Why Aren't We Saving the Planet?: A Psychologist's Perspective - Geoffrey Beattie (2010)

Part III. Notes on dissociation

Chapter 11. Speech and revealing movement

In order to make a first attempt at an answer here, we have to accept a major challenge and start thinking afresh about the very nature of everyday communication in which people express their underlying thoughts and ideas. After all, if we want to see the unconscious at work we must know where to look. When human beings talk, you will have noticed that they make many bodily movements, but in particular they make frequent (and largely unconscious) movements of the hands and arms. They do this in every possible situation – in face-to-face communication, on the telephone, even when the hands are below a desk and thus out of sight of their interlocutor (I have many recordings of these and similar occurrences). It is as if human beings are neurologically programmed to make these movements while they talk, and these visible movements would seem to be (in evolutionary terms) a good deal more primitive than speech itself, with language evolving on the back of them. These gestures are imagistic in form and closely integrated in time with the speech itself. They are called ‘iconic gestures’ because of their mode of representation. Words have an arbitrary relationship with the things they represent (and thus are ‘non-iconic’). Why do we call a particular object a ‘shoe’ or that large four-legged creature a ‘horse’? They could just as well be called something completely different (and, of course, they are called something completely different in other languages). But the unconscious gestural movements that we generate when we talk do not have this arbitrary relationship with the thing they are representing: their imagistic form somehow captures certain aspects of the thing that they are representing (hence they are called ‘iconic’) and there is a good deal of cross-cultural similarity in their actual form (see Beattie 2003, Chapter 6).

Just visualise someone speaking, when they are fully engrossed in what they are saying, in order to understand the essential connections here between speech and hand movement. Below is a speaker who seems pretty engrossed in what he is saying. It is taken from a clip on the internet. It is Steve Ballmer, the CEO of Microsoft, and he is talking in an interview about future development of the PC and other ‘intelligent edge devices’:

Steve: The PC is an important part of the [overall ecosystem] that people are using...

Steve: I think there’s gonna be [two places of innovation] for development over the next few years.

Iconic: Hands are close together, forming a sphere.

Iconic: Hands are closed into fists, a foot apart.

Figure 11.1 Examples of the iconic gestures that accompany talk.

Just look at the elaborate hand movements, drawing out images in the space in front of his body. These imagistic gestures do not merely ‘illustrate’ the content of the speech; rather they are a core part of the underlying message. Steve Ballmer does not say what he intends to say and then try to make it clearer with a gestural illustration, after a brief pause. Rather he uses speech and movement simultaneously; the movements and the words both derive from the same underlying mental representation at exactly the same time (actually the beginning of the gestural movement slightly precedes the speech so that the hands can be in exactly the

Steve: I think that [people got very excited], appropriately, about the internet, html and browsers.

Iconic: Hands start off in front of the body and make a fast sweeping motion to the right of the body.

Figure 11.2 Further examples of the iconic gestures that accompany talk.

right position to make the critical movement at the right time). That way the gestures are perfectly timed with the speech, and together with the speech they form a complete whole. The two systems are perfectly coordinated.

The gestures also seem to be generated without any conscious awareness. When people are talking they will know that their hands have just done something, that they have made some movement, but if you ask them to make the same gesture again they find it very difficult to do this, or if you ask them what exactly the gesture was communicating, they will say ‘I have no idea.’ Many gestures contain a complex of different images: when asked to repeat the movement, speakers may make a stab at repeating one of these. They will know where in front of their body they made the movement but usually this is about the only thing that they will get exactly right (unlike speech itself, which we are pretty accurate at repeating and reproducing).

It may seem strange, considering the emphasis now placed by some psychologists on the imagistic gestures that speakers generate unconsciously while they talk, that until quite recently the historical view regarding such gestures was that they constituted a system very much secondary to speech, only really useful in noisy or difficult environments and not very accurate or precise (see Kendon 2004 for an overview).

My favourite story about the lack of precision and base inaccuracy of gestural communication involves the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854 during the Crimean War. The Heavy Brigade of cavalry led by General James Scarlett had made an uphill charge against the Russians in the plain of Balaklava. Five hundred British horsemen were pitted against three thousand Cossacks, but the Heavies prevailed after fierce fighting, and the Russians began to retreat. Lord Raglan, the Commanding Officer of the British forces, watched from the vantage point of the Sapoune Heights as the Russians started to escape back up the North Valley, pulling their cannon with them. Raglan sent a series of orders to Lord Lucan, the Commander of the Light Brigade, telling him to attack the guns that the Russians were attempting to pull away from either side of the valley. But the only guns that Lucan could see were the heavy gun emplacements a mile down the valley, and it would have been suicidal to attack these (see the excellent description in Cummins 2008:199).

An hour and a half passed with Lucan attempting to get clarification from Raglan and Raglan becoming more and more impatient. Finally, fed up, Raglan dictated a note that read in part: ‘Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front – follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy from carrying away the guns.’ The note was given to a captain Lewis Edward Nolan, one of the finest young cavalry officers in the British army … Riding pell-mell down the steep cliff to the valley, he arrived in front of Lucan and impatiently delivered the message to attack the Russian guns.

Angered by Nolan’s arrogance, Lucan replied: ‘Attack, sir? Attack what? What guns, sir?’ And Nolan, instead of pointing at the guns along the Causeway, flung his arm in the direction of the Russian emplacements a mile and a quarter down the valley: ‘There, my lord, is your enemy, there are your guns!’ (Cummins 2008:199)

It was Lucan’s brother-in-law, James Thomas Brudenell, the seventh Earl of Cardigan, who received the order from Lord Lucan to lead the Light Brigade into the Valley of Death (an event, of course, immortalised in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famous poem ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’). Lucan was to follow with the Heavy Brigade. Cardigan was apparently heard to mutter, ‘Here goes the last of the Brudenells’ after he received his order. It was an extremely brave but foolhardy charge. Twenty minutes after the charge began only 195 out of 673 cavalrymen survived, and the whole thing would not have occurred without Captain Nolan’s infamous gesture.

The communication between Lords Raglan, Lucan and Cardigan was difficult for a number of reasons. They all had different perspectives on the valley: Raglan could see the whole thing unfold, Lucan and Cardigan could not see which guns Raglan was referring to. In addition, Lucan and Cardigan were feuding aristocrats (and feuding brothers-in-law who basically despised each other), so their relationship did not help the essential flow of the communication. So neither the physical nor what you might call the social context allowed for smooth communication here, and the whole communicational problem boiled down to what ‘the guns’ actually referred to. Nolan attempted to clarify ‘the guns’ with a gesture but the gesture was poorly formed, inaccurate and misconstrued (according to historical record). It was, thus, in many historians’ eyes, a single gesture that led to the Charge of the Light Brigade and the loss of so much life (as well as producing one of the most enduring and iconic images of the stiff upper lip of the British aristocracy in action, with Lord Cardigan leading his men bravely to what he thought was certain death, although he himself did survive).

So the historical view is that gestures are a poor form of communication, perhaps necessary in noisy or difficult environments (factories, talking to foreigners in one’s own language, heroic and tragic battles), but really only an add-on to speech, rather superfluous, and only really necessary when verbal language is itself stretched. The transformation of the way in which gestures are viewed began with the pioneering and influential work of David McNeill (1985). Through his careful and painstaking analyses, McNeill demonstrated that this view is simply wrong. He showed that these gestures are an integral component of everyday communication in every context imaginable, a core part of the process of representing and communicating ideas, and in many ways every bit as significant as speech itself. He showed that if you want to understand a speaker’s underlying representation of an idea, then you need to hear the speech and see the gesture (the fact that our interpretation of the gestural information is done unconsciously is neither here nor there). He showed that it is only when the two channels are combined that the full message of the speaker is successfully conveyed (see also Beattie 2003).

Figure 11.3 shows a very simple example from McNeill (1992:13) that demonstrates some of the basic principles underlying this everyday communication, which involves both speech and gesture. What this example from a cartoon narration reveals is that within the speech itself there are details of the ‘action’, ‘the characters involved’ and ‘the concept of recurrence of a chase’, yet there is no mention of any weapon being used in the pursuit. However, the

‘she chases [him out again]’

Iconic: Hand gripping an object swings from left to right.

Figure 11.3 McNeill’s example of a simple action sequence.

Source: McNeill, D. (1992) Hand and Mind. What Gestures Reveal About Thought. With permission by University of Chicago Press.

gesture used alongside the speech portrays the weapon being brandished and communicates effectively why one character is running from another. Of course, the speaker could have said ‘she chases him out again with an umbrella’ but didn’t. It is as if the brain is sending the message about what needs to be communicated to the speech system and the gestural system simultaneously and, therefore, in order to understand the core message both the gesture and the sentence must be taken into account by the recipient of the message.

As McNeill (2000:139) says, ‘To exclude the gesture side, as has been traditional, is tantamount to ignoring half of the message out of the brain.’ The critical point is that if the receiver attends only to the speech, they will be missing out on this additional information. While the speech and gesture in this example are obviously connected in terms of their semantic content, they are not identical. As such, this gesture is said to be ‘complementary’ to speech (McNeill and Duncan 2000).

Although speech and gesture may communicate, they operate very differently as semiotic systems. Figure 11.4 shows some pictures of a student talking about a table being raised towards the ceiling.

Once you start studying the sentence and the gesture, you can see some striking dissimilarities in how they function. Speech operates in a linear and segmented fashion, identifying what is being raised (‘the table’), the action (‘can be raised up’) and the direction of the action (‘towards the ceiling’), all sequentially in a linear and segmented way.

Figure 11.4 Gesture representing a table being raised towards the ceiling.

Figure 11.5 Multidimensional nature of the gesture.

The gesture is, however, multidimensional, representing the object, the movement, the speed and the direction simultaneously.

To understand speech we have to proceed in terms of bottom-up processing where we start with the individual words and interpret the meaning of words before trying to understand the sentence using both the word meanings and the syntax. Gesture operates much more in a top-down fashion. We need to understand that this particular gesture is representing a table moving upwards to be able to interpret that the hands wide apart are representing that it is a very large table and that the upward movement is telling us something about the speed of the movement of the table.

Speech also operates with individual words that have standards of form. If I use a word that you don’t recognise, you can ask me whether it is a proper word and what it means. But these gestures don’t have standards of form. They are not like sign languages of the deaf, nor are they like ‘emblems’, which are specifically coded gestural forms with a direct verbal translation (like the V sign meaning victory or the reverse V sign meaning f**k you). Both sign languages and emblems have standards of form: when

Figure 11.6 A famous V-sign: an emblem with standards of form.

Source: Bettmann-Corbis.

Margaret Thatcher famously gave a ‘V for Victory’ sign to a group of journalists after her 1979 General Election win, but with the back of the hand facing the journalists, they were in a position to query the exact message that she was sending (and apparently some of them did query it, but not with the great woman herself!). It could, of course, have been her unconscious desires breaking through into overt behaviour. She might have been telling the journalists exactly what she thought of them.

But the spontaneous imagistic gestures that accompany everyday talk do not have standards of form like this. You cannot stop someone mid-flow and ask them why they used a particular imagistic movement. With these movements human beings create meaning spontaneously and unconsciously for other human beings without the benefit of a dictionary, and they seem to do this effortlessly and extremely frequently.

Stemming from the initial research of McNeill, the role of gesture in communication is now being extensively studied, opening up a new field within psychology. Such research has consistently revealed that in order for the receiver to obtain the full meaning of an utterance, the two channels of communication need to be combined in order to form a more complete, overall representation of the message (Beattie and Shovelton 1999a, 1999b, 2001, 2002a, 2002b, 2006, 2009). So in one set of experiments we asked people to tell us what was going on in a set of cartoon stories and we filmed them telling these stories. We then played parts of their speech, with or without gestures, to another set of participants who were then quizzed about the original story (‘Was Billy sliding to the left?’). We found that where experimental participants were played either extracts of speech on their own or extracts of speech accompanied by the iconic gestures (played back on a video-screen), there was a clear advantage to seeing the gestures in addition to hearing the speech in terms of gaining information about the original stories (even though our participants often reported that they didn’t really notice the often small and insignificant gestures that occurred with the speech and weren’t aware of trying to decode them in any way). From these studies it became clear not only that significant information is encoded in the gestures that accompany speech, but also that receivers are able to decode this information successfully and quickly and combine this information with that encoded in the speech itself, and they are able to do this without any conscious awareness of where they got the information from.

There are, of course, clear practical applications of this theoretical perspective. If significant semantic information is naturally split between the speech and the gestural channels, is it most effective to communicate information about (say) a commercial product using both channels, and how effective are these gestures at communicating aspects of the product compared to other types of images? With Heather Shovelton (Beattie and Shovelton 2005) I applied this theoretical perspective to television advertising (with the financial support of Carlton Television) to see whether gestures were more effective at communicating certain core properties of a product than the kinds of images that advertisers might traditionally use. We made some specific ads to promote an imaginary, but plausible, fruit drink (indeed, so plausible was it that it subsequently came onto the market!). In the ad two characters talked to camera about a new fruit drink ‘F’ (‘with your five portions of fruit in one tiny little drink’). For one version of the ad, the speech– image advertisement, an advertising agency created its own images to convey three core properties of the product (freshness – juice sparkling on the fruit; everyone is drinking it – the Stun (sic) newspaper displaying the headline ‘Phwoar! Everyone’s drinking it’; the size of the bottle – the image of the actual bottle with respect to the hand), as shown in Figure 11.7.

For the other version of the ad, the speech–gesture advert, we included three iconic gestures that represented core aspects of the product, including: that the fruit was ‘fresh’ (hands together in front of chest, they move away from each other abruptly as fingers stretch and become wide apart), that ‘everyone’ was drinking it (right hand and arm move away from the body making a large sweeping movement) and the ‘size’ of bottle (hands move towards each other until they represent the size of the bottle), as shown in Figure 11.8. These gestures were selected on the basis of the fact that they were the kinds of unconscious movements that

Figure 11.7 Images representing ‘freshness’, ‘everyone’ and ‘size’.

Figure 11.8 Gestures representing ‘freshness’, ‘everyone’ and ‘size’.

people habitually make to represent these features when talking about these kinds of things. There tended to be a high degree of commonality in these representations across individuals (even without a dictionary of possible gestural representations to draw on).

We played these different versions of the ads to two independent groups of participants, and discovered that the use of speech and gesture together (including both the concrete ‘iconic’ gesture for ‘size’ and the more abstract ‘metaphoric’ gestures for ‘freshness’ and ‘everyone’) were more effective at communicating the core semantic features of the product than the speech and image version. So, it turns out that not only are these gestures highly informative, they are significantly more informative than other types of images that we might select (consciously and deliberately and with great creative thought) to represent core aspects of the product.

What is also interesting about the relationship between gestures and speech is that listeners interpret the gestures, and extract the critical information contained within them, without any apparent conscious awareness. Ask them afterwards how they managed to pick up the critical details when they are only contained within the accompanying gestural movements, and generally speaking they don’t have a clue. They normally seem to assume that the speaker included that information in the speech itself, and only in the speech (‘there was someone waving his hand about, but I didn’t pay too much attention to that’ is a fairly common response).

However, there are times in everyday conversation where the speech and gesture channels do not gel in the normal way but rather the two channels may appear to contradict one another; this has become known as a ‘gesture–speech mismatch’ (Church and Goldin-Meadow 1986). Mismatches may occur for a variety of reasons. I have argued elsewhere that they occur when a speaker is trying to conceal critical information from a listener (see Beattie 2003). The basic idea here is that speakers control and edit their speech (because it is a conscious and reflective medium) when they are trying to tell a lie, but since they have less conscious control over their imagistic gesture, the spontaneous imagistic gesture emerges untarnished and reveals their underlying thought regardless. Hence, on occasion we find gestures and speech that do not match because the speech has been changed; the gesture has not.

Here are some examples of gesture–speech mismatches from various television programmes that I have worked on (Beattie, Big Brother 2000–2009, Channel 4, UK; Beattie, The Body Politic on News at Ten Thirty, 2005, ITV, UK) with a possible explanation of why they occurred in the first place. The first example comes from one of the housemates, Adele, in the UK’s Big Brother Series 3. Here Adele is asked by the anonymous voice of ‘Big Brother’ who she thinks will be evicted by the public vote that evening. She uses a list structure (see Jefferson 1990) to give the order of who she thinks will go, starting with a contestant called Jade (soon to become very famous but who has since tragically died of cancer), then herself, then Jonny, then Kate. In other words, in her speech she is saying that she herself is very likely to be evicted from the Big Brother house (she is saying, in effect, that she thinks she is in second position to Jade, and therefore has a high probability of going). But her gesture seems to be communicating something quite different here, as described in Figure 11.9.

One hand (the left hand) represents Jade, the right hand represents herself and the other two contestants (the square brackets indicate the start and end points of the meaningful part of the gesture, the so-called stroke phase). The gesture shows that she actually thinks that Jade is by far the most likely to be evicted from the house and that the other three (represented by a different hand, indicating considerable psychological distance between Jade going and the other three) are all safe. This interpretation is supported by the fact that when Adele was actually evicted that very evening, she was genuinely surprised by her eviction and the public vote. This is a gesture–speech mismatch because the speech seems to imply that she thought that she was likely to be evicted; the gesture does not show this.

The second example of a gesture–speech mismatch comes from the UK’s Celebrity Big Brother Series 2, and involves a well-known comedian called Les Dennis. Here, Les was the only housemate in a position to nominate for the forthcoming eviction (because he got zero on a Big Brother quiz) and he was explaining to Big Brother why the situation that he was in was so difficult for him. It’s important to remember that he knew that he wouldn’t have looked so good to the great British public if he had said it was going to be

Adele: [So Jade, then me, then Jonny, then Kate], I think that’s the order.

Iconic: Hands and arms are wide apart and resting on the arms of a chair. Left hand rises slightly with index finger pointing forwards as she says ‘Jade’. Right hand then rises slightly as she says ‘then me’, index finger points forwards, finger moves slowly to the right and as it does so it makes three slight up-and-down movements.

Figure 11.9 Adele’s gestures revealing what she is actually thinking.

easy to make the nominations (‘what a heartless man!’). This was his essential dilemma. So while Les was saying in his speech that the housemates were all really close (thus making it very difficult to nominate any of them), his gestures would suggest a very different interpretation. You would expect that if Les did, in fact, think the housemates were really close then his hands would have been much closer together during the generation of the gesture, reflecting this degree of closeness (because people do use positioning in the gestural space in front of the body in a consistent and meaningful way). However, in the critical gesture the hands were much further apart than one would expect, indicating that the housemates were not as close as Les was suggesting in his speech. Indeed the gesture was away from the other hand and away from the body. The hands were, in fact, signalling a significant psychological or emotional distance between the housemates, as described in Figure 11.10. Talking to Les, after the show was over, suggested that this interpretation was correct.

I have also identified mismatches in the talk of many politicians, including speeches of Tony Blair (then Prime Minister of the UK). In one particular speech (at the launch of the Labour manifesto in the run-up to the General Election in 2005), Blair was talking about possible rises in

Les: We [are all six of us, very, very, close]

Metaphoric: Left hand is in front of left shoulder, palm is pointing forwards and fingers are straight and apart. Hand moves quickly to the left away from the body and then moves quickly back to its position in front of shoulder. This whole movement is repeated twice. The first half of the movement is then produced for a third time and the hand now remains away from the body.

[really close]

Metaphoric: Hands are wide apart, palms point towards each other. Hands move rapidly towards each other to an area in front of stomach but hands don’t touch – they stop when they are about six inches apart.

Figure 11.10 Les’ gestures indicate a psychological distance between the housemates.

National Insurance contributions to fund developments in the NHS in the next Parliament, if Labour were to be returned to power. At the beginning of the sentence, Blair sweeps his left hand from the left side of his body to the centre position of his body as he talks about rises in National Insurance contributions in the last Parliament. He then says that these rises will continue to fund developments in the NHS through the next Parliament. One would expect the gesture to continue moving across the body, signalling this continuation. However, instead of continuing to move across the body, the hand stops halfway across the body when he says ‘last Parliament’ and rather unnaturally sticks there, as shown in Figure 11.11.

The abrupt halt of the accompanying gesture may be interpreted as an indication that Tony Blair did not genuinely feel that those past rises would be enough to continue to fund NHS development in the succeeding period of Parliament.

I argue that in each of these examples people may be revealing what they are actually thinking (see Beattie 2003). While the speech can be consciously edited and controlled, the gestures are difficult, if not impossible, to edit or control in real time, and so the true thoughts and feelings of the speaker may become manifest in the gesture.

Tony Blair: ‘[Rises in National Insurance contributions funded development in the NHS right through the last Parliament] and will continue to fund them through the next Parliament.

Figure 11.11 Tony Blair’s gesture–speech mismatch.

Source: ITN Source.

Although researchers have examined gesture–speech mismatches in situations like this, no one, thus far, has looked for gesture–speech mismatches where there is a clash between a person’s implicit and explicit attitudes. But we might well expect those whose implicit and explicit attitudes diverge to display some evidence of this in gesture–speech mismatches. In contrast, people whose attitudes converge should show a higher level of matching speech and gestures (although we might find some evidence of mismatches here which we will have to consider in detail: mismatches may, after all, occur for a variety of other reasons). Gesture– speech mismatches, thus, could potentially allow us to pinpoint individuals whose underlying attitudes are not conducive to green behaviour (regardless of what they actually say). This could prove extremely useful in the future; and also very embarrassing to the likes of me, who might well fit into this group of non-congruent fakers.