Friends of the Nonverbal Communication Blog, this week we present the paper “Nonverbal Behaviors ‘Speak’ Relational Messages of Dominance, Trust, and Composure” by Burgoon, J. K.; Wang, X.; Chen, X.; Pentland, S. J. and Dunbar, N. E. (2021), in which authors wonder what the nonverbal signals of dominance, trust and composure are, and, moreover, how easily is for technological devices to perceive them.

We know that, thanks to nonverbal signals we can interpret more accurately the messages we receive in interpersonal relationships, as well as we are able to emit them more effectively.

Due to their importance, without them our communication skills would be greatly diminished.

Until few years ago, we only had the human capacity of observation to study nonverbal behavior, but with the development of new technologies, it seems that the precision with which this type of behavior is investigated, could become more objective and studied in more detail.

Authors of this paper choose three relevant traits of personality, which are dominance-submission, composure-nervousness and trust-distrust.

In addition, they propose to detect them with the help of technological devices. In this way, authors can check to what extent we can trust technology in this matter.

We will talk about dominance-submission first. Dominance is one of the most recognized human personality and behavior traits in personal relationships.

Authors point out some nonverbal behaviors that may be related to dominance. For instance, silence, lower vocal pitch, loudness or rapid speech rate, in relation to prosody.

Previous studies have reported that facial expressions such as lowered brows or a non-smiling mouth are associated with perceived dominance too.

Regarding body movements, the contraction of the body and gaze avoidance would be associated with the opposite extreme of dominance, that is, submission.

In dominant people, more expansive body postures appear, with upward inclinations of the head.

On the other hand, we have composure-nervousness. Generally, when levels of composure or calm increase during interactions, more positive outcomes appear. For instance, manager composure leads to increased employee satisfaction.

People with this personality trait are thought to have a pleasant facial gesture, frequently showing emotions in their voices, being expressive, talking a lot. They have a relaxed head and body posture and tend to be relaxed in general.

Regarding prosody, they tend to have a lower tone of voice, a contained and relaxed laugh and a moderate volume.

On the other hand, it is considered that people who are nervous are more rigid, tense, tend to avoid eye contact and have a higher tone of voice.

Finally, trust-mistrust appears. This is expressed in interpersonal relationships, and usually appears in the form of reciprocity, convergence and synchrony when two or more people interact. Furthermore, it seems that it is difficult to associate these traits with nonverbal behaviors objectively.

To carry out their study and find out if technological devices can be used to study these mental states in an objective way and precisely, authors designed an experiment.

A total of 379 people participated in it. Authors used board games with a certain role-playing component, in which volunteers interacted in small groups.

These groups were divided into two, creating a rivalry between them within the same game.

Participants’ faces, gestures and body movements were measured with cameras and microphones that were in the devices each one of them had in front of.

Later, after watching the recordings of their companions, they were told that they had to rate other participants on the dimensions of dominance-submission, composure-nervousness and trust-distrust, according to a list of relevant factors.

Results showed that dominance was associated with the majority of factors (101/150). The perception of dominance, according to the results, was associated with a high volume of voice, a more expressive facial nonverbal behavior, more head movements and longer speaking turns.

On the other hand, we have the nonverbal signals of nervousness and composure. Authors originally believed that nervousness would be perceived by a high-pitched tone of voice, but results were not consistent with this idea. However, they did confirm others, such as that people who are nervous tend to have a more rigid body posture.

Finally, we have trust-mistrust. It was the most difficult to detect. No facial expression or body movement was found to suggest that an individual was dealing with a person who could be trustworthy.

Authors suggest this happened because none of the participants knew each other and, therefore, it was very difficult to establish a relationship of trust or mistrust in such a short time.

In a nutshell, results tell us that, although thanks to technological devices we can objectively register nonverbal behaviors, the help of people is still needed, so that nothing is overlooked.

An important advance of this study is that for the recognition of personality traits, groups of people were used, instead of making pairs, which has been the most common way to carrying out this type of studies.

Authors propose to continue improving technological resources in order to make their performances better and, in the future, to use them as 100% accurate nonverbal detectors.


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