Psychology Of Nonverbal Communication Research Paper

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Nonverbal communication refers to the ways in which human beings convey information about their emotions, needs, intentions, attitudes, and thoughts without the use of verbal language. Nonverbal cues serve important functions in human social life, including expressing emotions; conveying interpersonal attitudes such as friendliness, insult, or dominance; regulating affect; regulating turn taking between people in conversation; and facilitating one’s own speech production. Nonverbal signals are important in many psychological processes, including attachment, attraction, social influence, deception, self-presentation, and interpersonal self-fulfilling prophecies. Cultural, gender, and other group differences in nonverbal behavior have been documented as well as individual differences in usage and in the accuracy of nonverbal cue transmission and reception.



1. Nonverbal Communication As A Scientific Discipline

The topic of nonverbal communication emerged as a significant subject of empirical inquiry in the 1950s, although interest in expression has a long history (e.g., Darwin 1965). The study of nonverbal communication is interdisciplinary, spanning sociology, anthropology, ethology, communication, and virtually all of the subdisciplines within psychology (social, personality, developmental, psychophysiological, clinical, and cognitive). The empirical study of nonverbal behavior has been greatly aided by audiovisual and computer technology which permit archives of data to be collected and analyzed. The Journal of Nonverbal Behavior was founded in 1979.

2. Features Of Nonverbal Communication

People possess a rich understanding of how nonverbal cues are used within their cultural group and can ‘read’ others’ cues with a high degree of accuracy; however, this knowledge is mostly implicit and often out of conscious awareness. Nonverbal communication is also ever present in social interaction because, although it is possible to refrain from speaking, it is not possible to refrain from emitting nonverbal cues, actively or passively, that will be given meaning by others. Because nonverbal cues are constantly subject to interpretation, miscommunication can easily occur. Nonverbal communication can occur with conscious intention, as when a person gives a ‘thumbs up’ gesture to indicate approval, or spontaneously, as when a person unknowingly reveals sadness through a slumped posture and a down-turned mouth. In this research paper, the term ‘nonverbal behavior’ is used interchangeably with ‘nonverbal communication,’ although some have argued that the latter term should be reserved for behavior that is known to have the properties of a shared meaning code. Although it was once thought that nonverbal communication would prove to have many of the properties of verbal language, it is now clear that the popular term ‘body language’ is a misnomer.

Nonverbal cues do not have much syntactic structure, and they do not combine in a rule-bound manner to produce nonverbal ‘sentences.’ Moreover, most nonverbal behaviors take on clear meanings only with the addition of information about the situation, antecedent events, characteristics of the communicator, and other nonverbal and verbal cues, and even then the meanings of nonverbal cues can be ambiguous. Some nonverbal behaviors are discrete and have arbitrary meanings (similar to verbal language); the most notable category of this kind is the hand gestures that are called emblems, which have fixed verbal equivalents within a culture, with examples being the ‘peace sign,’ the ‘A-okay sign,’ and the ‘finger’ in North American culture. However, the great majority of nonverbal behaviors are continuous rather than discrete, are not hierarchically organized, and have referents that are intrinsic or iconic rather than arbitrary (Ekman and Friesen 1969). Nonverbal cues often accompany spoken words, and when they do they can augment or contradict the meanings of the words as well as combine with the words to produce unique interpretations. An example of the latter is sarcasm, which is produced when positive verbal messages are paired with negative nonverbal cues conveyed by the face or voice.

3. Types Of Nonverbal Cues

For convenience, the study of nonverbal communication is often organized into channels representing different modalities or body parts. Channels that are defined in terms of individual behavior include facial expressions, head movements, posture and body movement, hand movements, self-touching, leg positions and movements, and nonlinguistic vocal behavior. Within each of these, further distinctions can be made such as brow vs. mouth regions of the face, and, within the vocal channel, variations in speed, amplitude, and contour. Physical characteristics such as height, weight, and facial physiognomy are also studied as ‘nonverbal communication’ insofar as people draw inferences (correct or not) about a person based on these characteristics. Channels of nonverbal behavior that are defined dyadically include interpersonal distance (proxemic behavior), other-directed touch, gaze, and synchrony (coordinated position or movement). Behaviors that are not easily classifiable as either nonverbal or verbal include verbal interruptions, pauses and hesitations, dysfluencies in speech, verbal reinforcers (‘mmmm,’ ‘uh-huh’), and manual language systems such as American Sign Language. Finally, some uses of physical objects are also studied as nonverbal communication, for example clothing, hairstyles, and makeup; similarly, environmental features such as room and seating design are often considered ‘nonverbal’ insofar as they influence people’s behavior. Cataloging of nonverbal behaviors into channels can obscure important similarities in function across channels. For example, both saying ‘mmm-hmmm’ and nodding can serve the function of encouraging the speaker to continue. Although it is commonly assumed that the main function of nonverbal behavior is to express or reveal emotion, this is only one of a number of distinct functions. Another emotional function is to regulate and modulate one’s own emotional states via internal feedback processes. Nonemotional functions include conveying interpersonal attitudes (such as friendliness, insult, or dominance), coordinating turn-taking between people in conversation, and facilitating one’s own speech production.

4. Basic Approaches To The Study Of Nonverbal Communication

Broadly speaking, there are two main approaches to the study of nonverbal behavior. The first is normative, concerned with describing typical nonverbal behavior patterns, including the meanings that are ascribed to those patterns, between and among groups of people, such as different cultures, ages, and genders. The second approach is concerned with individual differences, that is, the investigation of variation among individuals within groups. An example of this approach would be the study of personality correlates of smiling. Within both the normative and individual differences approaches, research can focus on emitted behavior or on accuracy of nonverbal communication. The study of emitted behavior consists of measuring and describing the specific nonverbal behaviors produced by people in different roles, relationships, situations, and groups, and what functions and impact they have. Accuracy of nonverbal communication is further divided into decoding accuracy or the accuracy with which a person can interpret the meanings of nonverbal cues expressed by others, and encoding accuracy or the accuracy with which others can interpret one’s own emitted cues. Encoding accuracy can be further broken down into intentional encoding and spontaneous encoding, the former referring to success in deliberately conveying messages via nonverbal cues and the latter referring to the transparency of one’s expressions even when not consciously trying to communicate. Often, people unconsciously mimic others’ expressions. Because expressive mimicry occurs even in infants, it has been suggested that these vicarious processes are innate and help to establish the basis for emotion recognition and emotional self-knowledge.

5. Methodology

Nonverbal communication research utilizes both observational and experimental methods, in both field and laboratory settings. Research may also be either qualitative (i.e., using ethological or participation observation methodology as in Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1975 and Goffman 1959) or quantitative. A wide variety of coding methods exist for quantifying nonverbal behavior in various channels of communication. Quantification is typically done in terms of frequency of occurrence or duration. When research is performed in controlled settings, the use of audio and videotape recordings allows for complex measurement systems to be applied. An important distinction is between descriptive and inferential assessment. In a descriptive coding system, particular behaviors are quantified through coding, rating, or mechanical measurement (e.g., number of hand movements per minute, average duration of gaze at partner, rating of extent of smiling, average vocal amplitude). In an inferential system, interpretations are made by observers; examples would be ratings of anger, anxiety, deceptiveness, or dominance.

Inferential ratings can be valuable in that they capture complex patterns of behavior in an overall interpretation (provided that interobserver reliability is adequate). It is also possible to ask how descriptive behaviors combine to create a global impression. For example, speaking in a loud voice, touching the other person, and engaging in relatively less gazing at the partner while listening (compared to while speaking) all contribute to the inference of dominance. When investigators wish to establish the validity of inferences about nonverbal cues, they must establish a criterion for deciding what the cues mean. Because nonverbal cues are often emitted outside of the encoder’s conscious awareness, one often cannot rely on the encoder’s self-report as a criterion; moreover, in many research settings (e.g., in public), it is not possible to ask encoders about the meanings of their behaviors. A common alternative is the use of the consensus of observers as the criterion; for example, if observers agree that an expression looks sad, then ‘sadness’ becomes the operational definition of the expression’s meaning. Another method is to identify the meaning of expressions on the basis of situational context; for example, the facial expression of a person who is confronted with a dish of rotting meat would be assumed to reflect ‘disgust.’ Finally, it is possible to identify emotional meanings through the analysis of facial muscle movements. In the Facial Action Coding System (Ekman and Friesen 1978), emotional expressions are identified based on the patterns of activated facial muscles. ‘Happiness,’ for example, is signaled by certain movements of the Zygomatic major and Orbicularis oculi muscles (which pull out the mouth and crinkle the eyes, respectively). In order to study vocal nonverbal cues separately from verbal cues, investigators use content-free speech. One technique to accomplish this involves asking encoders to recite neutral-content words or phrases (such as affectively ambiguous sentences or the alphabet) while trying to convey different nonverbal messages. Less artificial is electronic filtering, wherein the highest frequencies are removed from an audiotaped voice, rendering the words unintelligible while the expressive qualities that result from amplitude, frequency, contour, hesitations, and other acoustic properties remain audible. Often, it is advantageous for investigators to develop standardized cue sets in the form of photographic slides, videotapes, or audiotapes, which can be reused with many observers. The most common application of this approach is to measure individual differences in decoding accuracy. Once the investigator determines what is the ‘correct answer’ for each item in the set (for example, which emotion is being conveyed), it is a simple matter to use the items as a test on which each test-taker’s accuracy score is the number of items judged correctly. Several tests of this nature have been developed and validated (e.g., the Profile of Nonverbal Sensitivity; Rosenthal et al. 1979).

6. Some Established Findings

6.1 Meanings Associated With Nonverbal Cues

As stated earlier, nonverbal cues often do not have clear meaning in isolation from other cues and information about the circumstances. However, some generalizations can be made. The face is well studied as the source of information on emotions (Ekman 1982). Patterns of facial muscle movements have been identified for at least six basic emotions—happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, and disgust. These patterns produce highly consistent emotion recognition in many cultures of the world. This, in combination with evidence from primates and infants, suggests a biological basis for emotional expression and recognition. Although facial expressions often reveal felt emotion, they are also used for social signaling. Expressions are often used as messages of affiliation, encouragement, empathy, or threat; they also help to regulate and punctuate the flow of conversation in dialogue. The social signaling function of nonverbal communication includes the use of nonverbal cues for deception. In general, decoders are not highly accurate in detecting deception from nonverbal cues. The nonverbal cues that are valid indicators of deception are not necessarily those that people believe are associated with deception. Movements of the eyes signal attention; in friendly interactions, more gaze signifies a more positive attitude. More gazing, more smiling, closer interpersonal distance, and more direct body orientation all convey psychological immediacy. Hand gestures emitted during speech are used in part as facilitators of lexical access (retrieving the words one wants to use in speech). They can also serve nonaffective interpersonal functions, for example, turn coordination and the signaling of ellipsis, help seeking, and digression, as well as informational functions (for example, when the hands are used to depict the shape or size of an object). Some movements of the hands, particularly self-touching, as well as erect or fidgety body movements and higher vocal pitch, are related to anxiety or stress.

6.2 Group Differences

Gender differences in nonverbal communication are well established (as summarized by J. A. Hall 1984). Some of the differences are present in children and adolescents as well as in adults, although in general few of the male–female differences are large in absolute magnitude. Women smile, nod, and gaze more than men; their faces are more expressive; they establish closer interpersonal distances and are approached closer than men; they touch each other more than men do; and they are more skilled in emotion expression and in decoding the expressions of others. There is considerable debate over the origins of these differences. Cultural differences have also been examined. (Most research reported in this research paper is based on North American behavior.) Debate has flourished over the question of cultural universality vs. cultural specificity, with anthropologists arguing for a high degree of cultural specificity and psychologists and ethologists arguing for more universality. In fact, both positions are correct depending on the question being asked. A given nonverbal behavior may have similar meanings in many places (e.g., smile means happiness, scowl means threat), but the degree to which that behavior is emitted may vary across cultures. The term display rules is used to describe local norms for when, and to what extent, and by whom, different nonverbal behaviors are to be used (Ekman 1982). Often observed is the difference between contact and noncontact cultures, those that encourage physical and sensory involvement and those that do not (E. T. Hall 1966). An example would be reduced frequency of interpersonal touch and greater interpersonal distances in Northern European vs. Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, or Latin American countries. Gestural emblems, mentioned earlier, which often have meanings associated with sex or insult, show marked cultural differences in meaning, producing many opportunities for embarrassment between communicators from different cultures. Differences in emitted behavior and in communication accuracy have also been documented with respect to mental illness, pain and physical illness, and age.

6.3 Individual Differences

With respect to individual differences, the main topics are nonverbal correlates of personality and accuracy of nonverbal communication. The personality trait of extraversion, for example, has several nonverbal correlates, including louder and more fluent speech, closer interpersonal distances, and heightened levels of gaze. Individuals who are higher on decoding accuracy have been shown to be better adjusted, less hostile and manipulating, more interpersonally democratic, less dogmatic, and more cognitively complex; they also receive higher ratings of interpersonal sensitivity from friends and higher supervisors’ ratings of clinical ability.

7. Future Directions

Some of the important questions remaining to be answered in future research are the following. (a) Origins of nonverbal communication abilities. Although nonverbal abilities can be measured and are related to social and psychological functioning, very little is known about how and why differences in ability develop. (b) Process of nonverbal cue judgment. The judging of nonverbal cues has been called an ‘automatic’ or ‘intuitive’ process simply because it often occurs rapidly and without much conscious deliberation. Future research will address nonverbal cue judgment in terms of cognitive processes (e.g., attention, memory) in order to understand not only what inferences people make about nonverbal cues but also what rules they apply and how they do so. (c) Dynamic cues and cue configurations. Most research to date has focused on one nonverbal channel at a time, one person at a time, and temporally static cues.

In the future with the help of computer technology, research will more often address how multiple channels of communication combine to convey meaning, the nature of nonverbal behavior between interacting partners or in groups, and nonverbal behavior as it changes over time within interactions.


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