Psychology Today: on the Power of Body Language

How We Communicate Through Body Language

Nonverbal communication bestows advantages in both personal and business life.

As anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of a fellow driver’s display of the middle finger knows, nonverbal communication is sometimes quite obvious and conscious. But then there are those times when a significant other says “Don’t look at me like that,” and you respond, “Don’t look at you like what?” knowing full well the nature of the feelings you were so confident of having hidden. Or you might smack your lips and proclaim that your spouse’s scallop and cheddar casserole is yummy, but somehow still elicit the response, “What, you don’t like it?”

Power of Body LanguageScientists attach great importance to the human capacity for spoken language. But we also have a parallel track of nonverbal communication, which may reveal more than our carefully chosen words, and sometimes be at odds with them. Since much if not most of the nonverbal signaling and reading of signals is automatic and performed outside our conscious awareness and control, through our nonverbal cues we unwittingly communicate a great deal of information about ourselves and our state of mind. The gestures we make, the position in which we hold our bodies, the expressions we wear on our faces and the nonverbal qualities of our speech – all contribute to how others view us.

Nonverbal communication forms a social language that is in many ways richer and more fundamental than our words. Our nonverbal sensors are so powerful that just the movements associated with body language – that is, minus the actual bodies – are enough to engender within us the ability to accurately perceive emotion. For example, researchers made video clips of participants who had about a dozen small lights or illuminated patches attached at certain key positions on their bodies. The videos were made in light so dim that only the patches were visible. In these studies, when the participants stood still, the patches gave the impression of a meaningless collection of points. But when the participants stirred, observers were able to decode a surprising amount of information from the moving lights. They were able to judge the participants’ sex, and even the identity of people with whom they were familiar, from their gait alone. And when the participants were actors, mimes or dancers asked to move in a way that expressed the basic emotions, the observers had no trouble detecting the emotion portrayed.

We routinely participate in elaborate nonverbal exchanges even when we are not consciously aware of doing so. For example, in the case of casual contact with the opposite sex, I’d have been willing to bet a year’s pass to a Manhattan cinema that if a male pollster type approached a guy’s date while they were standing in line to buy a ticket at said theater, few of the fellows approached would be so insecure that they’d consciously feel threatened by the pollster. And yet, consider this experiment, conducted over two mild autumn weekend evenings in an “upper middle class” neighborhood in Manhattan. The subjects approached were all couples, yes, waiting in line to buy tickets to a movie.

The experimenters worked in teams of two. One team member discreetly observed from a short distance while the other approached the female of the couple and asked if she would be willing to answer a few survey questions. Some of the women were asked neutral questions such as “What is your favorite city and why?” Others were asked personal questions such as “What is your most embarrassing childhood memory?” The researchers were testing whether these more personal questions would be more threatening to the boyfriend, more invasive to his sense of intimate space. How did the boyfriends respond?

Unlike, say, a male baboon, who will start a fight when he sees another male sitting too close to a female in his group, the boyfriends didn’t do anything overtly aggressive. But they did display certain nonverbal cues. The scientists found that when the interviewer was nonthreatening – either a male who asked impersonal questions, or a female – the man in the couple tended to just hang out. But when the interviewer was a male asking personal questions, the boyfriend would subtly inject himself into the pow-wow, flashing what are called “tie-signs”, nonverbal cues meant to signal a connection with the woman. These male smoke signals include orienting himself toward his partner, and looking into her eyes as she interacted with the other man. It is doubtful that the men consciously felt the need to defend their relationship from the polite interviewer, but even though the tie-signs fell short of a baboon-like fist-in-the-face, they were an indication of the men’s inner primate pushing its way to the fore.

One of the most surprising forms of nonverbal communication is the way we automatically adjust the amount of time we spend looking into another’s eyes as a function of our relative social position. That might sound counterintuitive because some people like to look everyone in the eye, while others tend to always look elsewhere, whether they are speaking to a CEO or the guy dropping a pack of chicken thighs into their bag at the local grocery store. So how can gazing behavior be related to social dominance?

It is not your overall tendency to look at someone that is telling, but the way in which you adjust your behavior when you switch between the roles of listener and speaker. Psychologists have been able to characterize that behavior with a single quantitative measure, and the data they produce using that measure is striking. Here is how it works: take the percentage of time you spend looking into someone’s eyes while you are speaking, and divide it by the percentage spent looking at that same person’s eyes while you are listening.

For example, if, no matter who is talking, you spend the same amount of time looking away, your ratio would be 1.0. But if you tend to look away more often while you are speaking than when you are listening, your ratio will be less than 1.0. If you tend to look away less often when you are speaking than when you are listening, you have a ratio higher than one. That quotient, psychologists discovered, is a revealing statistic. It is called the “visual dominance ratio”. It reflects your position on the social dominance hierarchy relative to your conversation partner. A visual dominance ratio near 1.0, or larger, is characteristic of people with relatively high social dominance. A visual dominance ratio less than 1.00 is indicative of being lower on the dominance hierarchy. In other words, if your visual dominance ratio is around 1.0 or higher, you are probably the boss; if it is around 0.6, you are probably the bossed.

The unconscious mind provides us with many wonderful services, and performs many awesome feats, but I can’t help being impressed by this one. What is so striking about the data is not just that we subliminally adjust our gazing behavior to match our place on the hierarchy, but that we do it so consistently, and with numerical precision. Here is a sample of the data: when speaking to each other, ROTC officers exhibited ratios of 1.06, while ROTC cadets speaking to officers had ratios of 0.61; undergraduates in an introductory psychology course scored 0.92 when talking to a person they believed to be a high school senior who did not plan to go to college, but 0.59 when talking to a person they believed to be a college chemistry honor student accepted into a prestigious medical school; expert men speaking to women about a subject in their own field scored 0.98, while men talking to expert women about the women’s field, 0.61; expert women speaking to non-expert men scored 1.04, non-expert women speaking to expert men scored 0.54. These studies were all performed on Americans. The numbers probably vary with culture, but the phenomenon probably doesn’t.

Whatever your culture, since people unconsciously detect these signals, it stands to reason one can also adjust the impression one makes by consciously looking at or away from a conversation partner. For example, when applying for a job, talking to your boss, or negotiating a business deal, it might be advantageous to signal a certain level of submission – but how much would depend on the circumstances. In a job interview, if the job requires great leadership ability, a display of too much submissiveness would be a bad strategy. But if the interviewer seemed very insecure, a pleasing display of just the right amount of submissiveness could be very reassuring, and incline that person in the applicant’s favor. A very successful Hollywood agent I know once told me that he made a point to only negotiate over the telephone so as to avoid being influenced – or inadvertently revealing anything – through eye contact with the opposite party.

By the time children reach school age, there are some with full social calendars, while others spend their time shooting spitballs at the ceiling, and one of the major factors in social success, even at an early age, is a child’s sense of nonverbal cues. For example, in a study of 60 kindergartners, the children were asked to identify which of their classmates they’d prefer to sit with at story time, play a game with, or work with on a painting. The same children were judged on their ability to name the emotions exhibited in twelve photographs of adults and children with differing facial expressions. The two measures proved to be related. That is, the researchers found a strong correlation between a child’s popularity and ability in reading others.

In adults, nonverbal ability bestows advantages in both personal and business life, and plays a significant role in the perception of a person’s warmth, credibility, and persuasive power. Though much of body language hasn’t yet been studied scientifically, the general consensus is that tensely folded arms mean you are closed to what someone is telling you, while if you like what you hear, you’ll likely adopt an open posture, and even lean forward a little. Moving your shoulders forward seems to signify disgust, despair or fear, and that maintaining a large interpersonal distance while you speak seems to signal low social stature. It’s probably true that assuming those different postures can have at least a subtle effect on how people perceive you, and that understanding what nonverbal cues mean can bring to your consciousness clues about people that otherwise only your unconscious may pick up.

Adapted from Subliminal: how your unconscious mind rules your behavior, copyright 2012 by Leonard Mlodinow