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Lost in translation: Body language myths and reality  

2013-04-12 20:57:55|  分类: 默认分类 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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本文作者:小红猪小分队

Source:http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21829111.900-lost-in-translation-body-language-myths-and-reality.html?full=true

Think you’re good at interpreting people's non-verbal signals? Well, there’s more – and sometimes less – to our movements and poses than meets the eye

Test your body language comprehension: "What your dance style says about you"

WHEN Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes announced their divorce last year, tabloid journalists fell over themselves to point out that they had seen it coming. "Just look at their body language!" the headlines screamed, above shots of Holmes frowning while holding Cruise at arm's length. "Awkward!" And when Barack Obama lost last year's first US presidential debate to Republican nominee Mitt Romney, some commentators blamed it on his "low-energy" body language and tendency to look down and purse his lips, which made him come across as "lethargic and unprepared".

Popular culture is full of such insights. After all, it is fun to speculate on the inner lives of the great and the good. But anyone with a sceptical or logical disposition cannot fail to notice the thumping great elephant in the room – the assumption that we can read a person's thoughts and emotions by watching how they move their body. With so many myths surrounding the subject, it is easy to think we understand the coded messages that others convey, but what does science have to say about body language? Is there anything more in it than entertainment value? If so, which movements and gestures speak volumes and which are red herrings? And, knowing this, can we actually alter our own body language to manipulate how others perceive us?

A good place to start looking for answers is the oft-quoted statistic that 93 per cent of our communication is non-verbal, with only 7 per cent based on what we are actually saying. This figure came from research in the late 1960s by Albert Mehrabian, a social psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. He found that when the emotional message conveyed by tone of voice and facial expression differed from the word being spoken (for example, saying the word "brute" in a positive tone and with a smile), people tended to believe the non-verbal cues over the word itself. From these experiments Mehrabian calculated that perhaps only 7 per cent of the emotional message comes from the words we use, with 38 per cent coming from tone and the other 55 per cent from non-verbal cues.

Mehrabian has spent much of the past four-and-a-bit decades pointing out that he never meant this formula to be taken as some kind of gospel, and that it only applies to very specific circumstances – when someone is talking about their likes and dislikes. He now says that "unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable" and that he cringes every times he hears his theory applied to communication in general.

So the oldest stat in the body language book isn't quite what it seems, and the man who came up with the formula would like everyone to please stop going on about it. After all, if we really could understand 93 per cent of what people are saying without recourse to words, we wouldn't need to learn foreign languages and no one would ever get away with a lie.

Clearly, people can lie successfully. And, generally, though it is useful to lie occasionally, we would rather that others could not. Which is why a lot of the interest in body language concerns detecting lies. Legend has it that liars give themselves away with physical "tells", such as looking to the right, fidgeting, holding their own hands or scratching their nose. How much of this stacks up?

The first item is easy to dispatch. A study published last year, the first to scientifically test the "liars look right" assertion, found no evidence to back it up. A team led by psychologist Richard Wiseman from the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, UK, observed the eye movements of volunteers telling lies in lab-based experiments. They also studied footage of people at police press conferences for missing persons, where some of the emotional pleas for information came from individuals who turned out to be involved in the disappearance. In neither case did the liars look to the right any more than in other directions (PLoS One, vol 7, p e40259).

As for other tells, a meta-analysis of more than 100 studies found that the only bodily signs found in liars significantly more often than in truth-tellers were dilated pupils and certain kinds of fidgeting – fiddling with objects and scratching, but not rubbing their face or playing with their hair. The best way to spot a liar, the study found, was not to watch a person's body language but to listen to what they were saying. Liars tended to talk with a higher-pitched voice, gave fewer details in their accounts of events, were more negative and tended to repeat words.

Overall, the researchers concluded, subjective measures – or a gut feeling – might be more effective for lie detection than any available scientific measure. The problem with relying on body language is that while liars may be slightly more likely to exhibit a few behaviours, people who are telling the truth do the same things. In fact, the signals you might think of as red flags for lying, like fidgeting and avoiding eye contact, tend to be signs of emotional discomfort in general, and a non-liar is more likely to express them under the pressure of questioning. This is perhaps why, despite having a vested interest in spotting liars, we are generally pretty bad at it. In fact, US psychologist Paul Ekman has found that most people perform no better than would be expected by chance. And the success rate of judges, police, forensic psychiatrists and FBI agents is only marginally higher.

So it might be best not to go around accusing people of lying based on their body language. And there are lots of other examples in which our preconceptions of non-verbal communication are off-beam or even totally misleading (see graphic). Take crossed arms. Most people believe that when someone folds their arms they are being defensive or trying to fend off another individual or their opinions. This may be true. "But the same arm-cross can mean the opposite if the torso is super-erect, bent back somewhat – then it conveys invulnerability," says David McNeill, who studies gestures at the University of Chicago. Besides, an arm crosser might simply be cold, trying to get comfortable, or just lacking pockets.

McNeill is also not convinced by claims trotted out by public-speaking consultants about the importance of hand gestures. It is often said, for example, that "steepling" your fingers, makes you look authoritative and an open hand signals honesty. He says that these are examples of metaphorical gestures that have the meanings that people in management perceive, but they are not limited to these meanings. In other words, these well-known "rules" of body language are arbitrary. An open hand, for example might be a metaphor for trustworthiness, but it could just as easily signal holding the weight of something. The gesture is ambiguous without context and cues from spoken language.

So far, our scientific approach has provided little support for those who claim to speak fluent body-ese, but it turns out there are some gestures everyone understands. At the 2008 Olympic and Paralympic Games, athletes from all cultures made the same postures when they won: arms up in a high V, with the chin raised. The same was true for athletes who had been blind from birth, suggesting that the victory pose is innate, not learned by observation. Defeat postures seemed to be universal too. Almost everyone hunches over with slumped shoulders when they lose.

In fact, if you are hunting for signs of victory or defeat, the body may be a better place to look than the face. Hillel Aviezer at Princeton University and colleagues revealed last year that the facial expressions of professional tennis players when they won or lost an important point were so similar that people struggled to tell them apart. However, the body language was easy to read even when the face was blanked out (Science, vol 338, p 1225).

Other recent studies indicate that we can glean important clues about people from the way they move. Men judge a woman's walk and dance as significantly sexier when she is in the most fertile part of her menstrual cycle, suggesting that a woman's body language sends out the message that she is ready to mate, whether or not she – or the men around her – realise it. Meanwhile, women and heterosexual men rate the dances of stronger men more highly than those of weaker men, which might be an adaptation for women to spot good mates and men to assess potential opponents.

Using body language to assess sexual attraction can be risky, though. Karl Grammer at the University of Vienna in Austria found support for the popular notion that women signal interest in a man by flipping their hair, tidying their clothes, nodding and making eye contact. But he also discovered that they make the same number of encouraging signals in the first minute of meeting a man whether they fancy him or not. Such flirting is only a sign of real interest if it keeps going after the first 4 minutes or so. Grammer interprets this as women using body language to keep a man talking until they can work out whether he is worth getting to know.

Even when there is general agreement about how to interpret body language, we can be wrong, as has been revealed in new research on gait. Psychologist John Thoresen at the University of Durham, UK, filmed people walking and then converted the images to point-light displays to highlight the moving limbs while removing distracting information about body shape. He found that almost everyone judged a swaggering walk to signal an adventurous, extroverted, warm and trustworthy person. A slow, loose and relaxed walk, on the other hand, was associated with a calm, unflappable personality. However, when the researchers compared the actual personalities of the walkers to the assumptions other people made about them, they found no correlation (Cognition, vol 124, p 2621).

Arguably, it doesn't really matter what your body language actually reveals about you. What matters is what other people think it is telling them. So can it be faked?

Fake it to make it

Thoresen says that it should certainly be possible to fake a confident walk. "I have no data to back this up," he says, "but I do believe people can be trained to change perceived personality." There are other corporeal tricks that may help in impression management, too. For example, people in job interviews who sit still, hold eye contact, smile and nod along with the conversation are more likely to be offered a job. Those whose gaze wanders or who avoid eye contact, keep their head still and don't change their expression much are more likely to be rejected. If it doesn't come naturally, consciously adopting a confident strut, a smile and nod and some extra eye contact probably won't hurt – unless you overdo it and come across as a bit scary.

Faking calmness and confidence may change the way others perceive us, but psychologist Dana Carney at the University of California, Berkeley, believes it can do far more than that. She says we can use our body language to change ourselves. Carney and her colleagues asked volunteers to hold either a "high power" or "low power" pose for 2 minutes. The former were expansive, including sitting with legs on a desk and hands behind the head and standing with legs apart and hands on hips, while the latter involved hunching and taking up little space. Afterwards, they played a gambling game where the odds of winning were 50:50, and the researchers took saliva samples to test the levels of testosterone and cortisol – the "power" and stress hormones, respectively – in their bodies. Those who had held high-power poses were significantly more likely to gamble than those who held low-power poses (86 per cent compared with 60 per cent). Not only that, willingness to gamble was linked to physiological changes. High-power posers had a 20 per cent increase in testosterone and a 25 per cent decrease in cortisol, while low-power posers showed a 10 per cent decrease in testosterone and a 15 per cent increase in cortisol (Psychological Science, vol 21, p 1463).

"We showed that you can actually change your physiology," says Carney. "This goes beyond just emotion – there is something deeper happening here." The feeling of power is not just psychological: increased testosterone has been linked with increased pain tolerance, so power posing really can make us more powerful. And this is not the only way body language can influence how you feel. Carney points to studies showing that sitting up straight leads to positive emotions, while sitting with hunched shoulders leads to feeling down. There is also plenty of evidence that faking a smile makes you feel happier, while frowning has the opposite effect. In fact, there is evidence that people who have Botox injections that prevent them from frowning feel generally happier.

Despite these interesting results, if science has shown us anything it is that we should always question our preconceptions about body language. Even when people from diverse cultures are in agreement about the meaning of a particular movement or gesture, we may all be wrong. As the evidence accumulates, there could come a time when we can tailor our body language to skillfully manipulate the messages we send out about ourselves. For now, at least our popular conceptions can be modified with a little evidence-based insight. Or as Madonna almost put it: "Don't just stand there, let's get to it, strike a pose. There's something to it."

This article appeared in print under the headline "Strong language lost in translation you talkin' to me"

Caroline Williams is a writer based in Surrey, UK

Lost in translation: Body language myths and reality - 科学松鼠会 - 科学松鼠会
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