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The Surprising Power of Body Language

Nonverbal communication is complex and sometimes mysterious.

Key points

  • Body language is complex: Charisma and physical attractiveness are both affected by how we communicate without words.
  • Subtle, nonverbal cues can have a big impact on how we perceive and evaluate others.
  • We can be affected by others' nonverbal behavior and be completely unaware of it.

Here are four studies that illustrate the surprising power and complexity of nonverbal behavior.

Study 1: A man’s body language can actually make a woman more attractive.

In a clever study by social psychologists Mark Snyder, Beth Tanke, and Ellen Berscheid, men were led to believe that they were talking on the telephone with either an attractive or an unattractive woman (they were shown fake photographs). The nonverbal behavior of the women was measured during the phone conversation. If the men believed they were talking to an attractive woman, their belief was conveyed through tone of voice to the woman, who then began behaving in a more sexually attractive manner.

Women in the physically attractive condition were rated by others as more sociable, sexually warm, and poised than were women whose callers thought they were unattractive. Essentially, the men were able to convey to the women their beliefs about the women’s attractiveness entirely through nonverbal vocal cues. The women then responded accordingly with their own nonverbal behavior.

The lesson: Positive expectations matter.

This research is consistent with the well-known Pygmalion Effect , which states that our expectations about others can be subtly conveyed through nonverbal cues. In the classic Pygmalion study, school children whose teachers thought they were smarter than the others (they were actually randomly assigned) actually performed better academically due to the teacher’s expectations. In the same way, the male callers’ impressions were subtly conveyed to the women via nonverbal cues.

Study 2: Misreading a smile can lead to trouble.

This clever study advertised for a job as a research assistant. Fifty young women applied and were interviewed. In one condition, some sexually provocative questions were interspersed with typical job interview questions (e.g., "Do you have a boyfriend?"). The women were videotaped, and their facial expressions were analyzed.

Analysis of the videos found that women often smiled in response to the sexually provocative questions, but the smiles were not of enjoyment but "fake" smiles associated with discomfort. Debriefings with the participants found that many of the female interviewees felt that they had to "grin and bear it." Unsurprisingly, when the interviewees' videos were later rated by management students, those in the sexual harassment condition were rated as performing more poorly than in the non-harassment condition.

But here is the kicker: The researchers showed silent videotapes of the women's uncomfortable, fake smiles while being harassed (along with more genuine smiles and non-smiling clips) to men, who rated the smiling women. Beforehand, the men were given a scale that predicts likelihood to sexually harass. Men with a tendency to sexually harass were more likely to rate the uncomfortable smiles as "flirtatious" and rate them as more "desirable."

What are the implications of this research? First, it demonstrates some of the dynamics of sex and power. Women are placed in a sort of "double bind" in that they tend to use fake smiles to cover their discomfort and try to perform well in the interview, but this strategy seems to backfire as they are rated as "less competent."

Moreover, the fake smiles are misinterpreted by the very men who might be likely to put them into uncomfortable sexual situations and could lead to increased incidence of harassment.

Lesson: Employers need to be alert and proactive when it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace, as the dynamics of sex and power are subtle and insidious.

Study 3: Capturing charisma.

In one of our studies, we measured participants’ emotional expressiveness—their ability to spontaneously express real emotions—before they returned for an experiment. We simply videotaped each participant as they entered the laboratory and greeted other people—in all, the video clips were less than a minute. Those clips were shown to judges, who rated each participant on their likability.

More emotionally expressive persons were rated as more likable, and the judges thought they were higher on general “attractiveness” (we statistically controlled for the participants’ actual physical attractiveness)—confirming that emotional expressiveness was a key element of charisma.

Lesson: First impressions really matter.

Study 4: How nonverbal behavior affects others’ moods: Capturing emotional contagion.

In another study, we recruited participants for an experiment after measuring their emotional expressiveness. We chose three people for each group—one who was very emotionally expressive, and two who were moderately low on expressiveness. We gave them all measures of their moods, and then asked them to wait in a small “waiting room” with three desks facing each other.

We told them not to talk, but to simply wait silently, and we would call them for the experiment. This actually was the experiment. After three minutes of sitting silently together, we again measured their moods and then dismissed them. The study was over!

Here is what we found:

The individual who was expressive—able to easily convey emotions via nonverbal behavior—was able to affect the other two participants’ moods. In fact, they “converged” on the mood of the nonverbally expressive person. If that person was bored, the others in the group became more bored. If they were happy coming in, the others became happier, etc. In short, we captured, in the laboratory, the process by which emotions are transmitted nonverbally from one person to another.

Lesson: Nonverbal communication is subtle. It affects our moods, and we may be completely unaware of how others’ moods affect us.

References

Snyder, M., Tanke, E.D., & Berscheid, E. (1977). Social perception and interpersonal behavior: On the self-fulfilling nature of social stereotypes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 656-666.

Woodzicka, J.A. & LaFrance, M. (2005). Working on a smile: Responding to sexual provocation in the workplace. In R.E. Riggio & R.S. Feldman (Eds.), Applications of Nonverbal Communication (pp. 139-155). Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers.

Friedman, H.S., Riggio, R.E., & Casella, D.* (1988). Nonverbal skill, personal charisma, and initial attraction. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 14, 203-211.

Friedman, H.S., & Riggio, R.E. (1981). Effect of individual differences in nonverbal expressiveness on transmission of emotion. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 6, 96-104.

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