What Makes a Good People Reader?

Humintell is here to train you as a people reader, but is there anything that could make you naturally good at this skill?

It was this question which a team of researchers, including Humintell’s Dr. David Matsumoto, sought to answer in a 2014 study. This undertaking consisted of two experiments, one on college students with no prior professional experience in reading emotions, and another on professional behavioral analysts who work in law enforcement.

Before conducting the study, its authors hypothesized that basic attributes, such as age and sex, would have a significant impact on the ability to read microexpressions. Specifically, they predicted that women would outperform men, and that youth would correlate with better people reading.

More specific personality factors were also considered, such as the role of extraversion or openness to new experiences. Similarly, they sought to test whether previous formal training actually had a positive effect or if general confidence in one’s people reading ability helped.

In order to test these hypotheses, the researchers recruited a series of university students and, after giving them relevant personality tests, exposed them to a series of images showcasing various microexpressions and asked them to determine which emotion was being expressed. One group of participants were given no relevant microexpression training, while another group was trained prior to the study.

Of those participants with no training, younger participants who were ranked as being more open to new experiences tended to be more accurate. Interestingly, those who expressed less confidence in their abilities tended to do better as well.

This became reversed for those who underwent relevant training exercises, with the more confident participants excelling. For the post-training group, age was no longer a relevant predictor, but women who were more open to new experience performed the best. Overall, those given training were able to increase accuracy over those who were not.

In order to test the role of professional experience, a second experiment was employed. This time, professional behavior analysts from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) were recruited to see what impact this background experience would have on successful microexpression detection. Again, half were given specific training before undergoing the experiment.

For those without training, age continued to be a factor with younger officers outperforming older ones. Moreover, those given additional training before the study were significantly better than their other TSA colleagues. Contrary to the first study, moreover, personality traits and gender proved unimportant.

Another surprising finding was that those with law enforcement backgrounds before TSA were actually worse at detecting certain emotions. The study authors speculated that this is because many signs of deception are poorly understood, even by those who practice lie detection every day.

This study began a difficult process in determining whether personality traits or background are more important in the ability to read microexpressions and was unable to decide this conclusively. However, what was clear was that formal training has a major impact. Even if you are confident in your ability, or you have had to practice lie detection at work, you may not be as good at microexpression analysis as you think!

But this is what Humintell is here for! If you want to hone your skills, there is no better way than by pursuing one of our microexpression analysis courses.

Understanding through Gesture

Language has a huge influence in determining how we interact with the world, but what about nonverbal behavior?

When we speak and conceptualize the world in certain ways, we also structure our experience in order to make sense of and interact with it. In a novel 2017 study, Dr. Elizabeth Kirk and Dr. Carine Lewis sought to explore the connection between non-verbal gestures and creative problem-solving in children as a way of exploring the role that nonverbal gestures play in understanding the world.

The authors hypothesized that children’s ability to develop creative uses for everyday items depended on their capacity to freely gesture about those objects. This would allow the children to engage with these objects nonverbally in a way that allowed them to better understand their potential uses.

In the first of two experiments, a group of children between age 9 and 11 were exposed to a series of images and encouraged to develop a list of novel uses for the objects depicted in those images. Some of the children were allowed to gesticulate freely as they spoke, while another had their hands secured by Velcro and were instructed to keep their hands still.

After monitoring the experiment, the authors categorized gestures based on several criteria, such as whether they depicted the use of an object or described its spatial dimensions. This was part of an effort to make sense of which gestures had a “semantic meaning” in expressing certain thoughts, and these gestures were dubbed “iconic gestures.”

In a separate experiment, another group of children were exposed to the same set of object images, with some being encouraged actively to gesture. While, when allowed, almost all children naturally gestured, those that were encouraged to did so even more, developing a correspondingly greater number of novel uses for the objects.

In both cases, the study authors found that the ability to freely gesture helped the children develop new ideas. Interestingly, the type of object did not determine how many gestures the children would make, but they did influence the types of gestures.

Dr. Kirk and Dr. Lewis concluded that gestures do help stimulate creativity in children. They contended that, by gesturing, children were better able to understand important features of the objects and determine how best to act on this knowledge.

This research fits well into the assumption that gestures help us structure our world. This underscores how important nonverbal behavior is in understanding both the world around us and the other people we encounter within it.

Previous blogs have explored how certain gestures seem universal across cultures and the importance of nonverbal behavior in face to face interaction. For those who are curious to learn more, Humintell’s Dr. David Matsumoto leads a fantastic webinar on the role of gestures in interpersonal communication!

Searching for Universal Gestures

If there are universal emotions and expressions, does that mean there are universal gestures?

This is exactly what Humintell’s Dr. David Matsumoto and Dr. Hyisung C. Hwang sought to answer in a 2012 study which sought to conduct a groundbreaking and comprehensive analysis on international differences in gestures.

In order to answer this, they compiled a list of verbal expressions, such as “good luck”, that would be relevant to many cultures and brought people from around the world to examine this list. These individuals then sought to derive a series of gestures, otherwise known as emblems, from this list in order to compare and contrast them between cultures.

But why had such a fascinating question not been suitably investigated? This is partially because their question is a difficult one to answer as many gestures or nonverbal behaviors are culturally specific and drawn from traditional historical contexts. For example, the common Western sign of “good luck” with crossed fingers is derived from older Christian traditions. Thus, the etymology of many gestures becomes complicated to trace.

After examining a wide variety of cultural gestures as identified and performed by representatives of those cultures, Dr. Matsumoto and Dr. Hwang managed to derive a series of loose categories with which to conceptualize cultural similarities and differences.

One of these categories were evaluative gestures, like the Western “thumbs up” but other categories conveyed more nuanced social norms. Perhaps unsurprisingly, gestures fitting into the category of insults seemed to be quite common across many cultures. Other categories included the act of indicating something or of articulating inner physical or mental states, such as being in pain.

Overall, while many gestures were the same across cultures, some similar gestures had radically different meanings depending on where they were used. Moreover, certain gestures appeared to be culturally unique and had no correlates in other cultures, such as South Asian gestures for apology or East Asian messages concerning hunger.

The most consistently universal of these gestures sought to convey very basic messages that tied to universal physical forms. For instance, this manifested in common insults that referred to gross parts of the human body. Most cultures associate human excrement with disgust, so tying this to obscene gestures seems intuitive. Moreover, it would connect profoundly with evidence that ties basic emotions to facial expressions.

As the study authors concluded, this is not the end of a search for universally similar or different gestures. Instead, it was an attempt to reach across cultures and derive categories that can be helpful in both everyday understanding and for future research.

For more information on the role of nonverbal communication across cultures and basic emotions, check out our past few blogs here and here!

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