Cutting-Edge Leadership

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How Much Does Your Body Language Really Reveal?

New research provides answers to a decades-old question.

For more than 75 years psychologists have studied how subtle nonverbal cues might reveal your personality. In 1933, famed psychologist Gordon Allport published Studies in Expressive Movement, in which he and his co-author, Phillip Vernon, contended that there was consistency in people’s expressive behavior, and that from these nonverbal cues, personality could be discerned.

For example, some people show expansive movements, such as gesturing wildly, while others are more restricted and closed-off. This might suggest differences between extroverts (who are expansive and outgoing) and introverts, who tend to “keep to themselves.” Another dimension they studied was speed of movement, with some individuals tending to move rapidly, and others more slowly. This might be indicative of Type A vs. Type B personalities. (You can test whether you are a Type A or B here.)

Allport maintained that there was consistency across expressive cues, and so he searched for this in a variety of nonverbal behaviors, including length of stride while walking; posture; and even handwriting. (The latter is the underlying notion behind graphoanalysis, or handwriting analysis—whereby handwriting “experts” claim that they can tell everything about your personality through studying your handwriting, although there is little research support for such expansive claims.)

Is there any truth to the notion that expressive movement reflects our personalities?

Research by Allport, and subsequently by many others, suggests that there is a grain of truth to it—but, all in all, there is very little accuracy and reliability to personality assessments made from expressive movements.

For example, while the major traits of extroversion/introversion can be accurately distinguished through nonverbal behavior at levels above chance, stereotypes and preconceptions about the links between expressive behavior and certain personality traits lead to a great deal of inaccuracy.

The reality is that more complex personality traits are very difficult to discern from nonverbal cues—and some people may simply not be very good at inferring such traits from nonverbal behaviors, further reducing accuracy.

In research conducted in our lab, we found that some cues were indeed linked to extroversion/introversion—even some handwriting cues, such as the height of letters in cursive handwriting, the size of loops, and flourishes. But these were not very consistent.

Here is the bottom line: Personality is quite complex, and nonverbal communication, or "body language," is not a language in the usual sense that a particular cue has a particular meaning. As a result, we can only distinguish very general aspects of a person’s disposition from their movements, but not “deeper” traits.

And because of our own stereotypes and biases, we are simply not very accurate.

 

References

Allport, Gordon W.. & Vernon, Phillip E. (1933). Studies in expressive movement. NY: Macmillan.

Riggio, Ronald E.; Lippa, Richard; Salinas, Charles (1990).Journal of Research in Personality, Vol 24(1), 16-31.

Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/ronriggio

Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College.

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