Skilled nonverbal behaviour, reinforcement, questioning…

I’ve been reading Hargie. I’ve now roughly read two-thirds of the book, it’s quite long (the pdf version has 629 pages). In the first part of this post I have added some general comments and observations I’ve made along the way so far while reading the book, and in the second part of the post I have covered some specific topics also covered in the book.

First off, the book has made it easier for me to understand the hostility some ‘hard scientists’ display towards what they like to call the social ‘sciences’. Some of the stuff in this book is horrible. In a way it has been nice to spend a bit of time with the sort of research that really gives social science a bad name; I’ve encountered some of that research before while doing work on psychology, but some of the stuff included here really takes the cake. Not all of it is useless or terrible, but there’s no argument that some of it is, and so while you’re reading about results from the book – I don’t suggest you actually read the book – you need to take some of them with a grain of salt or two. Or five. Even if I’ve tried to shy away from the worst of it.

An observation I was reminded of along the way was that whereas reporting the results of studies on a topic may in some contexts serve to indicate to others that you’re a Man Of Science and that you Really Know What You’re Talking About, it may also in other contexts do nothing of the sort, and in some specific contexts such activities may even completely undermine all trust other people might have in your ability to make judgments on such matters (on reflection I realize now that it seems almost certain that some of my posts on this blog in the past have had this effect on people reading along, in part because I don’t always make clear when I’m skeptical about specific findings because explicitly expressing skepticism in a specific context takes a lot more work than does the alternative – oh, well…). Some of Hargie’s coverage basically only served to convince me that I couldn’t trust his views on the science in these contexts, because of the way he talked about the results. Here’s an example:

“As discussed in Chapter 3, in reality deceit is not always so easy to detect. In fact, research has consistently shown that people are on average only 47 per cent accurate in detecting deception – that is less than chance.” (p. 250)

“Research has consistently shown that people are on average only 47 per cent accurate”. Yep, he actually wrote that. Research has consistently given the number 47 per cent, according to Hargie. I’m not convinced at this point that the author even knows what a standard deviation is. On a reasonably closely related note to the quote above, in my first post about the book I noted that Hargie had some obvious holes in his knowledge because it was clear to me that he hadn’t read Aureli et al. (nor the related literature on primatology/ethology). In later chapters it also turns out to be obvious that he’s never read Funder’s book, as some of the details there are simply missing from this coverage – important details, I might add, which I sort of hope Funder isn’t the only one who’s talked about. Along the same vein, some of the coverage of the attractiveness variable in the book would likely also have been better had the author read Bobbi Low, as a few of the results reported seem questionable given the coverage there.

I figured beforehand that I should read a book like this because it covers stuff which may well be useful for someone like me to know. An interesting observation I have made is that it turns out I might actually be quite a lot better at some of the aspects which relate to social interaction and communication than I’d imagined (though note that this observation does not really relate to anything covered in this post), even if some other aspects covered in this book do without doubt cause me serious trouble. I can justify reading on because good books on topics such as these are really hard to come by – most books dealing with topics like these are presumably self-help books, and I’m not reading those – and because some of the stuff really is not all that terrible, perhaps even quite useful. There’s enough semi-useful stuff mixed in with the crap for now to justify me reading on, though I’ve been close to just saying ‘enough’ more than once. I should note that the way I see it,  by covering the book here I’m doing people reading along a major favour, as it’s my intention only to deal with the reasonably useful stuff in the post below and in the posts to come, meaning that you don’t need to go through all the crap as well. I figure that if I were to cover the bad stuff in detail, all I’d be doing would be venting and fueling my anger at the author, and I see no reason to go down that road as it would likely be counterproductive in terms of actually learning stuff from the book. I think I’ll probably give the book 1 star on goodreads once I’ve finished it because I dislike the way it is written, but I do plan to finish it. I’d like to learn more about social skills, including communication skills, in order to get better at figuring out how to improve them, and the way I usually go about learning stuff about an area about which I don’t know a great deal is to read a book on the topic. Well, this is the sort of book which is available here, so that’s what I’ve got to work with – and I feel like I have to try to make it work.

But it’s occasionally really hard to keep reading. The best way to illustrate which kind of book this is is perhaps by including this observation: The author mentions Star Trek in this textbook. He uses it as a lever to talk about cultural developments in the 60es. Frankly I think students who are forced to use this textbook in class should demand that their universities fire the incompetent clowns who decided that it would be a good idea to use this textbook in class (before switching course/major – seriously, if this book is a good example of the kinds of teaching materials on offer in this field, those students should be running for the hills).

With all that stuff out of the way, I have included some of the reasons why I kept reading anyway below. First I’ll cover a few details from the chapter on nonverbal communication which I did not get to talk about in my first post about the book, and then I’ll move on to cover some stuff from the chapter on reinforcement and the chapter about how to go about asking questions.

“Interactors of equal status tend to take up a closer distance than those of unequal status (Zahn, 1991). In fact, where a status differential exists, lower-status individuals will typically permit those of higher status to approach more closely than they would feel privileged to do. As the topic of conversation shifts to become more intimate than is comfortable for the other, that person may increase distance. Interpersonal distance is, therefore, part of [the] dynamic of nonverbal cues, including gaze and orientation, serving to regulate levels of intimacy and involvement.”

“Judge and Cable (2004) found that in the US workplace those who were six feet tall could expect to earn $166,000 more over a 30-year career span than those who were seven inches shorter. Similarly, Case and Paxson (2008) showed that in both the US and UK for every additional 10 centimetre (4 inches) height advantage, males earned between 4 to 10 per cent more, and females between 5 and 8 per cent more. […] in a large Australian study […] Kortt and Leigh (2010) [found that] a 10-centimetre increase in height was linked to a 3 per cent increase in pay for men, and a 2 per cent increase for women.”

“Mean amplitude (associated closely with loudness) and the extent to which amplitude varies around a mean value have been shown to be positively related to perceived dominance of the speaker (Tusing and Dillard, 2000). Speech rate, on the other hand, was negatively associated (i.e. the faster the rate, the lower the estimation of dominance). Anxiety is an emotional state likely to produce speech errors (Knapp and Hall, 2010).”

In broad terms […] NVC [Non-Verbal Communication] compared to language tends to rely less on a symbolic code, is often represented in continuous behaviour, carries meaning less explicitly and typically conveys emotional/relational rather than cognitive/propositional information. […] By means of NVC we can replace, complement, modify or contradict the spoken word. When it is suspected that the latter was done unintentionally and deceit is possible, nonverbal cues are often regarded as more truthful. We also regulate conversations through gestures, gaze and vocal inflection. Revealing emotions and interpersonal attitudes, negotiating relationships, signalling personal and social identity and contextualising interaction are further uses served by means of haptics, proxemics, kinesics and vocalics, together with physical characteristics of the person and the environment. We need information about other people’s qualities, attributes, attitudes and values in order to know how to deal with them. We often infer personality, attitudes, emotions and social status from the behavioural cues presented to us. […] much of nonverbal meaning is inferred and can be easily misconstrued. It only suggests possibilities and must be interpreted in the overall context of not only verbal but also personal and circumstantial information.” [This is part of what I find really annoying about this kind of stuff – there is no list you can look up where a specific type of nonverbal behaviour only has one interpretation. People may yawn because they’re tired, because they are bored, or perhaps simply because someone else yawned. For some people it’s hard to tell the difference, and if your interpretation is wrong it may have unfortunate effects. I recently visited some acquaintances and grossly misinterpreted the body language of one of these acquaintances. Because I misinterpreted the body language of the acquaintance, I basically found myself getting mentally ready to leave at one point because I figured I was obviously boring them and I was assuming they were signalling this to me while thinking about how best to go about getting rid of me (anxiety and elevated rejection-sensitivity on my part probably played a role as well, but that’s part of the point – lots of things play a role here). It turned out that I had completely misinterpreted the nonverbal communication and that they were having a good time – instead of being asked to leave at the point where I was considering suggesting that I leave to allow them to save face by not making them have to spell it out explicitly that I was no longer welcome, which would be awkward, I ended up staying for another two hours and received verbal feedback to the effect that they had found the interaction to be enjoyable and that they would like to repeat it in the future.]

“reinforcement is based ‘on the simple principle that whenever something reinforces a particular activity of an organism, it increases the chances that the organism will repeat that behavior’. […] a reinforcer, by definition, has the effect of increasing the probability of the preceding behaviour. […] reinforcement can be engineered through positive or negative means. The positive reinforcement principle states that ‘if, in a given situation, somebody does something that is followed immediately by a positive reinforcer, then that person is more likely to do the same thing again when he or she next encounters a similar situation’ […] a reward is something given and received in return for something done. While it may act as a reinforcer, whether or not it actually does is an empirical question. […] [In the context of negative reinforcement,] an act is associated with the avoidance, termination or reduction of an aversive stimulus that would have either occurred or continued at some level had the response not taken place. […] Stated formally, the Premack principle proposes that activities of low probability can be increased in likelihood if activities of high probability are made contingent upon them. […] the influence of rewards is wide ranging and can be indirect. Vicarious reinforcement is the process whereby individuals are more likely to adopt particular behaviours if they see others being rewarded for engaging in them.”

“During social encounters we not only welcome but demand a certain basic level of reward. If it is not forthcoming we may treat this as sufficient grounds for abandoning the relationship in favour of more attractive alternatives. […] rewards can be administered in a planned and systematic fashion to selectively reinforce and shape contributions along particular lines. […] there is little which is either original or profound in the proposition that people are inclined to do things that lead to positive outcomes and avoid other courses of action that produce unwanted consequences. This much is widely known. Indeed, the statement may seem so obvious as to be trivial. But […] despite this general awareness, individuals are often remarkably unsuccessful in bringing about behavioural change in both themselves and other people. […] In addition to influencing what recipients say or do, bestowing rewards also conveys information about the giver. Providers of substantial amounts of social reinforcement are usually perceived to be keenly interested in those with whom they interact and what they have to say. They also typically create an impression of being warm, accepting and understanding. […] By contrast, those who dispense few social rewards are often regarded as cold, aloof, depressed or bored – as well as boring. […] Positive reactions may not only produce more favourable impressions towards those who offer them, but can also result in heightened feelings of self-esteem and self-efficacy in the recipient.”

“People are not merely passive recipients of the reactions of others. Rather, they often make a deliberate effort to present themselves in such a way as to attract a particular type of evaluative response. One motive for this is self-enhancement. Through a process of impression management or self-presentation individuals go out of their way to make themselves as appealing as possible to others […] For some, under certain circumstances, self-verification rather than self-enhancement is what counts […]. Here, it is not necessarily a positive evaluation that is being sought, but rather one that is consistent with the individual’s existing self-referenced views and beliefs […] These findings have interesting and significant ramifications for rewarding and reinforcing. For those with a poor self-concept and low self-esteem, praise and other positive reactions incongruent with how they regard themselves may not be appreciated and fail to have a reinforcing influence. Indeed, the opposite may be the case. […] The success of praise as a reinforcer can be increased […] by ensuring that it: • is applied contingently • specifies clearly the particular behaviour being reinforced • is offered soon after the targeted behaviour • is credible to the recipient • is restricted to those […] who respond best to it […] Praise does not always carry positive messages […] A reward for doing very little provides no useful feedback and does not increase the individual’s sense of competence. […] When seen as an attempt at cynical manipulation, rewards are also likely to be counterproductive […] It is important that social rewards are perceived as genuinely reflecting the source’s reaction to the targeted person or performance.”

“The administration of reinforcement is not solely dependent upon the verbal channel of communication. It has been established that a number of nonverbal behaviours, such as a warm smile or an enthusiastic nod of the head, can also have a reinforcing impact on the behaviour of the other person during interaction. […] The nonverbal channel is particularly adept at communicating states and attitudes such as friendliness, interest, warmth and involvement. […] The establishment of eye contact is usually a preparatory step when initiating interaction. During a conversation, continued use of this behaviour is an indicator of our responsiveness to the other, and level of involvement in the exchange. Its selective use can, therefore, have reinforcing potential. […] Proximity reinforcement refers to potential reinforcing effects that can accrue from altering the distance between oneself and another during interaction. A reduction in interpersonal distance usually accompanies a desire for greater intimacy and involvement. However, while someone who adopts a position at some distance from the other participant may be seen as being unreceptive and detached, a person who approaches too closely may be regarded as overfamiliar, dominant or even threatening.”

“It is not necessary to reinforce constantly each and every instance of a specific response for that class of response to be increased. It has been found that, following an initial period of continual reinforcement to establish the behaviour, the frequency of reinforcement can be reduced without resulting in a corresponding reduction in target behaviour. This is called intermittent reinforcement, and many real-life activities […] are maintained in this way. […] Accordingly, Maag (2003) recommended that rewards should be used sparingly to maximise their reinforcing efficacy. A related recommendation is that recipients have access to these only after performing the desired behaviour. Along similar lines, gain/loss theory predicts that when the receipt of a reward is set against a backdrop of a general paucity of positive reaction from that source, its effect will be enhanced […] The continual and inflexible use of a specific reinforcer will quickly lead to that reinforcer losing its reinforcing properties. The recipient will become satiated. […] An attempt should therefore be made to employ a variety of reinforcing expressions and behaviours […] If reinforcement is delayed, there is a danger that other responses may intervene between the one to be promoted and the presentation of the reinforcer. Making the individual aware of the basis upon which the reinforcer, when it is delivered, is gained may help to reduce the negative effects of delay. […] from a motivational viewpoint, the availability of immediate payoff is likely to have greater incentive value than the prospect of having to wait for some time for personal benefits to materialise. […] selective reinforcement refers to the fact that it is possible to reinforce selectively certain elements of a response without necessarily reinforcing it in total. […] Allied to this process, shaping permits nascent attempts at an ultimately acceptable end performance to be rewarded. By systematically demanding higher standards for rewards to be granted, performances can be shaped to attain requisite levels of excellence. The acquisition of most everyday skills […] involve an element of shaping.”

“The most common division of questions relates to the degree of freedom, or scope, given to the respondent in answering. Those that leave the respondent open to choose any one of a number of ways in which to reply are referred to as open questions, while those that require a short response of a specific nature are termed closed questions. […] Closed questions are usually easy to answer, and so are useful in encouraging early participation in an interaction. […] Closed questions can usually be answered adequately in one or a very few words. They are restricted in nature, imposing limitations on the possible responses that the respondent can make. They give the questioner a high degree of control over the interaction […] Open questions are broad in nature and require more than one or two words for an adequate answer. In general they have the effect of ‘encouraging clients to talk longer and more deeply about their concerns’ […]. They are useful in allowing a respondent to express opinions, attitudes, thoughts and feelings. They do not require any prior knowledge on the part of questioners, who can ask open questions about topics or events with which they are not familiar. They also encourage the respondent to talk, thereby leaving the questioner free to listen and observe. This means, of course, that the respondent has a greater degree of control over the interaction and can determine to a greater extent what is to be discussed […] An important advantage of open questions is that the respondent may reveal information that the questioner had not anticipated. […] Answers to open questions may be time consuming and may also contain irrelevant or less vital information. […] There is research evidence to suggest that a consistent sequence of questions facilitates participation and understanding in respondents […] On the other hand, an erratic sequence of open and closed questions is likely to confuse the respondent and reduce the level of participation. Erratic sequences of questions […] are common in interrogative interviews where the purpose is to confuse suspects […] Generalisations about the relative efficacy of open or closed questions are difficult, since the intellectual capacity of the respondent must be taken into consideration. It has long been known that open questions may not be as appropriate with respondents of lower intellect.”

“questions allow the questioner to control the conversation ‘by requesting the addressee to engage with a specific topic and/or perform a particular responsive action’. […] in most contexts it is the person of higher status, or the person in control, who asks the questions. Thus, the majority of questions are asked by teachers in classrooms, doctors in surgeries, nurses on the ward, lawyers in court, detectives in interrogation rooms and so on.”

“The blatantly incorrect simple leading question serves to place the respondent in the position of expert vis-à-vis the misinformed interviewer. As a result, the respondent may feel obliged to provide information that will enlighten the interviewer. Some of this information may involve the introduction of new and insightful material. While they can be effective in encouraging participation, it is not possible to state how and in what contexts simple leading questions can be most gainfully employed. In certain situations, and with particular types of respondent, their use is counterproductive. […] It has been known for some time that the use of simple leads that are obviously incorrect can induce respondents to participate fully in an interview, in order to correct any misconceptions inherent in the question. […] [However] [m]ost authors of texts on interviewing have eschewed this form of questioning as bad practice. […] Research in interrogation consistently reveals that to be successful the interviewer must build up a rapport with the interviewee and appear to be nonjudgemental […]. Good interrogators possess qualities such as genuineness, trustworthiness, concern, courtesy, tact, empathy, compassion, respect, friendliness, gentleness, receptivity, warmth and understanding. We disclose to such people – they seem to care and do not judge”


August 13, 2014 - Posted by | Books, Psychology

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