In many instances, we must make broad inferences about others based on limited information. Often when we meet someone briefly we may already believe we know what their personality is like—we might have an idea how friendly, intelligent, or trustworthy this person is. If we were not able to do so, practices like job interviews and speed dating would be completely useless.
Researchers have begun studying how we make these judgments based off of brief observations of others (called “thin slices” of behavior). These thin slices of behavior are especially important to politicians. Oftentimes, their campaigns rely on short 30-second advertisements, or voters see a short clip of a political speech on the news.
The importance of thin slices of behavior in the political arena brings up one important question: Just how much do these thin slices actually influence our perceptions of politicians? In one study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, researchers sought to examine how the amount of applause a politician receives after a speech is influenced by his/her body movements.
In this study, researchers transformed 60 randomly-chosen videos of politicians’ speeches into stick figures. This prevented participants’ ratings from being influenced by the speaker’s familiarity or attractiveness. The stick figures’ body movements were then rated on their competence, dominance, trustworthiness, extraversion, agreeableness, calmness/emotional stability, anxiety, conscientiousness, and openness by 60 people.
Speakers whose body movements were rated as more dominant, more extraverted, and less agreeable received more applause at the end of their speech. A small link was observed between emotional stability and applause, as well as trustworthiness and applause. However, body movements rated as competent and conscientious did not influence the amount of applause speakers received.
In addition, no link was found between any of the trait ratings and the amount of heckling each speaker received. This suggests that positive perceptions of a speaker’s body movement influences us favorably, but negative perceptions do not influence us negatively.
Collectively, this research offers further support for the importance of our body language in communication. The authors say that body movement, “appears to be an important nonverbal communication channel that conveys affective and social information.” However, the researchers point out that in this study it is impossible to know whether the body movements triggered the applause or the applause triggered the body movements.
The results of this study are especially notable because they show that in a real-world setting, a speaker’s body movements influence others’ perceptions of the speaker and the message.