Last week I gave a talk on body language for post-graduates at Middlesex University. I promised I’d write up a blog about it as a reference for all those lovely people in the audience who listened so attentively and had so many interesting questions for me afterwards (for 2 hours!). So here’s the gist of the main points…
The brain produces many thoughts during any interaction.
Every thought generates a feeling.
Human feelings are spontaneously expressed in body language.
Thus it is possible to work backwards along this chain of events in the following way:
A person’s body language can give you an insight into what they are feeling.
Knowledge of what a person is feeling can be used to infer their thoughts.
But only if you have given the P. I. C. process careful consideration:
- PERSPECTIVES – bear context of each situation in mind: crossed arms = feeling defensive? Or just cold?
- INCONGRUENCE – when words don’t match the voice &/or body language the words will be discounted
- CLUSTERS – of body language cues are MUCH more reliable than individual ones
The key thing to bear in mind when thinking about one’s own body language is to try to avoid postures / gestures that raise the suspicion that you are feeling anxious, guilty, uncertain etc. If you know what other people might be looking out for body language-wise then you can take measures to avoid accidentally giving out the wrong message.
In 1971 Prof Albert Mehrabian together with colleagues at UCLA published a paper indicating that when we say a word the meaning of that word only accounts for 7% of the information communicated. Visual signals (body posture, facial expressions, eye contact etc) accounted for a whopping 55% of the message and acoustic signals in the voice (volume, tempo, rhythm etc) accounted for 38%. Amazingly, given how unlikely these figures seem when we first hear them, it seems that this idea has more or less stood the test of time.
Visual > Auditory > Linguistic – In Communication Signals We Trust (most > least)
Mehrabian et al’s work indicated that if what is being said somehow doesn’t fit with the rhythm, speed, volume of voice and/or facial expressions, eye movements and body posture displayed by the speaker, we become suspicious of the words and tend to ignore them. So if we wish to communicate clearly then we must take measures to ensure that these are all aligned. It is vitally important to ensure that you do not inadvertently send mixed messages into the outside world that might cause people to be confused by, angered by or distrustful of the words we speak. This is particularly important when making a first impression in a job interview, business meeting or on a date.
Two Way Street
When we feel happy we smile, when we are sad or angry we frown. Not only do these facial expressions helpfully communicate how we’re feeling to others so that they might use this information to guide their behaviour, it also affects the way we feel ourselves (facial feedback hypothesis).
If you pull a smiling expression, it might feel fake, but it will send a torrent of sensory messages to the brain about the position of your face. This, in turn, triggers activity in the emotional pathways to create feelings that match the facial expression. The same thing goes for the negative emotions. If you pull a sad face – with bottom lip protruding as if you’re going to start blubbing – eventually you will start to feel melancholy and thoughts of things you really are sad about will start to flit around in your head. People who have had Botox for cosmetic purposes – to remove frown lines in their forehead (making them physically incapable of frowning) – even leads to increased ratings of happiness!
The critical point of all this is that it’s a two way street:
• Emotions spontaneously generated by your brain can automatically induce a facial expression
• Facial expressions commanded voluntarily by your brain can automatically induce an emotion
When somebody smiles at you, you will instinctively smile back. That is because in our species a smile indicates that the smiling person in question means no harm – it says: I am friendly, you have nothing to fear. If you think about the two way street of facial expressions / emotions in the context of our innate tendency to mimic the facial expressions of the people around us – when you smile at someone it makes them smile, and their own smiling face makes them feel ever so slightly happier. Never underestimate the power of the smile. Your own happiness can be infectious and people like to spend time around people who make them feel good.
Part two describes body language evolution, leakage and Dr Jack’s A-H of body language, so please CLICK HERE.
Springing a Leak
Although we can voluntarily move our faces around at will, pulling whatever facial expressions we want when called upon to do so, there are other automatic physiological responses generated in the body by emotions that we can’t control.
We betray our true feelings through body language all the time. When we lie, our awareness that we are doing wrong produces feelings of guilt (in most but not all people), which in turn “leak“ out into the outside world through various aspects of body and voice. Whether we are feeling comfortable or stressed. Whether we are feeling confident or timid. Even aspects of our personality are advertised to our immediate environment through our body language.
At the same time that we are constantly leaking information into the outside world through body language, information that subtly betrays our true feelings, there are many body positions that we assume and actions that we perform which have nothing to do with our current feelings whatsoever.
Beware Lone Rangers
Sometimes we scratch our nose just because it is itchy, and it has nothing to do with whether or not we are lying. Just a spurious coincidence. Sometimes we put our hand to our mouth simply because we’re stifling an unfortunately-timed belch, any apparent relevance to the words just uttered entirely coincidental. The point here is critical – there is lots of noise in the body language signal. The secret to decoding the signals properly is to keep the P.I.C. in mind and never allow a lone indicator to skew your thinking.
Dr Jack’s A-H of Body Language
Here’s my A-H of Body Language signals (with guidance for avoiding giving confused signals in parentheses) :
A – Appendages (uncross arms & legs, plant feet squarely on floor, keep your hands in view / suppress urge to fidget)
B – Body Posture / Tension (sit up straight, alert, edge of your seat to open diaphragm, breathe deep to reduce stress)
D – Dress (what you wear speaks volumes about you, invest wisely in a suitable outfit that blends in to the particular work environment)
E – Eyes (listen with eyes; professional triangle of gaze: eye, forehead, eye; don’t look away too much; not looking = not listening)
F – Face (pulling a smile = friendliness, frown = hostility; smile to show you are friendly and mean no harm, but don’t over do it!)
G – Gestures (amplify your words with firm gestures. Get in the Goldilocks Zone: not too much, not too little, but just right)
H – Head (Active listening involves plenty of eye contact but also nodding [slow→fast] to show you: are following → agree → want to speak)
Over the next few weeks look for these critical sites of body language in the people around you whilst traveling, in restaurants, pubs, bars, offices, meeting rooms and in your home. The more you study it the more aware you will become of the feelings of the people around you. The more you increase your awareness of how body language betrays true feelings in others, the more you will start noticing yourself betraying your true feelings to others. As your awareness of your own body language and that of others increases you will not only get better at detecting deception in others but you will be able to communicate more effectively yourself by ensuring that the visual, auditory and linguistic components line up so that you come across as confident, competent and trustworthy.
Origins of Body Language
The human brain became much, much larger than our primate cousins as we began living in larger and larger groups. And over these many thousands of years certain areas of this expanded brain real estate became specialised to improve our abilities to communicate with each other. We now have brain networks specialised for creating and understanding speech, but also others that discern eye gaze direction and movements, another territory for perceiving faces, yet another involved in registering body parts and even several involved in trying to deduce what a person is really thinking.
More effective communication would likely have been the foundation for stronger, broader allegiances which in turn enabled pre-human species to enjoy a greater ability to read between the lines. This probably increased likelihood of survival amongst these creatures leaving the less sophisticated communicators in their wake. In this way the human brain would have evolved according to a selection pressure on communication abilities to equip the human race with increasingly sophisticated social skills whilst competitors without the ability to read true intentions from voice and body language perished.
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In Autumn 2010 I was presented with an exciting opportunity: to act as neuroscience consultant for the neuromarketing section of a study that Sparkler, a leading media market research company, were conducting on behalf of Thomson Holidays. Thomson had expressed an interest in understanding the psychology of travel. Up until recently their tag line was: “Holidays built with you in mind”. I immediately envisaged the compelling possibility of changing this to: “Holidays built with your mind“.
We decided to use EEG (electroencephalography) to measure the degree to which participants brains’ were engaged by photos depicting various holiday activities. This enabled comparison of these objective measurements of brain engagment with participants’ subjective ratings of how much they would like to do the activities portrayed. Prior to the main body of the experiment, participants were run through some preliminary testing that enabled the software to establish the pattern of brain activity that occurs when: 1) the individual’s attention was engaged, and 2) their emotions were stimulated. The degree of “brain engagement” with photos of various holiday activities (described below) was established by comparing the pattern of brain responses to each photo, with these subject-specific baseline measurements of attention and emotional engagement.
The photos explored a broad stimulus space, spanning a continuum from pedestrian, unambitious holiday activities like sitting on a deckchair on the beach or reading a book by the pool, to adventurous holiday activities like jungle trekking and abseiling. The activities also ranged across a hedonistic to mind-expanding continuum: fun-packed pursuits like clubbing or indulging in spa treatments to exploring local communities, communing with nature and cultural activities like visiting galleries or monuments.
We divided our 32 participants up into 4 different personality types, according to whether they scored “relatively high” or “realtively low” on two of the Big 5 personality traits: Neuroticism and Extraversion. Neuroticism is the tendency to experience negative mood states, particularly anxiety, whilst Extraversion is the tendency to be positively engaged with one’s environment. Those that scored high on both scales were our “anxious extraverts” (N+E+), those that scored low on both scales were our “laid back introverts” (N-E-), those that scored high on one measure and low on the other were our “anxious introverts” (N+E-) and “laid back extroverts” (N-E+), respectively. If you’re curious you can try it yourself and see how you score on these measures (PersonalityTest).
The first fascinating insight from this study was that, across the board, all personality types subjectively rated a certain category of stimuli – the adventurous and slightly mind-expanding activities like jungle cruising, visiting a waterfall and horse trekking – amongst their most favoured activities. Yet for two of our personality types these were the very images that engaged their brains the least!! The “anxious extraverts” (N+E+) brains’ were actually most strongly engaged by images depicting much more relaxing activities such as reading by the pool or watching TV in the hotel room. Similarly the “laid-back introverts” (N-E-) brains’ were most strongly engaged by photos of spa treatments or watching traditional dancers or a band in action. Might this suggest that we are not as adventurous as we would like to believe?
It seems that only “anxious introverts” (N+E-) know their own minds – they were the only group whose subjective preference ratings matched their objective measurements of brain engagement. And as for the “laid-back extraverts” (N-E+), the very people you would expect to favour a big night out clubbing or pursuing their love for adrenaline sports, they were actually much more engaged by photos of people walking through hills and parks or visiting galleries and cultural sites.
There are many perfectly reasonable explanations for why we might not have a clear idea of what we really want in a holiday. Kent Berridge has been researching hedonic responses for decades and has established clear differences between liking and wanting. In the context of our study, it is perfectly feasable to like the idea of trekking through the jungle but at the same time not really wanting to waste our precious week’s holiday being bitten by insects, sleeping amidst predators and struggling to preserve our last precious drops of drinking water. There is also the positive illusion of self-enhancement to contend with, whereby the concept of ourselves as an “adventurous-type” falls down when we find ourselves struggling to think of a single example of something genuinely adventurous that we have achieved in the recent past. Not to mention cognitive dissonance, the various potentially conflicting factors that co-exist in our brains as we consider the suitability of each holiday option in terms of whether it suits our wishes and needs, as well as those of our partners and children. In order to reduce the cognitive dissonance all sorts of nonsense can come out of our mouths as we fail to make sense of all these competing considerations thwarting our ability to reach a sensible conclusion.
This was just the very first step into exploring the Psychology of Travel and credit must go to Thomson Holidays for funding an extremely ambitious and wide-ranging, blue skies pilot study. A journalist from the Independent newspaper, realising that this would make a great story, took us up on our offer of putting him through the half hour experiment to investigate the difference between his stated preferences and brain engagement (read his article here). I sincerely believe that there is great potential for this pioneering sortie into the world of travel psychology to be honed and developed into experimental paradigms that are repeatable and therefore publishable in peer-reviewed academic journals. Who knows, in light of these early findings, perhaps one day, in the not-so-distant future, booking a holiday will be as simple as wiring our personal EEG cap into a computer and waiting for the results of our brains’ responses to various holiday pics to be converted into a bespoke selection of holiday options that suit us down to the ground?