Non-verbal communication


Friends of the Nonverbal Communication Blog, this week we present the paper “‘You never get a second chance’: First impressions of Physicians depend on their Body Posture and Gender” by Grün, F. C.; Heibges, M.; Westfal, V. and Feufel, M. A. (2022), in which authors carry out a study to know whether open and/or closed postures influence the perception we have about doctors, as well as their gender. 

The way a patient perceives his or her physician influences a multitude of factors that determine the success of treatment, such as the information shared between the two, patient-physician communication, patient satisfaction, medication adherence and, ultimately, health outcomes. 

First impressions lay the foundation for successful patient-physician interactions, particularly when encounters are brief, which is often the case for many health care visits. 

Recently, empirical research has begun to ask how nonverbal behavior, related to body postures, can affect patients’ first impressions of physicians. 

A 2019 study, demonstrated that physicians who adopt high power postures, put another way, open postures (for instance, arms on hips), are more likely to be perceived as competent, than when they assume low power postures, that is, closed postures (arms crossed), however, it did not take gender into account. This same study also concluded that empathic ability was also related to perceived physician competence. 

The quality of the doctor-patient interaction is not only influenced by the communication of information about the patient’s health, but also by other elements, including the nonverbal one. 

The influence of physicians’ physical appearance has recently been studied in relation to their clothing, the ethnic group to which they belong or their gender, but the authors focus in this case on postures and, moreover, on these related to gender.

In 2002, a study reported that nodding the head, leaning forward, and uncrossed legs and arms lead to greater patient satisfaction. 

With respect to the clinical setting, there is also research showing that physician-patient interaction is influenced by gender, and patients appreciate behavior that fits stereotypes, such as women who speak in a soft voice. 

Other studies show conflicting results on gender regarding the latter idea. One meta-analysis showed that patients generally prefer to interact with male physicians, but there is other research indicating that gender does not exist, and others saying that women prefer to be seen by female gynecologists. 

In a nutshell, the inconsistent findings of the effects of gender on physicians’ perceptions call for further research on the topic. 

In the research at hand, authors focused on open postures and closed postures, and introduced gender as an additional variable, to study patients’ perceptions of physicians.

They gathered a total of 200 North American adults and conducted an online survey. The survey material consisted of photographs of doctors in open and closed postures, so that there were male doctors with open and closed postures, and the same for female doctors. In the online survey, participants were asked to rate their perceptions of these physicians. 

The results obtained showed that male physicians tend to be perceived as more professionally competent when they assume open body postures and, in addition, seem to encourage patients to take an active role in the patient-physician interaction.

On the other hand, female physicians who assumed open postures were perceived as more professionally competent than those with closed postures, but no more so than male physicians. And, interestingly, female physicians were rated more positively in social competencies when they had closed postures. 

Plus, male physicians in open postures and showing empathy tended to be perceived as warm, as well as competent. 

In other words, it seems that women tend to have high scores in competence when they show open postures, but low scores in warmth; this would not be the case with male physicians, who would have high scores in both. 

Body postures influence patients’ perceptions. Therefore, in addition to training the verbal aspects of interaction, medical professionals should be aware of the nonverbal dimensions and incorporate them into their day-to-day work, in order to have greater control of their patients’ perceptions of them.  

If you want to know more about nonverbal behavior and how it affects personal relationships, visit our Master of Science in Nonverbal and Deceptive Behavior, which you can take in English or Spanish, with special grants for readers of the Nonverbal Communication Blog.

NonVerbal Communication Blog