The Expert's Guide to People Watching

What you can learn about anyone from just a glance.

Posted Apr 18, 2015

michaeljung/Shutterstock
Source: michaeljung/Shutterstock

You’re bored while standing in line or forced to sit in a doctor’s waiting room. What do you do to amuse yourself? Invariably, many of us turn to people watching to pass the time. Without even realizing it, perhaps, we decide whether those sharing our space—even temporarily—are smart or dumb, interesting or dull, and happy or anxious. We might even start to spin theories about them, knowing nothing about them other than their facial expressions, what they’re doing, and the way they walk or sit. Fleshing out our theories is the additional information we get from the clothes they’re wearing, the jewelry they have on, and even the state of their shoes.

As stated by Carnegie Mellon computer scientist David Fouhey and colleagues (2014), “the human body is a powerful and versatile visual communication device” (p. 259). Fouhey and team used information about people's poses to generate computer models of different types of environments, but the powerful communication we deliver through our bodies can be the basis for powerful social judgments. 

Just as we can use our bodies to communicate the messages we want others to receive, we can also read the body language of others to figure them out psychologically. Depending on your occupation, this may be a matter of vital importance, as is the case for detectives who want to find out if suspects are telling the truth. However, even if your paycheck doesn’t depend on your ability to read other people’s signals, it can still be a fun, and potentially worthwhile, avocation.

In a 2013 book on the topic of body perception, UCLA’s Kerri Johnson and Rutgers’ Maggie Shiffar note that the human body is one of the most critical types of stimuli that affect the way we perceive others. Tilburg University’s Beatrice de Gelder, in a chapter of this book, notes that we gain the most information about people, such as their emotional states, by watching their faces, but we also make judgments about them based on their bodily expressions of feeling.

Researchers in this field seek information on the normal perception of bodily expression from studies of individuals with brain injury or disorders such as autism. Our ability to draw conclusions about people from their postures and actions is so basic that it almost goes without saying that deficits in this ability can create significant problems.

Returning now to the question of how you can use psychology as a guide to your people watching, these six areas can help you focus your attention on what’s important to look for in those who inhabit your environment:

Identity. The first thing you might notice about people is the clothes they’re wearing, particularly when they’re not huddled over in raincoats or heavy winter parkas. Everyone who has on a piece of sports regalia, whether a player’s jersey or a team hat, sweatshirt, or backpack, is telling the world about the region, college, or nation with which they identify. They don’t have to be from that place, but by dressing in this attire, they announce that this is the image they wish to convey.

Similarly, people wearing designer logos (even if they’re knock-offs) show that they want to appear affluent and fashionable. People also show their identity in the travel souvenirs they wear (whether they actually went there or not). When they decide to carry around tote bags that proclaim “Florence” or “Sydney,” they communicate the message that they are world travelers, cosmopolitan, and sophisticated.

Tattoos are another clue to a person's identity. Whether it's a loved one whose memory they are honoring, the detachment they served with in the armed forces, or their motorcycle brand, a tattoo is a permanent alteration of the body to show what a person values.

Self-esteem. The way people carry themselves communicates the esteem with which they hold themselves. Good posture, with shoulders back and head held high, and walking with a confident stride communicate that people feel secure, strong, and pleased with themselves. They’ve got nothing to hide. 

It’s possible, however, to go too far. People convey a sense of haughtiness when they hold their head so high that they look down on others. Conversely, people who slouch, shuffle their feet when they walk, and constantly peer over their shoulders are telling the world that they are beset with feelings of insecurity and self-doubt.

Going even further, a person's narcissistic tendencies may be revealed by his or her (apparent) extreme attention to dress and grooming. From the tip of their perfectly-matched shoes to the top of their perfectly-coiffed hair, people who pay extreme attention to their appearance announce to the world that they consider themselves worth every minute of time they spend on looking good.

Emotional state. As stated by de Gelder, one of the most important judgments we make about others, based on their appearance, is their emotional state. You can see this in their face, but if you’re not close enough to stare into their eyes, you can gauge their feelings from their stance, way of walking, and use of their hands.

People who are anxious tend to fidget, shrug their shoulders, and dart their head from side to side. They may tug at their purse or briefcase, or hold it in front of their bodies as a symbol that they seek to protect themselves from harm. Stress may lead people to show similar signs, but it in addition makes them appear as if they’re carrying the world’s problems on their backs, and their shoulders will sag accordingly. Their preoccupation may also carry over into their tendency to scrutinize their phones rather than the scenes unfolding around them.

People who are depressed may reveal this in a sad facial expression but again, if you’re not close enough to see, you can gauge this emotional state from a slowed-down pace of walking. When you’re depressed, you don’t feel like moving very quickly, and this is reflected in your gait. Conversely, people who are happy walk more briskly, maybe even with a little bit of a skip in their step.  

“Niceness.” The personality trait of agreeableness is associated with a general air of friendliness, warmth, and ability to roll with the punches. People high on this trait will express the consideration they afford to others through their nonverbal behavior. They’ll hold the door open for you, allow you to pass in front of them whether on the elevator or the street, and just have a generally genial way of ambling around.

Extraversion. Always ready to engage others, bored when alone, and seeking stimulation from their environment, extraverts can be spotted in any gathering as the ones who make eye contact or initiate conversation with all who pass near them. Rather than retreating into the corner, they know how to “work the crowd,” whether at a party or in a waiting room. You get the feeling that the extravert is always ready to shake someone’s hand, whether it’s offered to them or not.  

The extravert might also be the kind who dresses in the brightest colors. Although people often have a “black” day in which they purposefully select clothes to match their moods, extraverts are more likely to wear their personality literally on their sleeve in intense hues that proclaim their presence to all.

References

de Gelder, B. (2013). From body perception to action preparation: A distributed neural system for viewing bodily expressions of emotion. In K. L. Johnson, M. Shiffrar, K. L. Johnson, M. Shiffrar (Eds.) , People watching: Social, perceptual, and neurophysiological studies of body perception (pp. 350-368). New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press.

Fouhey, D.F., Delaitre, V., Gupta, A., Efros, A.A., Laptev, I., Sivic, J. (2014). People watching: Human actions as a cue for single cue geometry. Int. J. Comput.Vis., 110, 259-274.

Johnson, K. L., & Shiffrar, M. (2013). People watching: Social, perceptual, and neurophysiological studies of body perception. New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press.

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015