Thursday, January 03, 2008

You Scratch Your Nose, I Scratch Mine - What body language really means.

As many of my regular readers know, I love observing people. I suppose that is why I was drawn to primatology. You can't just walk up to nonverbal animals and ask them - "What is your motivation for doing _____?" You have to observe them.

My habit of observing people combined with my intense study a particular area of psychology - nonverbal communication - comes in very handy when I meet new people. It is especially useful for gauging dominance relationships. We humans are primates. Despite being generally friendly with one another, we still form dominance hierarchies in all sorts of relationships at home, with friends, at work, in school, etc. that have repercussions for those relationships.

I'd like to share with you one key behavior that I pay attention to, and that you should too if you're interested in your social position, and let's face it, who as a person is not at least a little bit concerned about how they rate next to others?


What is it? It's the label for what happens when you do something, like scratch your nose, at the same time or shortly thereafter, that the person you're talking to does. People mirror, or copy, all sorts of random behaviors. Many of them fall into the category called "displacement behaviors" coined by ethologists (people who study animal behavior in their natural habitat). Displacement behaviors are basically little nervous ticks - like touching your nose or pant cuff, or stroking your beard or ring, twirling your finger around a strand of hair - that you do when nervous. Animal equivalents include paw licking. Doing these things calms us.

And - when we do it in synchrony - it builds a feeling of rapport. Chalk it up to liking and feeling safer around those who are like us.

Numerous psychological studies have been conducted on the causes, correlates, and consequences of the "chameleon effect." It is one of the most robust areas of nonverbal communication study.

The findings repeatedly show that people who mirror others engender greater feelings of rapport during conversation. They are liked more, even trusted more. It's even an effective form of flirting - and according to some - is a critical stage of romantic relationship formation. But, you can't manufacture rapport out of nowhere. Attempts to deliberately copy someone will be spotted, and you'll achieve the opposite effect - the person will think you are, at best, trying too hard or are simply 'awkward,' and at worst, mocking them. It has to happen naturally.

Who copies whom is important too. In a conversation, there is usually one person whose behavior 'rubs off on the other.' They are known as the zeitgeber, a German word meaning time keeper. Other people copy them. By paying attention to who changes their posture or gestures in a particular way first - and then watching who mirrors it, you can determine who acts as the zeitgeber. The zeitgebers are the influential ones. They are the ones that others want to impress.

Occupying the zeitgeber position is not so much a personality trait as it is highly situationally dependent. Amongst some people, you may be the zeitgeber. Yet with others, you may be the follower.

An observant person can gather useful information, especially when first getting to know a group of people, simply by paying attention to who acts as the zeitgeber during conversations.

I think all students of psychology should fully develop the habit of carefully observing others by the time they graduate.

Why? It's far too easy to trust and to fall back on what we humans have been doing successfully for millions of years - talking - and too easy to forget to pay attention to what we have been doing successfully for many millions more years - communicating nonverbally.

Although language is usually intentional, nonverbal behavior is usually not.

Because language is newer to us than nonverbal forms of communication (facial expression, gestures, body posture), it takes more effort. People have to concentrate to form words and have to choose them actively. Nonverbal behaviors are largely passive and unintentional. They can be excellent cues to how a person really feels and what they really think. We usually take the time to censor our language, but the body language messages leak right on by.

That's why I think psychology students and everyone else who wants to understand 'what makes people tick' ought to pay more attention to what people do and less to what they say.


EcoGeoFemme said...

Very interesting post! I'd love to hear more about this in the future.

I can't wait for my next long conversation with my advisor. I've noticed that we often end up sitting in the same odd positions when we are engaged in serious discussion. I wonder who the zeitgeber is. She's certainly in charge officially, but I can be pretty bossy socially...

punchanella said...

that is SO interesting. just as i was thinking, i'll mimic my husband's behaviors while we're talking so he'll like more more, WHAM... you mention that it's obvious to the 'timekeeper'. damn. :)

really neat post.

Nezha said...

Hah, So many dating books i read tell you to mirror the person you're with on purpose. Lol i'm sure this could work if artfully done...But if i'm out with someone who seems to be copying everything i'm doing, i'd probably end up wondering if something is wrong with them :)

ara133photography said...

Interesting!!! Funny, though, it reminds me of that scene in Better Off Dead where they both start scratching their noses, faces, heads... :)

miznyc said...

hmmm...I wonder if smoking is implicated in this at all. Like, smokers feel more camraderie because of the shared act.

Don't mind me. Just thinking out loud.

Field Notes said...

miznyc, I think you're onto something!