On 5 January 2016, President Obama proposed several measures to curb gun violence while delivering remarks on the topic in the East Room of the White House. As he discussed gun deaths involving children, the President began crying (as seen at the 0:44 mark in the video embedded below):
Some versions of the meme attributed its claims to Dr. Lillian Glass:
In her 2013 book “The Body Language of Liars,” behavioral analyst Lillian Glass wrote that psychopaths are really bad at crying:
“When psychopaths cry, they will often wipe underneath each eye, one at a time. When people cry genuine tears they cry with both eyes, and so they will tend to wipe both eyes at once.”
A brief online search indicated that the quote cited above was lifted directly from a 6 November 2013 Business Insider article titled “7 Signs You’re Working with a Psychopath.” The article predictably described an entirely different context:
They are really bad at crying.
“When [Susan Smith] gave a press conference and cried about her missing children, her fake tears were actually what raised suspicions that she was the killer,” says Glass.
When psychopaths cry, Glass says they will often wipe underneath each eye, one at a time. “When people cry genuine tears they cry with both eyes, and so they will tend to wipe both eyes at once.”
In their original context, Dr. Glass’ observations clearly pertained to video footage (not a still image). Dr. Glass’ web site includes a blog wherein her observations consistently describe analysis of subjects in context and motion (utilizing photographs to illustrate the body language she described in a broader context throughout). Nowhere in her writings did we locate an example of her making such a definitive diagnosis based upon a single still image, nor of her throwing around severe diagnostic language such as “psychopath.”
We contacted Dr. Glass regarding the meme and the use of language from her 2013 book The Body Language of Liars. Dr. Glass told us she was aware of the quote’s newfound popularity and was deeply dismayed by the lengths to which her words and work had been misconstrued due to the meme (and related articles).
Dr. Glass strongly repudiated the assertions of the meme, noting that the quote originally appeared in her 2013 book and was used for the Business Insider piece in a very different context. Moreover, she stated that she would never engage in body language analysis so flippantly, nor did she consider the subject matter of the meme appropriate for such observations. Mostly, Dr. Glass was dismayed at the virality of a grossly misconstrued, unrelated, out-of-context quote from her book in a meme that misrepresented her work.
We asked psychologist Dr. Emily Perrine-Gifford about the claims; she explained why the armchair diagnoses of social media made little sense to mental health clinicians:
I don’t think people understand what a psychopath really is. A psychopath is someone who is literally born without a conscience. That means that if Obama were really a psychopath, he would have shown signs and symptoms from childhood. Psychopathy may be understood as the worst form of Antisocial Personality Disorder. Antisocial Personality Disorder can not be diagnosed until adulthood, but with psychopathy, since this is potentially the worst form of Antisocial Personality Disorder and is thought to have genetic origins as well as psychosocial origins, certain symptoms may be seen before adulthood.
These symptoms, most notably, for psychopaths, are fire setting, problems wetting the bed past an age appropriate time period, and a blatant disregard for the safety of self or others. Psychopaths are notoriously difficult to diagnose as they can be charming and manipulative. However, I have particular expertise in this area as I have worked in forensic psychiatric hospitals and super maximum security prison settings. I am not convinced that President Obama is or ever was a psychopath. He shows little to no signs or symptoms of Antisocial Personality Disorder and these symptoms would have to present in order to be diagnosed as a psychopath.
According to Dr. Glass, the thrust of the meme is unequivocally false. Whether folks believe President Obama’s tears at the 5 January 2016 appearance were legitimate or not, the meme based on that moment in no way represents the analytical work of the body language expert to whom it is attributed.