What’s In a Face (or Body)? The Fundamental Attribution Error in Nonverbal Decoding


Some of us think we’re pretty good at reading other people just from how they look, as in TV crime dramas like Lie to Me and Mentalist. Indeed some of us are better than others at nonverbal decoding.

But being better than others is a comparative statement and does not mean being accurate in an absolute sense. Indeed, according to mind-reading researcher William Ickes, we can mind-read strangers with about 20% accuracy (on average). We can mind-read friends and spouses up to about 35% (Paul, 2007). Better than 0%, but not very impressive.

The nonverbal-decoding literature is massive and diverse, but let me provide a few more sample results.

In a study on flirting, only about 27% of participants correctly judged when they were being flirted with (36% of men; 18% of women) (Wenzl, 2014). People can detect deception with about 54% accuracy (Bond & DePaulo, 2006), but there’s a 50-50 chance of guessing correctly.


In that infamous case of a gaydar study based on viewing faces, Rule and Ambady (2008) reported that participants were correct 52% of the time and called those participants “accurate” despite, again, a 50-50 chance of guessing correctly (see my April 19 post on How to Reduce Biases). (!)

Even Ellen DeGeneres got in on this gaydar issue when she downplayed a gaydar study showing a 60% accuracy rate. She claimed that 60% of the time she also knows which Olsen twin she’s talking to (Lambe, 2012).

To address the unimpressive accuracy rates in facial decoding, there have been some common recommendations:

“A possible way forward is to abandon the assumption that faces have any essential meaning that applies without reference to the context of their use.” (Parkinson, 2005)

“Facial expressions of emotions are inherently ambiguous… So although it seems to us that in ‘real life’ we see faces as angry, fearful, and so forth, it is not the faces that we see, it is face-context combinations.” (Hassin et al., 2013)

Context. Right. Can’t forget about the context. That is also the message from research on the fundamental attribution error or FAE. In the FAE, people underestimate the context in trying to understand each other. And there’s no reason that this research should not apply to nonverbal decoding.

Someone might show certain nonverbals not only because of underlying emotions or personal attitudes or traits but also (if not entirely) because of something in the situation or context. There are countless examples…

1. One is much more likely to smile with others around than while alone, independent of feeling happy (Fernández-Dols & Crivelli, 2013).

2. Someone’s culture can dictate certain nonverbal cues so much that they would be unreadable to someone from another culture (Bond et al., 1990).

3. Being “in the hot seat” can make truth tellers so nervous about being believed that they will exhibit nonverbal cues commonly believed to reflect lying (O’Sullivan, 2003).

parrot4. Your own nonverbal behaviors as the observer can cause similar behaviors in the people you observe through a process of unconscious mimicry (Likowski et al., 2012).

Bottom line: Try not to think that you can “know” somebody just from looking at them. I know it probably sounds pretty obvious when I say it that way. Kind of sounds like, “don’t use stereotypes to judge people” or “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Duh, right?

What I am trying to say that is less obvious is that the FAE is one of the many reasons why we should not trust our instincts in mind-reading each other. The FAE is one of the many reasons that the accuracy rates in nonverbal decoding are not very high (even if statistically significant).

Make your best guess about people based on their appearances if you have to, but remember it’s just a “best guess.” Decades of research on the FAE and stereotyping strongly suggest caution and humility in this practice.



Bond, C. F., Jr., & DePaulo, B. M. (2006). Accuracy of deception judgments. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10, 214-234.

Bond, C. F., Jr., Omar, A., Mahmoud, A., & Bonser, R. N. (1990). Lie detection across cultures. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 14, 189-204.

Fernández-Dols, J. M., & Crivelli, C. (2013). Emotion and expression: Naturalistic studies. Emotion Review, 5, 24-29.

Hassin, R. R., Aviezer, H., & Bentin, S. (2013). Inherently ambiguous: Facial expressions of emotions, in context. Emotion Review, 5, 60-65.

Lambe, S. (2012, November 15). Ellen DeGeneres takes on gaydar study. BuzzFeed Community. [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.buzzfeed.com/stacylambe/ellen-degeneres-takes-on-gaydar-study

Likowski, K. U., Mühlberger, A., Gerdes, A. B., Wieser, M. J., Pauli, P., & Weyers, P. (2012). Facial mimicry and the mirror neuron system: Simultaneous acquisition of facial electromyography and functional magnetic resonance imaging. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6, 1-10.

O’Sullivan, M. (2003). The fundamental attribution error in detecting deception: The boy-who-cried-wolf effect. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 1316-1327.

Parkinson, B. (2005). Do facial movements express emotions or communicate motives? Personality and Social Psychology Review, 9, 278-311.

Paul, A. M. (2007, September 1). Mind Reading. Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200708/mind-reading

Rule, N. O., & Ambady, N. (2008). Brief exposures: Male sexual orientation is accurately perceived at 50 ms. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 1100-1105.

Wenzl, R. (2014, June 4). KU researcher studies flirting. The Wichita Eagle. Retrieved from http://www.kansas.com/2014/06/04/3491804/ku-researcher-studies-flirting.html



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