Are you an inveterate eye-roller? Without realizing it, do you look upward when someone you disagree with or don’t like says something that annoys you? How about your tendency to tap your fingers? Do you drum them impatiently when someone is talking too long or saying things you feel are uninformed or just plain wrong? The ability to control your body language would seem to be a key ingredient to social success. Although you may be aware of what you should do, you may be less able to identify those nonverbal behaviors you need to avoid. In a recent study on automatic movements of the eyes and hands, University of Kansas psychologist Lauren Schmitt and colleagues (2016) provided intriguing ideas about how to exert control over these inadvertent messages your body language is sending.
Before getting to the study, let’s consider in more depth the signals you send when you don’t control your body language, beginning with that eye roll. It’s hard to imagine a more powerful message than the upward-glancing eyes of a critical member of one’s audience. You’re in the middle of speaking out at a community meeting where an upcoming ballot question is being debated. As you glance around at your listeners, you can’t help but notice the man in the plaid shirt who exchanges an eye roll with the woman to his right. You don’t know this plaid shirt-clad individual, but it’s clear you’ve said something that has raised his hackles. It would have been fine with you if he’d gone to the mike and stated his opinion in a matter-of-fact manner. We don’t all have to agree all of the time. But when people don’t agree with you, they should at least have the decency to state it outright, instead of taking the passive-aggressive route of the eye roll.
It may be fair to say that a true mark of civility is the ability to refrain from using body language to attack or criticize the people with whom we don’t agree. To keep the discourse from taking the unfortunate turn of being impolite or inconsiderate, we all need to be able to listen with an open face, if not open mind. It’s perhaps when you disagree with the people around you that you most need to monitor the little mini-expressions that reveal just how closed your mind is.
The eye roll can also get you in trouble when you use it in response to a request someone makes for your help. Your boss seems to be piling up one thing after another, and you don’t know where you’re going to find time to tackle even the first assignment you’ve been given. When your boss comes in with yet one more request, you feel your eyes rolling up toward the ceiling before you’ve even had a chance to think about it. This is not a good way to polish up your job ratings.
Finger tapping is another behavior that you may wish you could excise from your body language vocabulary. The minutes tick by at the weekly staff meeting, and all you can think about it what you’d rather be doing at this very moment other than sitting around listening to everyone else yammer on about their concerns. You’ve already executed the eye roll several times, but now it’s your hand that you can’t seem to control. It just starts tapping all on its own, so it seems.
Schmitt and her collaborators stress the importance of exerting voluntary control over these otherwise involuntary responses, regarding such adaptive ability as “necessary for flexibly adapting behavior to changing environmental demands” (p. 2). You can probably roll your eyes and tap your fingers as often as you’d like in the privacy of your own home or at the other end of a phone call, because there is no demand to filter your negative facial or bodily reaction. When the environment demands civil, or at least not impolite, responses, then you’ll need to put those controls into action.
In the University of Kansas study, young-adult participants were given an experimental task in which they had to stop, after starting, an eye versus a hand movement. The theory behind the study was that eye movements would be harder to control than hand movements, because they involve fewer and shorter neuromuscular connections. In the eye movement task, participants stared at the center of a screen. In the “go” condition, they were instructed to shift their eyes when they saw a green circle appear slightly off to the side. In the “stop” condition, a red target appeared in the center of the screen, signaling that they were to avoid shifting their gaze. In the manual conditions, participants were instructed to push (or not) on a button.
As predicted, participants had more difficulty inhibiting eye movements than hand movements. They also engaged in a strategy, more apparent with hand movements, of delaying their “go” time in order to prepare for a possible “stop” trial. As the authors concluded, “oculomotor [eye movement] responses are under less volitional control and are less amenable to strategic adjustments of reaction timing than manual motor behaviors [hand movements]” (p. 9). Although in general people with greater cognitive control have better success at controlling both types of movements, the eye's quicker responsiveness than the hand remained evident in the data.
The moral of the story: Controlling your eye movements will take greater effort than controlling the action of your hands and fingers. Knowing that you’re a chronic eye-roller, though, can help you exert the kind of “top-down” or volitional control that the Schmitt et al. team described. You could even try the “stop” strategy on yourself where you pretend that someone is going to call you out on your eye roll while you’re in the middle of making it. Getting control of your body language may take some effort, but it's well worth the work.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017
Schmitt, L. M., Ankeny, L. D., Sweeney, J. A., & Mosconi, M. W. (2016). Inhibitory control processes and the strategies that support them during hand and eye movements. Frontiers In Psychology, 7:1927. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01927
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