Emblematic Slips

September 7, 2016

I don’t use the term gesture because it is too imprecise. Instead, I distinguish three very different ways in which movements (usually of the hands, but sometimes of the head or shoulders) provide information.

  • Illustrators is a term I coined for those movements that occur during speech as it is spoken: tracing the flow of thought, providing emphasis, making an action the speech is referring to, showing a spatial relationship or drawing a picture in the air. There are ethnic and cultural differences in the type of illustrator shown and individual differences in the frequency of illustrators. In English speaking cultures, illustrators increase with enthusiasm and involvement in what is being said, and listeners are attentive to people when they illustrate. We have not studied illustrators in other cultures so I don’t know if this applies, but suspect it might.

  • Manipulators is a term I use in which one body part (usually the hand) manipulates another body part (the other hand, hair, some part of the face or an object). Manipulators include a variety of actions: scratching, picking, squeezing, twisting, tapping, grooming and so forth. Manipulators increase with discomfort, but they also occur when people are relaxed (letting their hair down). There are large individual differences in what way and how often people show manipulators. Mistakenly, observers infer someone is untrustworthy or lying if they frequently show manipulators, but our findings do not support that judgment.

  • Emblems is a term used by the pioneer in the study of gestures, David Efron, for movements that have a precise meaning known by all members of an ethnic group, sub-culture, or culture. Emblems typically signal messages just as deliberately and consciously as the words that are spoken. Sometimes they are used instead of words, especially when there is a need for silence, as between hunters or playgoers at different locations in an audience. During speech, emblems can replace or repeat a word.

Sometimes when people believe they should not or cannot reveal something they are thinking, emblematic slips occur. These slips reveal information the person wants to conceal, often without their knowledge that they are doing so. When that occurs, only a fragment of the emblem may be shown and often it is outside of what I have called the presentation position, the space right in front of the person’s chest or face.

The emblematic slip I have seen most often in my research on lying is a fragment of the shrug emblem, denoting ‘inability’, or ‘I don’t know’. In Darwin’s book on expression, “The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals,” the shrug is shown with the palms up; often they are rotated in this position. The shrug may also be shown with raising the shoulders and dropping them. There is another version of the shrug that can be seen in the lips and forehead. It is also possible to show all three components: the hands palm up and rotating, the shoulders raised and dropped, and the lip and forehead movement.

Here is Darwin’s description of the shrug:

“When a man wishes to show that he cannot do something, or prevent something being done, he often raises with a quick movement both shoulders. At the same time, if the whole gesture is completed, he bends his elbows closely inwards, raises his open hands, turning them outwards, with the fingers separated. The head is often thrown a little on one side; the eyebrows are elevated, and this causes wrinkles across the forehead. The mouth is generally opened. … The gesture varies in all degrees from the complex movement, just described to only a momentary and scarcely perceptible raising of both shoulders; or, as I have noticed in a lady sitting in an armchair, to the mere turning slightly outwards of the open hands with separated fingers. … It accompanies such speeches as, “It was not my fault’; ‘It is impossible for me to grant this favour’. … As shrugging the shoulders generally implies ‘I cannot do this or that’, so by a slight change, it sometimes implies ‘I won’t do it’”.

Darwin believed that this gesture was innate. It was reported in many diverse cultures and was observed in the blind and deaf Laura Bridgman.

We have observed some fragment of the shrug, a slight rotation of one hand or slight raising of just one shoulder, in conversations that suggest a contradiction to what the person is actually saying – I have called this inconsistency a hot spot – which needs to be investigated further. It typically directly contradicts the confidence, certainty or affirmation that occurs in the speaker’s words or behavior. It has proven to be the most valuable signal that a person is lying, but it does not always occur during deception. As with other signs of lying we have discovered, its absence means nothing, though its presence is revealing.

A third emblematic slip we have found is a very tiny fragment of the head shake ‘no’ or head nod ‘yes’, directly contradicting the words that are spoken.


Dr. Paul Ekman is a well known psychologist and co-discoverer of micro expressions. He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2009. He has worked with many government agencies, domestic and abroad. Dr. Ekman has compiled over 40 years of his research to create comprehensive training tools to read the hidden emotions of those around you. To learn more, please visit: www.paulekman.com.