on the basic emotional theory, the theory that explains that there are five, six or seven universal facial expressions with a specific archetype, a prototype of the face, which I argue and a lot of authors argue, I think Augusta Gaspar from Portugal says this, that those are not prototypes. They are in fact stereotypes on how the face should show an emotion. A stereotype is not a prototype. It’s not the same.

The huge problem is that if you remove this theory, it’s not like cutting a part of a web and trying to solve the problem. You are stealing or you’re taking a break from the lower or the lowest part of the building and it’s going to collapse. There is some economical or financial need to think that this theory is working. There are a lot of courses around it also on certifications that if this was or could be put into doubt, it could be difficult. There is not much motivation to say that this is not working properly as it did not work properly in this port program. 

For instance, in the United States, it was applied as specific program into detecting queues on the airports. At least I think there were 100 airports in America. What a beautiful country. I love it. It didn’t work. The idea of recognizing microexpressions first to detect terrorists because that was not the case, but even smugglers, even criminals, it didn’t work. So the evidence is staggering against the simplistic idea of using the face as a window to the emotions or the soul or the thoughts of a person, it’s much more complex and nuanced.

Zach: People often ask me about micro expressions in the poker realm and I always say- I think it’s a good example actually because I’ve never found any real value in microexpressions, specifically, in the idea that microexpressions are leaking genuine emotion. If anything, it’s that people sometimes often reverse it. The small expressions are the opposite of what they actually feel because they’re trying to do some something deceptive or even unconsciously deceptive because poker is just your natural instinct is to reverse what you have, and that’s just an instinct. 

The thing that strikes me there is I think people in general when they want to be, they’re actually very good at not showing you things, they’re very good at being unreadable when they want to be unreadable. I think what happens, and maybe it’s a factor in some of the studies that show leakages of emotions in various ways. I think sometimes people just are willing to give away something in a way that communicates information to other people. There’s someone who’s just willing to give away things. That could be the situation isn’t that stressful, so they don’t mind leaking a little bit of genuine emotion. I think when it comes to the idea that people are going to be leaking genuine emotion, I think it just underestimates how good people can be at restraining their facial expressions.

A small note here. Just to clarify that I was talking about micro expressions specifically, not the idea that we can have other more macro leaks of genuine emotion. I think there are all sorts of ways we can accidentally leak emotion when we don’t want to. Okay, back to the talk.

I think there can be an exaggerated idea that I’m going to catch this person doing something and it’s going to tell me what their state is.

Alan: There are two other things. I agree with that. The first one is that when someone’s trying to teach you no one’s going to lie to you again, you’re not going to be able to do that. Some people name themselves as the human lie detector or the human polygraph, which is impressive.

Zach: It gets back to the idea that believing such things actually set you up for more failure. Because if you believe that you’ve got the tools to prevent being lied to or catching people lies and you believe in these simplistic ideas, that actually makes you more susceptible to being fooled because you think of yourself as a strong light detector or something like that.

Alan: Credulity is a prerequisite to follow these people. I was credible. I was gullible in a sense when I started. I want and people want to learn this. You want to believe that the other person is teaching the best of knowledge and you don’t know how to judge an expert. It was a question that was explained by Massimo Pigliucci in his book that Aristotle asked himself, well, one can know for a fact if that clinician is in fact a good doctor or is a quack? How can you know? 

The final answer seems to be that it’s very, very difficult. You can only judge if someone is an expert if you’re also an expert in that field. It’s impossible to be an expert in many, many fields in life. So you need to trust a lot of people to their credentials, to their assertiveness, to the way they express themselves, but you also have to follow some guidelines. We have been trying to give your listeners some tools to be able to better discriminate there’s something here I should take more into consideration. Or maybe I should be more skeptical of these kinds of affirmations and arguments. 

But for a fact, I will argue that it’s very, very difficult if you want to start to study this field to grasp quickly who is doing the things correctly and who is using content in such a way that it is disguising it as science, but he’s clearly doing pseudoscience. That’s dangerous. Pseudoscience has a lot of consequences. Sometimes when it is related usually to medicine, it can bring you to death. It’s an extreme. In our field, it can bring injustice, it could bring suspects being not believed or being treated in the wrong way, being stopped in the street, or doubting witness based on a gesture or microexpression. That’s huge in the future. If we allow this kind of pseudo experts to say this thing’s helping the law or in trials, it could have huge impact for the people’s life. 

I think we need to be really careful in how we apply nonverbal communication. But it is a very, very useful tool and skill that you can’t develop in two senses. I understand that my friend and colleague, mentor in a certain kind of way, someone which I have read over the years and I respect a lot, Ronald Riggio. He’s an expert on nonverbal communication and leadership. He explains that there are three skills in nonverbal communication. Expressing, perceiving, I’m using other words to saying it more easily, and control. 

I would argue that it could be summed up into skills for us for [unintelligible] and how to apply it in being able to express yourself better with behaviors like understanding how to change your tone of voice, your fluency, your speed, your rate of speech, and also your postures, your way of pressing yourself. I’m doing gestures to nothing at the moment to a couple of screens, but no one is seeing me. But I know for a fact that if I keep moving my hands in such a way, I’m helping me remember some words, I am emphasizing better with my voice. 

The other skill is called, it has many ways of naming it, interpersonal position is the most agreed in the field, which is the skill of inferring correctly if there is a correct interpretation for meanings. You could interpret that a gesture is related to an emotion given fear, for instance. It could be an interpretation of what someone is thinking at the moment like he’s thinking about leaving this situation, he’s thinking that his couple is wrong in this debate or argument. There are a lot of things you could infer. 

It’s a skill that we need to develop, I will argue, but in a probabilistic fashion, not with this kind of mental dictionary with specific behavior and specific one or two or three meanings. It is helpful to have an encyclopedia of behaviors. That’s useful. But then you need to understand the complexity of the polysemy, the multicultural and multipurpose. Think about this every time you see a gesture, instead of making the question that what does it mean, change it for what could be the probable meaning?

Zach: That’s something I think about a lot, the practical applications of understanding behavior. Because for example, we all know the polygraph is far from accurate, whatever the accepted range of accuracy is like 60 to 70 something percent, whatever the range is of being accurate. It also gets a good amount of false positives too. But it’s interesting thinking about how would something be useful? Even if something was say it was 95%? accurate, what do we still want to use the head for like illegal purpose knowing that? Because we say in our legal system, we’d rather have 100 guilty people go free than convict one innocent person wrongly.   What exactly is the range of accuracy where we would base big important decisions and life changing decisions on something like this? It’s something I often think about is, how can we use some of these things knowing that they’re reliable in a practical sense in real life. 

One thing that strikes me, I’m curious what you think is that when something is highly variable and you have to make quick decisions, and that would include things like conversation interviews, it would include things like poker, these decision points that are that come very quickly and can vary a lot and that you’re forced to make quick decisions about where to focus your time or what decision to make, those are places where you can use behavioral information to direct your train of questioning or your poker decisions where decisions could go either way and they’re decisions that don’t involve affecting someone else in a life changing way. 

Changing your interrogation thing based on something you think you’ve noticed isn’t going to send that person to prison wrongly. It’s just a way for you to maybe change your line of questioning a little bit and investigate something a little bit more conversationally. Same in poker, you might base something on a decision you think is slightly more reliable than not and it’s just a poker decision. Those are the kinds of things I think about when it comes to- 

Also, the interpersonal kind of things too like reading an audience better at work or something, those aren’t going to negatively impact their life. It’s just might be a way you slightly change something if you see something where that might be meaningful. Those are my thoughts about the practical benefit in people’s day to day lives kind of thing.

Alan: I hope listeners listen this part because there is a lot of practical applications. There is two ways of answering your questions, I think. One is with the explanation and one with an anecdote. I will start with the explanation. We need to understand which is the context of application of the knowledge you have on nonverbal communication. It’s not the same to apply it on the court on the judicial system than applying it in a conversation with a friend during a regular beer or at an interview with a colleague or a presentation when you are explaining the profits of the organization. It’s not the same. Because the consequences of the decisions you take are not going to be equal. 

So, I will argue that we need to consider what we know for a fact, what’s the science behind all what we know on nonverbal communication. If you understand not everything that has been published, but the holistic approach on the theories and the advances we have, I will argue that we are not able yet, based on the empirical evidence, to make judicial judgments based on nonverbal communication. Make [unintelligible] judgments on this is not the best way to proceed. 

There was a debate between Adler [unintelligible] which is the most known publisher article researcher on lie detection. I think he has over 200 articles, which is impressive, to say the least and Vincent Denault a colleague and a friend of mine from Canada. The first one argues that nonverbal communication is so ambiguous that you better forget it or don’t use it in the court, because it leads to worst lie detection. Vincent argues that thinking behavior is only useful for lying or for detecting lies or veracity is a way of really reducing the problem. Because behavior can talk or at least show information that is available for interpretation on personality, emotions, cognitions, attitudes, what we have told today. 

So you can use it to try to make up your mind to think about the person, but using it as a certified way of saying that you know what the person is feeling or thinking based on his face, he’s not feeling guilty. That is the problem. You could say that there is a probability to me that that behaviors are not related to feeling guilty. But you need to leave out some probabilities for making errors. Because we are error prone, we have lots of biases of, for instance, the Dunning-Kruger effect. For the pseudo experts it’s very common. The least they know, the more bolder assertions. But also, the expectancy bias, the confirmation bias that if we want to feel that the person is guilty, you are going to find the gestures that will at least show something related to them. 

I think that we need to be very careful to understand the consequence, also the literature and based on that, decide where are you going to apply this content. I apply it. I apply it to nonverbal communication every day of my life. I cannot take it out of my tools of communication. 

This happens to me yesterday. Yesterday was my birthday. I went to buy some books as a way of thanking or celebrating. I want books. I went to a bookstore for the first time. I didn’t know the person that worked there. That’s a huge important point. We started talking, and I spent 10 minutes talking about how was his work, how did he know that the book I was looking for was not here and the editorial could not bring it today, or they didn’t have it and it didn’t sell well. I was trying to look for a Robert Cialdini book. 

After a while, I decided to buy another books, two of Steven Pinker. We started talking about psychology and I spent 40 minutes talking with the owner of this bookstore. He started explaining to me his whole life, his recent separation, his divorce, his future, his mental health problems. He showed me photographs of his latest trips to Brazil and so a lot of things. But all this was possible because I understood that he had a certain kind of communication more dominant and I adjust myself to complement that with a nonverbal behavior of more submissive and open stance of listening. 

With time, and this is the crazy thing, he asked his daughter to go buy a cake to celebrate my birthday. So 15 minutes later, we were gathered, the three or four we were there, and they chanted, they sing Happy Birthday without knowing my name and we eat a cake together. I think that if I hadn’t applied nonverbal communication skills, which is not a way of trying to gain the upper hand, I was trying to have a good conversation, trying to understand who he was, what his problems were, and have a better understanding of him and connecting and we ended up in an impressive and very strange position. 

But these things, sometimes not always of course, happens to me because of how I do apply nonverbal communication. I am not saying this is the science. I know the literature. I know there are some constants. I think we need to look for constants rather than laws of behavior. There is no law of gravity in nonverbal communication. You need to look for constant tendencies. I know for a fact that when you compliment the behaviors of others, there’s usually more amicable interactions. Even with chimpanzees when there is an alpha and a beta interacting, this displays activities, the submissive signals tend to reduce the stress of the conversation. 

So I apply it with the purpose of connecting with other people. This is not the first time it happens to me. I want people to understand that you can improve your relationships with nonverbal communication, usually not with a simplistic approach of looking for these subtle gestures, the adapters or the unconscious gestures or microexpressions, you are improving your skills, your expressive skills and your sensitivity or interpersonal skills. It takes time. 

As you explained it, I think in other words, sometimes you need to use your intuition. But intuition only works if it’s trained. Intuition by intuition itself it’s good and it is not good. But if you train yourself, you’re going to be able to take quick decisions with your intuition. That’s, for instance, what firefighters that have 30 years of experience know when there is something amiss. I recall an example I think it was from David Epstein’s book Range, marvelous book, read it, how generalists triumph in a specialized world, that a firefighter noted that there was not enough heat or warmth in the department they were at the moment. He decided to tell his colleagues, “Let’s go out now.” 

A couple of seconds later, the floor of the department collapsed because the fire came from below. He’d made an intuitive call. He didn’t thought about it. He knew based on his experience or knowledge on the matter and took that decision as quickly as he could. Well, with nonverbal communication, you need to train your intuition to make these kinds of calls. You’re going to get a lot of misses, but you’re also going to get a lot of hits.

Zach: Yeah, I think you’ve brought up some great points that I want to touch on a couple of them. I think there can be skepticism from people about using interpreting behavior. In social or interpersonal situations, some people can have the skeptical opinion of there’s something exploitative about that or something unnatural, but I think it’s missing the point that adjusting ourselves to other people’s mood and matching their mood and being attuned to them is just something we do as humans. For example, if a friend comes to you and they’re in a sad mood, you don’t talk in a happy mood, you match their motion. It’s not like there’s something exploitative. It’s more just amplifying something we already do. 

A little bit of conscious training on these things isn’t really any qualitatively different than the random unconscious training that we learned growing up, because we’ve learned some of these things through socialization and our parents and such and it’s just accentuating a little bit more of that human ability that we have. I think that’s important because I think some people can look at the behavior bullshitters of the world and think, “Well, I don’t want to be like them.” But that’s missing the nuance. It’s taking a polarized view of the situation where there are some major bullshitters out there that focus on exploitative things and use bad information. There’s also a range of skills that you can accentuate in yourself to get better at connecting with people, to get better at reading people. I did want to mention that. 

I also want to say your focus on the consequences of your actions is very important. For example, if I’m sitting with a colleague and I get a sense through reading their body language that they’re repressing some anger towards me that they’re angry with me, upset with me and I changed my approach to them or my conversation with them based on that, there’s not really a big downside of that. If anything, I’m going to be more friendly to them or something more accommodating. It’s not the same as if I was interviewing someone and I decided to base a decision on whether to hire them or not based on some small piece of nonverbal information that has big consequences. You should be very humble about- You should think about the consequences of your decisions and basing them on small pieces of information. 

So I think that’s a very important point because I think that’s where things go wrong is people taking these ideas and applying them in situations where they really do have big effects on people, whether interviews, interrogations, TSA kind of stuff, security kind of stuff versus recognizing that there’s a lot of variance there and we should be humble and aware of the complexity in these scenarios. Yeah.

Alan: Two things are very important, motifs, the reasons why people use this knowledge or skills. Secondly, it happens to me quite several times that people tell me, “Hey, I’ve told you a lot of things and I usually don’t speak about these things.” It’s like, yeah, I know. Because gestures and behaviors are windows of opportunity. If you intervene with a good question about them, not mentioning, “Hey, I have seen you frowning and you may be angry.” No, no, that doesn’t work. Almost never. Maybe just maybe in psychotherapy, depending on how you approach your patients. But usually, the best way to proceed is indirectly saying something like, “Hey,” if you see a gesture of impatience you may say, “I have been talking like for 10 minutes. Why don’t you share with me what you think?” That’s a window of opportunity. 

If you choose the correct or a good intervention, verbal intervention is like a key for a lock. It opens new spaces of conversations that you weren’t allowed to enter if you haven’t seen the behavior and use that intervention. 

In my experience, I will tell people to be very attentive on the signals and try to develop verbal skills also as well as nonverbal skills to improve the possibilities of the conversations you have. The thing is going to happen to you, it happened to me and I have seen it with my students, that people are going to feel better around you. That’s maybe one of the most important things that people want to spend more time with you and you enjoy spending time with them because they don’t feel they are being analyzed or scrutinized with the eyes and… No, no. If you see something, you’re going to try to use it to improve the conversation and improve your relationship. That’s I think the best thing we can try to aim with this knowledge. 

Zach: That was behavior expert Alan Crawley, who goes by the handle ‘Sin verba’ online. You can learn more about him at his website He’s also got an Instagram channel, a youtube channel, and a Twitter account under his sinverba handle. Most of Alan’s content is in Spanish, but one great video he has in English is titled The Facial Expression of Cognitive States. I’ll include some links to Alan’s sites and accounts on my website, in the blog post entry for this episode.

This has been the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zach Elwood. You can learn more about this podcast at If you like this podcast, please share it with your friends and family. The more listeners this podcast get, the more I’m encouraged to do more interviews. 

Thanks for listening.