Body language can be a weirdly effortful thing sometimes. More often than not, our gestures are fluid and subconscious — we tilt our heads in question, use our hands to punctuate a point, cross our arms to ward off discomfort, all without thinking too hard about how and why we’re moving. But it’s kind of like that famous white polar bear experiment: Once you start thinking about it, it feels all but impossible to get it out of your head. Try actively paying attention in your next conversation to when you make eye contact, and when you break it. I bet you it’ll make it harder to focus on anything else.
It’s something that afflicts us all to varying degrees: Some people are generally just more conscious of their body language than others. And as BPS Research Digest reported this week, a study recently published in Personality and Individual Differences has shed some light on who those people are: What, if you’re finely tuned to your body’s conversational movements, does it say about your mind?
To measure “nonverbal self-accuracy” — which the study defined as “the correspondence between self-reported recall of behaviors and coding of specific behaviors based on observation of interactions” — the authors filmed five-minute conversations between 90 pairs of college students. Once they were done talking, the two conversation partners were taken to separate rooms and asked to recall their performance: how often they’d nodded, smiled, gestured, made eye contact, or touched their own head or arms. They also filled out questionnaires assessing their public and private self-awareness, their attentiveness to their surroundings, and their ability to express their feelings and recognize the emotions of others.
The researchers then assigned each person a nonverbal self-accuracy score by comparing their own observations against these self-assessments. When they looked at how the scores stacked up against the questionnaires, a specific type of person emerged: People who remembered their body language were more anxious, more neurotic, more closed-off about their emotions, and better at picking up on other people’s feelings — particularly anger. They also tended to have higher public self-awareness, or an accurate understanding of how they appear to the outside world. (Self-awareness, the researchers explained, can generally be broken down into three categories: public self-awareness; private self-awareness, or an understanding of what’s going on in your own head; and self-monitoring, or an understanding of the social rules that govern a given interaction.)
Taken as a group, these traits suggest that people who are more aware of their body language may also be more inclined to use it in specific ways, subtly influencing how they’re perceived by focusing on the right gaze or stance. “Overall, the results paint a portrait of a person with high [nonverbal self-accuracy] as anxious, highly self-aware of his/her own mannerisms,” the authors wrote. “[They] may be especially sensitive to interpersonal cues of disapproval, possibly consistent with their greater neuroticism and negativity.”
Possibly. Body language, after all, is a powerful thing — certain gestures, far from being purely illustrative, actually help us form thoughts into spoken words. In some cases, the body can be a better barometer of a person’s feelings than even their facial expression. And for some people, it seems, body language can be something like self-preservation, an anxious mind’s way of making the world a little more hospitable.