Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Want to Seem Approachable and Likable? Start Nodding "Yes"

Nodding positively increases both approachability and likability, study finds.

 Christos Georghiou/Shutterstock
Source: Christos Georghiou/Shutterstock

We all know the telltale signs of friendly versus off-putting body language. For example, crossing your arms in front of your torso, averting your gaze, and shifting your stance away from others is the quickest way to let onlookers know that you're not interested in being approached or mingling. On the flip side, gesturing two thumbs up, looking a person directly in the eyes, or opening your arms to give someone a hug convey openness, agreeableness, and approachability.

More often than not, body language transcends cultural barriers and is our lingua franca for communicating nonverbal interpersonal psychosocial cues. In most countries, nodding one's head up and down is a positive way to communicate acceptance and approval. Conversely, shaking one's head from side to side is almost always perceived as a negative sign of disapproval or denial.

From a pop-culture perspective, Miley Cyrus sums up the universality of body language in her hit song, "Party in the U.S.A." Cyrus sings, "So, I put my hands up, they're playin' my song, the butterflies fly away. I'm noddin' my head like, "yeah"... I know it's gonna be okay." This anthem became a chart-topping smash around the globe.

Recently, two researchers in Japan conducted a series of experiments to rate how the act of nodding "yes" or shaking the head "no" influenced subjective perceptions of various character traits. Their study, "Effects of Head Nodding and Shaking Motions on Perceptions of Likeability and Approachability," was published in the journal Perception. This is the first study to elucidate how increased positive attitudes towards a computer-generated model can be triggered by observing subtle head motions.For this research, Jun-ichiro Kawahara of Hokkaido University and Takayuki Osugi of Yamagata University created short video clips (as seen above) of various three-dimensional, computer-generated models nodding, shaking their heads from side to side, or remaining motionless. Kawahara and Osugi were interested in rating perceptions of attractiveness, likability, and approachability based on various head movements, or lack thereof, on a 0-100 scale.

Both male and female observers participating in this study rated the figures performing a head-nodding motion 30 percent more likable and 40 percent more approachable than figures shaking their heads or remaining motionless. In a statement, Kawahara said, “Our study also demonstrated that nodding primarily increased likability attributable to personality traits, rather than to physical appearance."

This study provides fresh empirical evidence that supports our everyday anecdotal understanding of both manners and hospitality, as conveyed via body language cues.

Additionally, in a digital era, computer engineers are continuously fine-tuning the ability of humanoid robots and avatars to perform various jobs that require social interaction. These new findings will inevitably help to facilitate the development of AI cyborgs that are more likable (or even lovable), which is sort of scary in an Ex Machina or Her kind of way.

However, in conclusion, Kawahara emphasizes: "Generalizing these results requires a degree of caution, because computer-generated female faces were used to manipulate head motions in our experiments. Further study involving male figures, real faces, and observers from different cultural backgrounds is needed to apply these findings to real-world situations."


Takayuki Osugi and Jun I. Kawahara. "Effects of Head Nodding and Shaking Motions on Perceptions of Likeability and Approachability." Perception. (First published: September 28, 2017) DOI: 10.1177/0301006617733209

Stivers, Tanya. "Stance, Alignment, and Affiliation During Storytelling: When Nodding Is a Token of Affiliation." Research on Language and Social Interaction. (2008) DOI: 10.1080/08351810701691123

Adams Jr, Reginald B., and Robert E. Kleck. "Effects of Direct and Averted Gaze on the Perception of Facially Communicated Emotion." Emotion. (2005) DOI: 10.1037/1528-3542.5.1.3