Two very different testimonies were on display Thursday before the Senate Judicial Committee. According to Laura Dudley, a Northeastern clinical professor and behavioral analyst who was watching the proceedings, Christine Blasey Ford’s body language revealed deep personal trauma. Brett Kavanaugh’s expressed underlying anger.
Ford testified Thursday morning in response to allegations she made that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were both in high school.
Her allegations were refuted unequivocally by Kavanaugh, and President Trump prior to the hearing dismissed Ford’s story as a “con job” orchestrated by Democratic leaders to block Kavanaugh’s confirmation.
Body language is a type of nonverbal communication through which physical behavior can provide insight about a person’s internal emotions. Body language analysis isn’t an exact science, because it’s impossible to know a person’s private thoughts with 100 percent certainty. But Ford and Kavanaugh acted very differently while testifying. What can we learn?
Dudley said there’s evidence that Ford was as terrified as she said she was in her opening statement.
Dudley noticed three moments during which Ford displayed strong emotional responses. Each occurred while she was recounting the traumatic events in question and the vitriolic response she’s received online and in person from opponents since her name became public.
Ford’s voice shook and she took deep breaths, Dudley noted.
“These emotional responses appear to me to be respondent behavior,” Dudley said. “Her emotions are elicited by the events she’s recounting. What I saw was consistent with someone who is terrified: rapid breathing and a shaky voice. These are behaviors that suggest that she’s having an emotional response to recounting an experience.”
Respondent behavior is reflexive behavior, Dudley said. “An example is when you hear a loud noise and jump; these are behaviors that we can’t really control and therefore they can sometimes tell us how someone is feeling.”
Kavanaugh, too, seemed to engage in emotional responses throughout his testimony.
“From his very first sentence, he appeared to be yelling, which I interpreted to reflect underlying anger,” Dudley said. “In fact, he expressed verbally that he was upset by the allegations by Dr. Ford and by the impact it had on his family.”
Dudley noted other nonverbal behaviors that indicated Kavanaugh was angry: He furrowed his eyebrows, scrunched his nose, and pursed his lips.
“If you were watching a video of Brett Kavanaugh’s remarks and paused it at any time, you likely ended up with a still photo of him in an angry or tense pose on your screen,” she said.
Dudley cautioned, however, that assessing body language always comes with a measure of doubt.
“Sometimes body language can be deceiving, especially from people who have a lot of experience speaking in public,” she said.