Econstudentlog

Nonverbal Communication

“The purpose of the book is to bring together a number of nonverbal behavior researchers to discuss current themes and research. The book is meant for senior undergraduates, graduates, academics and nonverbal communication researchers, as well as for everyone else who wants to interpret and understand better nonverbal behavior and the states of their interlocutors. The texts in this book show the results of contemporary research and theorization of the nature, functions, and modalities of nonverbal behavior in different areas of life.”

From the introduction of the book. The book has two parts; a theoretical part and an applied part. The first half of the book covers theoretical research and as I also noted in my goodreads review I found this part of the book quite weak, but a few of the chapters in the second half of the book, dealing with applied research into these topics, had some interesting stuff (‘If you decide to have a go at this book I’d probably be tempted to recommend only reading the first four chapters of part 2’ – from my goodreads review). My coverage of the book in this post will skip a lot of chapters; I’ll focus on the stuff I found interesting and just ignore the rest. The four chapters mentioned above cover ‘Nonverbal Firsts: When Nonverbal Cues Are the Impetus of Relational and Personal Change in Romantic Relationships’ (chapter 7), ‘Beyond Facial Expression: Spatial Distance as a Factor in the Communication of Discrete Emotions’ (chapter 8), Theoretical Foundation for Emotion-Based Strategies in Political Campaigns (chapter 9), and ‘The Impact of Nonverbal Behavior in the Job Interview’ (chapter 10).

I would note that I actually emailed a few quotes from the last of these chapters to a good friend of mine who recently had a job interview coming up, which is perhaps a good illustration of how potentially useful I consider some of the content covered here to be – this is worth keeping in mind when interpreting the two star (and ‘much closer to one star than three’) goodreads rating. It should however also be recalled that the authors of chapter 8, which is incidentally far from the worst chapter in the book, claim/think the so-called McClintock effect is real, based on outdated research. They write in the chapter that: “Martha McClintock and colleagues reported evidence that the menstrual cycles of co-habiting women can become synchronized, a phenomenon termed the McClintock effect (McClintock, 1971; Hummer & McClintock, 2009). Although controversial, the reality of the phenomenon is now generally accepted (Wysocki & Preti, 2004).” Compare with wikipedia: “A 2013 review of menstrual synchrony concluded that menstrual synchrony is an erroneous theory. […] Harris and Vitzthum concluded, “In light of the lack of empirical evidence for MS [menstrual synchrony] sensu stricto, it seems there should be more widespread doubt than acceptance of this hypothesis””.

Below I have added some quotes from the book, as well as a few observations of my own. I would note that I have read and written about stuff related to the content covered in this post before here on the blog, so if you’re curious to learn more after having read this post, you might consider following some of those links.

“[N]onverbal behaviors have the potential to be transformative. That is, they may act as triggers for a change in a relationship, perception, behavior, or affect. In particular, […] when a nonverbal behavior occurs or is noticed for the first time, these behavioral “firsts” can have big implications, positive or negative, for people in relationships. […] the authors find that touch, eye behavior, and personal space are the cues reported most commonly as triggers for change and which help bring about the start of a romantic relationship, perception of how much or little another cares, relational problems, instant break-ups, and indicators of another’s untrustworthiness.”

“Baxter and Bullis (1986) found that the first time their participants kissed or had sex with a partner altered the degree of commitment that they had to the relationship. In this way, the first appearance of certain nonverbal cues or acts may be important triggers of change within a relationship. […] In our respondents’ reports, we read many accounts of how a single behavior, used for what the respondent recalled was the first time, instantly changed the relationship or the perception of the relationship between the two individuals. There was some variety in the behaviors, but most typically they were handholding, prolonged gaze, kisses, closer proximity, and “changes” in touch behavior. In most of the situations described by our participants, the behavior was received positively and started a romantic relationship. In a few instances, however, it indicated to the respondent that they or another person had romantic feelings that were unreciprocated. These latter situations reportedly resulted in either the termination of the existing relationship or awkwardness in the relationship. […] the same actions – kisses, close personal distance – may have very different outcomes, depending on the reciprocity of the behaviors and feelings. […] a rather common claim about touch is that it “is a signal in the communication process that, above all other communication channels, most directly and immediately escalates the balance of intimacy” […]. Perhaps above all other nonverbal cues, touch has been shown to facilitate dramatic “surge[s] in affective involvement” […] nonverbal cues, although sometimes subtle and easy to miss, may actually be “big” actions in relational change.”

“[P]articipants often commented on the lack of a behavior (e.g., no eye contact, ignoring behavior [which presumably was determined by lack of gaze, not responding, and the like], and not talking [silence]). The themes were consistent whether they were discussing their own or their partner’s behaviors. […] Avoidance of eye contact, silence, and “ignoring,” rather than immediate, engaged, intimate, behavior was common in this group of entries and marked the beginning (or the first signal) of the relationship’s decline.”

The research they presented in the chapter was disappointing to me in a way, due to the methodology applied. Basically they asked people (…well, psychology undergrads…) which non-verbal behaviours ‘stood out’ to them, and then they interpreted the behaviours based on these accounts. Recall biases are a potentially serious problem, and if you ask people to explain relationship changes as a function of nonverbal behaviours then you’ll probably get answers indicating that nonverbal behaviours are important, regardless of whether they really are or not. But on a related note it seems hard to do ‘naturalistic/observational’ research into these topics (‘follow people around with video cameras and try to spot which nonverbal behaviours on display might be associated with relationship formation?’), and even if the self-reports are not wholly reliable they may provide some information. A big problem in the context of research into these things is of course that you can’t really directly observe relationships and relationship formation; these things are to a very large extent nothing but mental constructs in the minds of the people involved, meaning that you probably to some extent sort of have to rely on things like self-report variables. This makes everything quite a bit more ‘fuzzy’ than it otherwise would be. Note that the fact that ‘relationships are mental constructs existing only in the minds of the people involved’ does not to me seem to necessarily indicate that asking people what they think caused a relationship to change will yield reliable answers; people may not know why they feel the way they do about a given individual or why their feelings changed at some point, and/but if you give them a specific reason/variable to consider they’ll be likely to overestimate the importance of said variable. If they’d asked the same people if specific verbal exchanges (‘first time he said ‘I love you’?’) had changed how they felt about that individual, they might have got different answers.

When you consider how ‘squishy’ this stuff is, I think other approaches besides the ones considered by the authors might also be useful to consider if you want to get at the extent to which nonverbal behaviour is important; for example I feel tempted to conclude that the poor relationship outcomes of autistics (“In terms of outcome studies to date, very few adults with ASD have been reported to have successful, long-term romantic relationships […] Between 10 and 30 % of adults in recent studies […] had experience in a romantic relationship.” – link), a population including people who often have great difficulties interpreting nonverbal behaviours and cues, might provide stronger evidence in favour of the importance of nonverbal behaviours in relationship contexts than the study in question provides. Although I’d certainly agree that important confounders are present in this context (…as well), making it very difficult to take the poor relationship outcomes of this group as solely a consequence of nonverbal behavioural aspects.

“[In political contexts,] candidates and issues that emphasize freedom (e.g., fewer restrictions and external constraints on behavior and opportunities, less limitation on social and economic mobility) are more likely to appeal to men than to women. […] political messages or tactics that repeatedly produce anxious feelings (e.g., bewilderment, distress, pain, insecurity, fear) in voters are likely to magnify the influence of voter emotions on voter political judgments. Additional related effects are expected to include greater polarization of competing groups and simplification of decision rules and belief systems (e.g., increased single-issue voting, greater reliance on candidates’ physical features and communication styles than on candidates’ ideological positions).”

“Research shows that there is a positive relation between [job] applicant positive nonverbal behavior and recruiter evaluation. Positive nonverbal behavior can be defined as immediacy behavior which elicits proximity and liking in the interaction partner as for example a high level of eye contact, smiling, confirmative nodding, hand gestures, and variation in pitch and speaking rate […]. Applicants who used more immediacy behavior (i.e., eye contact, smiling, body orientation toward interviewer, less personal distance) were perceived as being more suitable for the job, more competent, more motivated, and more successful than applicants using less immediacy behavior […] Forbes and Jackson (1980) showed that selected applicants maintained more direct eye contact, smiled more, and nodded more during the job interview than applicants who were not selected for the job. Moreover, applicants who maintained a high amount of eye contact with the recruiter, who showed a high energy level, were affective, modulated their voice, and spoke fluently during the job interview were more likely to be invited for a second job interview than applicants revealing less of those nonverbal behaviors”.

“In terms of applicant characteristics, applicants high in communication apprehension who used more nonverbal avoidance behavior (i.e., less talking, less eye contact, less fluent talking) were less effective in mock job interviews and were perceived as less suitable for the job than applicants with low levels of communication apprehension […] Overall, there are only few studies that did not show an effect between applicant nonverbal immediacy behavior and a favorable hiring decision […] and meta-analyses reveal a clear net effect showing that the more the applicant uses nonverbal immediacy behavior, the better the interview outcome for the applicant (i.e., better chances of getting hired or of being evaluated positively) […] Applicant nonverbal behavior seems to have a remarkable impact on the job interview outcome. The more immediacy (or positive) nonverbal behavior the applicant shows during the job interview, the more positive recruiter evaluations of the applicant are.”

“the question can be asked how accurate recruiters are when inferring applicant characteristics. For many personality characteristics, they seem to use the “wrong,” meaning non-diagnostic, cues. […] many more nonverbal cues are used to infer applicant’s personality traits than are cues actually revealing these traits. […] recruiters seem to use the nonverbal cues that are not diagnostic to assess applicants – in a sense they use the wrong cues – and [yet] are still accurate in assessing applicants’ personality. It remains therefore largely unknown how the recruiters make those correct inferences.”

How accurate the inferences are is to some extent an open question (though it’s probably safe to say that interviews provide less relevant information than many people think – including the authors of that chapter: “[interviews] provide very little unique information about a candidate and show little incremental validity over established psychometric tests (of ability and personality) in the prediction of future job performance […] All sorts of extraneous factors like the perfume a person wears at interview have been shown to influence ratings.” – link). A related observation is that assessment accuracy definitely depends upon the dimension of the variable of interest; some personality characteristics are much easier to observe/deduce than are others, as noted e.g. in Funder’s (‘some behaviors are more dependent on the situation than are others’) book (‘traits like extraversion and agreeableness are the ones most likely to become visible in overt social behavior’).

February 17, 2016 - Posted by | books, Psychology

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