By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
There is quiet in the courtroom after the key witness on the stand is asked the critical question. As the jury, judge, and counsel wait for the answer, the witness pauses, looks up toward the ceiling, then looks back down, and answers.
That scenario invites two questions. One, why look up? The person asking you the question is at the lectern in front of you. The target for your answer is in the jury box to your side. Nothing – certainly not the answer – is on the ceiling. And two, what do the jurors make of that? Is it simply a thoughtful hesitation, a moment to collect your memories, or is it a sign of something worse?
That shift of gaze, looking up or away while thinking, is a small gesture, but it is common enough that it merits mention when considering witness communication. It turns out that there is a pretty good reason why we do it, along with a pretty good reason why we ought to be wary about doing it while testifying. In this post, I will look at some interesting new research on the question of why we tend to look up or away while recalling, and also share some old but persistent perceptions on how that is interpreted.