Body language

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One of the best empirical studies of body language that I've ever seen appeared a couple of days ago in, of all places, the Wall Street Journal — Geoff Foster, "Reading Tiger's Body Language", 8/6/2013.

Perhaps more than any other golfer, Woods makes his emotions transparent on the course. You can immediately tell by his swagger when he's stroked a drive down the fairway. If he flubs one into the trees, you will likely see (or hear) his disgust before the ball hits a branch.

This inspired The Count to conduct an audit of the top-ranked golfer's body language. The goal was to provide fans with a Rosetta Stone of Tiger reactions—a handbook allowing those watching the PGA to know exactly what Woods thinks of his shots before anyone else does.

We watched more than 220 of Woods's shots from six different tournaments this year—the Masters, the Players, the Memorial, the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, the U.S. Open and the British Open—and logged his reaction after each swing. Only tee shots and approach shots were evaluated (on putts and chips, the cameras tend to show the ball, not the player). The shots were then classified as "Good" (down the fairway/near the pin), "OK" (in the first cut/on the green but not close to the hole) and "Bad" (in the trees, the bunkers, the deep rough, etc.).

Here's Foster's table of results:

The great thing about this context is that there's a good inter-subjective evaluation of the subject's affect in the current context, and so I hope to see more studies in the future of tee-shot body language.

A smaller but even more unexpected body-language study was mentioned yesterday in President Obama's press conference.

Q:  Can you get stuff done with Russia, big stuff done, without having a good personal relationship with Putin?

A: I don’t have a bad personal relationship with Putin. When we have conversations, they’re candid, they’re blunt; oftentimes, they’re constructive. I know the press likes to focus on body language and he’s got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom. But the truth is, is that when we’re in conversations together, oftentimes it’s very productive.

In pictures of the two men together, in fact, neither one usually looks very happy, as here:

or here:

And it's true that the press has commented on this, as in this captioning of one of those pictures:

You can make your own comparative evaluation of pictures of Bush 43 and Putin.


  1. D.O. said,

    August 10, 2013 @ 10:15 am

    Obama-Medvedev photographs seem to be of a happier kind too…

  2. edith2789 said,

    August 10, 2013 @ 4:34 pm

    In all fairness, in the second photo Obama is doing his 'Not bad!" face.

  3. RobertL said,

    August 10, 2013 @ 10:49 pm

    The "club held high" may not fit in that list. My first reaction on seeing it there was that a club held high indicates that Tiger had just tried to hit a fade. That is, he had tried to hit a shot where the ball curved from left to right in the air. When a golfer hits a fade that's how the club ends up at the end of the follow through.

    It doesn't necessarily mean anything in relation to his body language.

  4. Terry Hunt said,

    August 12, 2013 @ 11:02 am

    Regarding statistical-ish interpretations of Obama/Putin photos, I think one would have to be very wary of media bias in choosing which pictures get published out of the very much larger number that are actually taken, which by capturing instants will likely run a wide gamut of only apparently meaningful expressions, postures etc.

    Out of a large selection of pictures of any human subjects, it's easy to select ones which tend to reinforce any message that the media wishes to convey: were said media wanting to suggest a good or improving relationship between these two leaders or their nations, I'd bet that pictures suggesting much more congeniality would be being published.

    I've previously noticed a similar tendency with published pictures of arrested or pre-arrested suspects in criminal cases such as abductions and murders. While the "pre-trial by media" is in progress, these often suggest the subject is sinister or weird, but should the suspect be exonerated, subsequent pictures usually show a rather more normal-looking individual.

  5. Chris C. said,

    August 12, 2013 @ 5:35 pm

    I agree with Edith on Obama's face in that one pic. Also, I can't recall any pictures of Putin where he looks particularly happy, unless its one of his staged demonstrations of machismo.

  6. Edgar said,

    August 13, 2013 @ 6:35 am

    In the second photo putin is like "how's my english?" Obama "not bad"

  7. Colin Fine said,

    August 15, 2013 @ 5:54 am

    In support of Terry Hunt: it very noticeable after Jimmy Saville began to be exposed that the press chose the creepiest photos of him.

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