Monday, January 12, 2009

What's psychology good for?

Dear Professor,

I'm a reporter at the Boston Globe, looking for someone to interview about the body language of politicians in a recent photo-op at the White House. (I have attached the photo to which I am referring.) Would you be able to speak about this subject matter? At your earliest convenience, I would like to ask you just a few pointed questions over the phone. I'm doing research for a story in the Globe's Ideas section about the significance of the presidents' body language in the photo - what each man's hand placement, stance, positioning, etc says about him and about the context/significance of the event.

I'm disheartened and dismayed. Is this what psychologists are good for? This reporter may as well have been asking me about handwriting analysis --crunched, angular lettering suggests an anxiety prone obsessive, and big loops with dotted hearts signal openness and extroversion.

With all the great brain science research coming out, aren't we a little bit beyond fortune-cookie style thinking? Sure, there are statistical associations between body postures and attitudes, such as arms-crossed correlating with protective stance. But hand position? Scrutinizing momentary postures (hands-in-pockets vs. at side versus loosely held in front) for hints about "what it says about him" is not worthy of the "Ideas section" of a major newspaper, of a blog, or even cocktail party chat. It's just not what psychology is all about.

It takes about 3 seconds inspection of that photo to determine that "each man's hand placement, stance, positioning" was posed by the photographer using their special photography psychology. Thus, any psychologizing is not about the presidents, but is essentially about the impression-management goals/strategies of the handlers. Having all presidents' hands hanging in the same position wouldn't look right; it would be visually stilted and uninteresting. We could make a big stretch and speculate that the photographers wanted to emphasize the presidents' individuality -- but that's a speculation about the photographers' goals, not the personalities of the presidents.

Boston Globe Ideas section? Sure, I got ideas for your section. Big Ideas. Next time you email me, no Mickey-mouse stuff, okay?


HumanProject said...


I gave my spiel to the reporter about how the experts in nonverbal behavior who I know (or whose work I've read) would not draw conclusions about the personality or feelings of persons in a staged photo, or even from a single unstaged photo.

Reporter: So what would you say to the stories in the press where psychologists have made comments about the body language?

Me: I'm embarrassed for them, and for the field of psychology, because these statements don't reflect well on psychologists.

Silence. (Scribbling?)

Me: Uh... So, what kind of things did they talk about?

Reporter: Like, why Jimmy Carter is standing apart from the others and what it means that his hand is cupped.

Me: Jimmy Carter has a book called Palestine: Peace not Apartheid, and you want to talk about why his hand is cupped?

Anonymous said...

sooo true. Are you the traveling psych on Miss Conduct blog? What is a traveling psyche?

HumanProject said...

Hi Anonymous. Yes, I'm the "Traveling Psychologist" -- Miss Conduct picked that name for me about a year ago when I was sending her emails from my sabbatical in China.