Friday, April 13, 2012

Nonverbal Communication Analysis # 1548:
Trayvon Martin's Death -
George Zimmerman and his First Court Appearance

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George Zimmerman appeared in a Florida courtroom yesterday. He is being charged with second degree murder in the death of 17 year old Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman claims he acted in self-defense in what will be the most visible case to date of a "Stand Your Ground" Law in the U.S.

As Paul Ekman so very astutely has pointed out - when attempting to judge someone's guilt or innocence, we must (among many other things) be very aware of what he calls the "Othello Error". This mistake may occur when those who are the "lie detectors" or "deceit prosecutors" - don't take into account that a person who is telling the truth is also experiencing anxiety - and thus because of this stress appear as if he/she is lying.

In Shakespeare's famous play, Othello evokes this type of fear in his innocent wife, Desdemona - when she learns that the only person (Cassio) who can prove her innocence is now dead (Othello had him killed). Othello saw the fear and anxiety on Desdemona's face and interpreted this as being caused by her emotions over losing her alleged lover. Othello failed to consider that the stress he saw - although very real - was the result of anxiety Desdemona was experiencing over losing her only witness. She feels trapped! His observations were accurate - but his conclusions are false!

I was not there (neither were you) so we cannot claim to know whether Mr. Zimmerman is guilty or innocent. 

Zimmerman shows us a relatively stoic face. His rate of blinking is substantially increased in frequency. Comparing his blinking to that of the officer on Zimmerman's right, we can easily see that the frequency is substantially increased. It is very important to consider what his normal blink rate is however (i.e., What is his baseline?). If we saw him before and after his court appearance - and he blinked substantially less, then we would be much more confident that this change was indicative of increased stress-anxiety. It is also important to ensure Mr. Zimmerman does not suffer from an ophthalmic condition which causes him to blink so often. As pointed out above though, this level of stress is not surprising, regardless of any guilt or innocence.

The duration of some of Mr. Zimmerman's blinks are also increased. Provided that there is no medical or habitual etiology here, this is consistent with psychological "blocking" - wanting to make everything disappear. George Zimmerman's intellect knows he's in court, but his emotional brain is still processing this. It's coming to terms with this reality. This is very normal behavior for anyone in this context.

Zimmerman's eyes are opened wider than those in a normal resting state. It is particularly apparent when he first walks into the courtroom. In this context, this "white and wide" appearance is indicative of fear and associated increased sympathetic nervous system activity and elevated adrenaline (epinephrine). Again, both the guilty and the innocent would have fear in such a setting.

Mr. Zimmerman's elevated anxiety increases both the rate and depth of his breathing. Several (but not a lot) deep swallows are also noted. These are also normal physiologic changes in this context.

At the 1:05 - 1:06 time-mark, Mr. Zimmerman's temporalis muscle on the sides of his head tighten (contract). This is visibly centered in front of and slightly above the ears (only his left side is visible). It occurs because he clenches his jaw. With this one exception, George Zimmerman's mouth/lips/tongue/jaw demonstrate very little activity and remain relatively neutral during this video. This calm is unusual and tends to suggest that Mr. Zimmerman has a higher degree of confidence that he will be found innocent.

In summary, from a body language point-of-view, George Zimmerman's first court appearance demonstrated a mildly increased level of anxiety which - either guilty or innocent is very expected in such a scenario. Indeed, most people would display more stress than Zimmerman is in this setting.

See also:

Analysis # 1491: Barack Obama on Trayvon Martin"If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon" 

Analysis # 1590: President Obama's Blink Rate ... and His Anxiety

Secret # 1149: Who was more nervous in Last Night's Debate? Santorum, Romney, 
               Gingrich or Paul?

Secret # 491: Eyes White and Wide