Burning Down the House (in a Quarantine): Deciphering the Body Language of Talking Heads

A Guide to Conducting Research in the Age of Covid-19: Part 3

By David M. Schneer, Ph.D./CEO

In our last blog “Even in a Pandemic, No Man is an Island: How Remote Interviewing is Helping Clients (and Saving Market Research)”, we highlighted remote qualitative interviewing platforms that have become the lifeblood of the market research industry.

In part four of our series, we discuss what you can learn by closely examining the facial micro expressions of your research participants, colleagues, and video attendees.

As a body language master, trainer, and qualitative moderator, I can tell you that in-person interviewing yields significantly more information than remote methods for those who can decipher the cues, but phone and video remain powerful alternatives for quickly collecting many types of meaningful data—especially now.

“Thank God for ZOOM!” you cry! as the Queen of Soul belts out “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” Wait. What?  A calendar alarm barks, mocking you on your way to your next video chat. That tingling? Every fiber of your body is screaming to talk with someone—ANYONE—face-to-face. One choppy, echoey, meeting blends in with the next and you wonder what day it is. It really doesn’t matter because it’s 5:00pm everywhere now, and you’ve just been invited to…wait for it…A ZOOM PARTY! “Zoom Fatigue” has set in.[1]

So, what can you learn from a bunch of talking heads anyway? Quite a bit, actually. If your bandwidth is strong and you have a decent monitor, there is a very good chance that you’ll be able to see most, if not all, of the seven universal facial micro expressions: happiness, fear, anger, surprise, contempt, disgust, and sadness.

Why does that matter? Suppose you are showing a respondent a new prototype and at a certain point in the interview you ask, “So, what do you think?”

Then you see it. Like lightning before thunder, a quick signal of contempt flashes across the participant’s face—but what you hear is this: “It’s fine. I like it.” Your Spidey senses are tingling, so you probe for more context, and you see contempt again—but this time it’s coupled with a burst of disgust. That’s a good sign that your participant may be at odds with this stimulus.

Or you show a respondent an ad and you see a genuine Duchenne smile—not a curt social smile, but a smile that cracks a crinkle around the eyes. That’s a good sign that they really liked the stimulus. That’s genuine happiness.

Or, as depression and anxiety rise with the pandemic, you may see one of your research participants—or even colleagues—flash a sign of sadness. That might be a sign that they need some sort of relief or support.

While recognizing facial micro expressions can help discern emotional states, many of us have been taught to feign emotions to fool others. How? “Wipe that smile off of your face” or “look like you’re interested.” As a result, many of us are good at hiding emotions. But, while there is such a thing as a “Poker Face” (some people are just very good at hiding their emotions) former FBI Special Agent and Profiler Joe Navarro says there’s no such thing as a “Poker Body”.[2]

So, what should you look for in addition to facial micro expressions? Our next blog will go beyond Talking Heads and show you how to decipher cues between the torso to the neck. Meanwhile, stay safe.

Download our more in-depth comparison of the advantages and disadvantages of remote interviewing.

For additional information on COVID-19 visit the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Coronavirus information page.

[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/lifetime-connections/202004/zoom-fatigue-dont-let-video-meetings-zap-your-energy

[2] Navarro, Joe. 200 Poker Tells . Unknown. Kindle Edition.