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The other day I was browsing the TMZ website and they had a section that had pictures of celebrity couples being analyzed by a "body language expert". In essence, the guy was supposedly telling if these couples were really having a good time together or were just pretending for the cameras.

So I'm wondering how much can you really tell from a still picture rather than a short move clip? I feel highly suspicious on this one. I think it's like having a picture taken of you precisely when you're blinking and appear in the picture with a sleepy / stupid face.

Can there possibly be any validity to those analysis? Is there any branch of psychology that specializes in this sort of thing?

  • See, the problem here is that you were browsing TMZ... – T. Sar May 20 '17 at 22:42
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There some research that suggests that we can tell the difference between real and fake smiles through pictures.

Someone who pretends to feel an emotion usually isn't able to organize the dozens of muscles that are involved in the way the would be activated when he would feel the real emotion.

I would however be very wary of an attempt to extrapolate whether a couple pretends to feel an emotion in the moment of a photo shot on the general health of their relationship.

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You're right to be suspicious. While there are obviously studies of "body language", it's impossible to judge accurately from one photograph, or even a short video, how someone is genuinely feeling. Especially to the degree that you describe: Is a person genuinely having a good time, or are they posing for the cameras?

Even if that person wasn't having a good time, it's impossible to say why, without asking them.

Think of it as someone taking a photograph of your face in mid conversation. You may look serious as you listen to what someone is saying. You may laugh if they say something funny. But could anyone really accurately state what your feelings were about the situation?

In short: It's impossible to say with certainty what someone is feeling by their body language.

Reference: The Truth Behind the Smile and Other Myths - When Body Language Lies, Harvard, 2002

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  • -1 Facial microexpressions do betray one's true feelings, no matter how hard they try to conceal them, according to studies, such as this one: Porter - Reading between the lies: identifying concealed and falsified emotions in universal facial expression (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18466413) – luvieere May 25 '11 at 5:16
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    What does that have to do with reading someone's expression from a photograph? A micro-expression cannot be gleaned without having something to compare it to. Also, it still remains impossible to say for sure WHY someone is feeling a certain way without asking them. Just because a micro-expression reveals someone is scared, doesn't explain WHY. In response to the original question: It's impossible to say if there person is "posing for the cameras", even if it's possible to show they're uncomfortable. In the future you should read something properly before you downvote it. – Django Reinhardt May 25 '11 at 13:08
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    @luvieere Maybe, but how do you distinguish, in a photograph still, the scowl of someone who secretly loathes the person they are smiling to, and the beginning of a wincing squint from the photograph flash just a microsecond ago? Body language is a language of movement; a single frame is roughly as informative as a single letter says about the full sentence it's taken from. – Shadur May 19 '17 at 6:59
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    @luvieere No one is claiming that facial expressions can't be telling. They are questioning the validity of the so-called experts extrapolating a deep understanding of the inner workings of the mind and souls of people captured in an instant on film/image, without context. Someone forming a particular word, caught in a microsecond, could look like a scowl or a fake smile. What is deemed to be a phony smile might just be a real smile, caught before all the muscles are engaged. I think you are down-voting based on one sentence of a much fuller answer. – PoloHoleSet May 19 '17 at 13:47

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