What was it that triggered ’emotional contagion’ in the Boris NHS Speech?

Monday, April 13th, 2020 by Cliff.

A few people have said to me that the Boris post-NHS hospitalisation speech triggered sadness in them… and yet the trigger seemed subconscious. ‘I couldn’t put my finger on what it was that connected with me’.

There were some very subtle signals that combined to create this powerful force that psychologists call emotional contagion – we almost catch the emotion from others in the same way we might catch an infection.

These peaked after 4′:40″ into the video:

With Boris, it was a combination of:

  • words – the statement that the NHS is ‘powered by love’
  • gestures – synchronised gestures that give conviction to words that are meant
  • tone – a softening of the tone of voice with short inward breath after the above phrase
  • glassiness in the eyes – increased at this point
  • the subtle facial expression of sadness – hard to notice but explained in images here…

When considering the face the first thing to take stock of is the baseline – what is Boris’s normal face?

Baseline 1: Here is an example from an earlier press conference, before he was hospitalised with COVID-19. Important to notice that his brows slope up in the centre when his face is neutral of emotion:

 

Baseline 2: Here is an image from early in the post-hospitalisation statement. It is important to establish baseline ‘in context’ – this ensures we eliminate other influences such as sickness, tiredness, etc.:

Not a great deal of difference… even appears to have the same tie, shirt and suit on ;).

Sadness leakage: This is the peak of his sadness just after the powered by love phrase:

Here you can see the inner brows have raised, ever so slightly and his outer mouth corners have lowered a little (you can also see the increased watering in the eyes too in this shot).

The clues?: The following image shows the same image, marked-up…

  1. the brows raising in the centre (arrows ‘A’),
  2. the handlebar shaped crease that has deepened on his forehead (arrow ‘B’), and
  3. the retraction outwards of the upper eye cover fold (arrow ‘C’) – now left of the centre of his eye rather than covering his whole pupil width… even allowing for a slight head turn.

The recovery: As he senses the sadness emotion taking him over, conscious that he wants to remain composed for the speech, Boris stretches his whole forehead upwards to interrupt the powerful ‘feedback-loop’ effect of the rising inner brows to try to neutralise the sadness he is genuinely feeling. 

This gives him the chance to round off his message with the usual government advice messages he was told to finish on.

He stuck his neck out here, speaking so soon after his recovery, though, if I was his coach, I would advise him that he needn’t feel the need to mask his emotions in the future – it humanises and connects people and there is nothing wrong with showing that vulnerability at times like this. (I would also, btw, recommend that he reads some of Brene Brown’s writings, starting with Daring Greatly).

For more on genuine and fake expressions of sadness see here.

Cliff Lansley
Article by Cliff Lansley

Expert in emotional intelligence, behavioural analysis and high stake deception detection contexts. Cliff holds; B Ed (Hons), MIOD, MABPsych, Cert Ed.

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