Psychology research has shown the power of body language to influence the mind. It can be used to convey messages which seriously impact a person’s perception, ideas and beliefs. Is it surprising then, that world leaders have been briefed to use this knowledge to promote their agendas and manipulate public responses to their public appearances?
While some cultural differences can be observed, many types of body language and hand gestures are universal. For example, crossing your arms creates the impression that you are “closed off,” or defensive, while opening your arms up shows a willingness to listen with a positive attitude.
Body language naturally occurs without thinking about it, and there are thousands of tiny cues which can convey a broad range of emotions. For any knowing spectator watching these cues, they help to build a picture of the speaker’s intent. Are they trustworthy or hiding something? What are they thinking and what do they want from me? Etc. Most of this occurs in a person’s sub-conscious mind at a level where they have no conscious awareness of it, and yet a person’s body language and outward gestures can have an enormous impact on how they are perceived.
Con artists, for example, learn to use body language to make people trust them. They manufacture all of the physical cues they know will present an image of honesty, and even authority. This is where knowledge of body language can be used to defraud people, using a person’s sense of trust against them. Worse still, is the implication that world leaders armed with this knowledge deliberately alter their body language to manipulate public opinion.
Talk to the Hand
Take a look at the three photos above, as they have a couple of things in common. The first is that they are, or were, world leaders (US presidents to be precise), some of the most powerful individuals in the world. The second similarity is that they are all deliberately using the same hand signal when speaking – a closed fist with the thumb pointing outwards, which is an emphatic gesture that helps to assert a point without being over-dominating.
A coincidence? No, the reason that many politicians use the same hand gestures is because they have been briefed by advisors on how to manipulate an audience with body language, as have many leading politicians throughout the world. Pointing a finger at someone and punctuating each assertion with vigorous hand movements is naturally received as a confrontational overture. World leaders wish to appear reasonable, even when they may not be, and therefore practice the appropriate accompanying hand gesture while rehearsing speeches and public appearances. Any signals that can make the audience feel threatened or defensive are avoided unless the situation demands such an authoritative presence.
What about just keeping your hands by your side while giving a speech? No, that won’t work either. People do not talk with their hands by their sides, and this would seem “off” and most unusual. With this closed fist and pointed thumb, however, a leader can appear authoritative without being confrontational, all the while manipulating viewers into feeling they are dealing with a reasonable person, when in fact they may be dealing with a sociopath.
In the following examples, open-handed gestures are aimed at crafting the perception that the public figure is welcoming, positive, and trustworthy.
This is merely the tip of the iceberg, and in addition to hand gestures, all manner of subtle body cues are used to assert psychological control over unwitting observers. As reported in Forbes,today’s leaders are being coached to ensure that their body language matches, or is “congruent” with, what they are saying. These gestures are most potent when delivered by the hands.
For example, when a speaker positions their hands palms up, they appear to be pleading and benign. When their palms are face down they are perceived as being more aggressive or authoritative. By simply alternating between these two gestures at key moments during speeches and interviews, a leader can affect the sub-conscious impression viewers have, dramatically affecting support for their cause or position.
These principals are described in greater detail by Psychology Professor Allan Pease, in the video below.
Coaching Leaders to Control Hearts & Minds
An entire industry has developed around teaching powerful individuals how to control opinion via body language and hand gesturing, and it isn’t just those who teach the effectiveness of body language who are reaping the rewards. The Pentagon has spent $300,000 every year since 2009 analyzing the body language of various world leaders, including Russian president Vladimir Putin. This, in itself, is an acknowledgement of how powerful body language is, and how important it can be in conveying messages. The military is using these observations to “get inside the mind” of various leaders, especially those they cannot have direct diplomatic ties with.
More than this, body language is being used as a technique to shape opinions across the globe. Regardless of your political persuasion, being aware of how our leaders use psychology against us is key to understanding the true intent of their message.