Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

Let me hear your body talk

May 2nd, 2011

We all know the supposed basics. She rolls her eyes and drums her fingers and you know she’s impatient. He ducks his head and crosses his arms and you know he feels defensive. They hold eye contact and touch a lot and you know they’re flirting.

Body language often seems obvious but not very important. Sure, we know it’s there, but we can ignore it if we want to. It’s not as important as the words are.

Maybe, but it might be more powerful than you think. The body language and facial expressions of a speaker’s opponent can affect the results of a debate: an opponent who displays disagreement while someone else is speaking can cause the audience to rate the speaker more highly.

Body language even affects the person using it. Holding a stereotypically powerful pose for one minute has been shown to change hormone levels and increase our willingness to take risks, as well as making us feel more dominant.

Given this, it’s a bit surprising that the research on using body language (or “nonverbal behaviour”) to make messages more persuasive has had mixed results. Specific techniques have been shown to be effective in some studies and useless in others.

However, psychology researchers have recently suggested that the problem might be when the techniques are used, and with whom – and two studies have confirmed it.

Match your audience…

Joseph Cesario and Tory Higgins gave their study participants a questionnaire to find out whether their personal approach to life was generally more focused on “promotion” (interested in moving forward and making gains) or “prevention” (interested in maintaining safety and preventing harm). Then they watched one of two videos in which a teacher advocated a new after-school assistance program for children.

The videos were identical in general appearance and used the same words, but in one, the teacher used an “eager” delivery style, with broad, animated, outward-facing movements, forward-leaning body positions and faster speech. In the other, he used a “vigilant” delivery style, with more precise movements, slightly backward-leaning body positions and slower speech.

The participants were asked how they felt about the assistance program after watching the video. Overall, both videos were equally effective at promoting it, but those participants previously found to be high in promotion focus were more swayed by the “eager” video, while those who were higher in prevention focus found the “vigilant” video more persuasive.

…or match your strategy

Bob Fennis and Marielle Stel looked at how the same two “eager” and “vigilant” delivery styles worked when sellers used different strategies to sell Christmas candy in an urban supermarket. The researchers first tried the “door in the face” technique (which I wrote about here), in which a seller makes a large, unreasonable request (“Buy six boxes of candy?”), followed by a much smaller request (“Okay, how about one box?”) when the target refuses.

The technique was successful: they sold a lot of candy. However, when the seller used a “vigilant” style of body language, 56% of approaches led to a sale. When he or she used an “eager” style, the sales rate went up to 92%.

Another set of sellers tried the “disrupt then reframe” technique (which I discussed here), in which the seller uses an odd element in the sales request (“Would you like to buy a box of candy for 100 Eurocents? [pause] That’s one Euro.”) This time, the “eager” delivery style led 56% of targets to buy, but the “vigilant” style brought that up to 72%.

You can see the applications, I’m sure. If you know your audience is cautious, tone down the body language and project safety. If they’re keen go-getters, open up and project enthusiasm.

Similarly, if you’re using a strategy meant to reduce resistance to your goal or product (such as humour or distraction), go for safety. If your strategy aims to make your goal or product more attractive (by adding incentives or concessions), go for enthusiasm.

So, let me know what you think. I’m leaning forward, head slightly tilted, chin on hand, eyes intent. And you know what? This should only work on some of you.

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