Your Body Language Speaks Volumes

Body Language May Trump Facial Expression When the 2 Clash

From the WebMD Archives

Oct. 27, 2005 -- When you first meet someone, what do you find more revealing -- their body language or facial expression?

What about when that person's body language doesn't match the look on his or her face?

Picture someone who smiles with clenched fists, or who swaggers confidently but won't make eye contact. If you had to size that person up instantly, which would you believe more: his body language or facial expression?

Body language was the clear choice in a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

That may be worth remembering when you're making a first impression. If your face and body send mixed messages, your body language may be what counts most.

Face vs. Body

The small study included 12 healthy young adults (three men and nine women). They were shown computerized images of people for a split second.

Some images showed people who looked angry from head to toe. The people in those images frowned and had an aggressive, don't-mess-with-me stance.

In other images, people looked totally fearful. Their faces looked scared; their bodies cowered.

Mixed messages were also shown. The people in those images had angry faces and cowering bodies, or vice versa.

Instant Impressions

The images were shown for less than a second. That's enough time for a gut reaction but not in-depth thinking, write the researchers.

They included Hanneke Meeren of the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

Participants sat in front of a computer screen. They were told to judge which emotion -- anger or fear -- was shown in each image, as quickly and as accurately as possible. They pressed one of two buttons to cast their vote, with no time to brood before the images changed.

Participants were specifically told to judge facial expression when both face and body were shown. Meanwhile, electrodes on participants' scalps tracked electrical activity in their brains.

Body Language Won

Participants favored body language over facial expression when the two clashed.

For instance, if an image showed someone with a frightened face and angry stance, participants instantly called that person angry, not fearful. The emotion shown by the body won out.

"Observers judging a facial expression are strongly influenced by emotional body language," the researchers write.

"When face and body convey conflicting emotional information, judgment of facial expression is hampered and becomes biased toward the emotion expressed by the body," they continue.

The brain made those decisions very quickly, long before conscious thoughts surface, write Meeren and colleagues.

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SOURCES: Meeren, H. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, online early edition, week of Oct. 24-28, 2005. News release, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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