Misinterpreting Nonverbal Signals Essay

The new research is pointing to areas where people's confidence in reading nonverbal cues outstrips their accuracy. Earlier this month Dr. Robert Gifford reported finding specific nonverbal clues to such traits as aloofness, gregariousness and submissiveness. His report, which appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, also found that though there are such reliable clues to character, "people read much into nonverbal cues that just isn't there, while missing much that is," said Dr. Gifford.

While people are right about their reading of character some of the time, especially for more obvious traits like gregariousness, the problem, Dr. Gifford said, is that they are overly confident and assume that they are equally adept at reading more subtle aspects of character when they are actually misjudging. For example, in a 1985 study of people applying for a job, Dr. Gifford had videotapes of the applicants evaluated by 18 seasoned interviewers, most of them personnel officers.

Before going for their interviews, each applicant had taken tests that guaged their degree of social skills and how highly motivated to work they were. The test for motivation, for instance, asked such questions as how willing they were to work unusual hours if it were necessary.

The interviewers were far more accurate about the applicant's self-evident social skills than about their motivation, a more subtle trait important in employment decisions.

The nonverbal cues that made the interviewers decide whether an applicant had high motivation included smiling, gesturing and talking more than other applicants. In fact, though, none of those nonverbal patterns was a true indicator of motivation.

The practical result of such mistakes is that many people are hired on a misreading of their personality traits, only to disappoint their employers. "Social skills are far more visible than motivation, but coming across well in your job interview is no guarantee of other traits that might matter in your day-to-day job performance," Dr. Gifford said. "People are being hired for some of the wrong reasons."

And while a crafty applicant might make a point of smiling, gesturing and talking a lot during a job interview, a savvy interviewer would be cautious about reading too much into that show of outgoingness. Misleading Eye Contact

A similar pattern of partial error holds for people's reading of personality traits, Dr. Gifford found in a series of studies, some published this month and some yet to be published. In these, 60 people were evaluated on a range of traits, such as being cold or warm, arrogant or unassuming, socially dominant or submissive.

Systematic analysis of videotapes of their gestures and movements while talking in pairs for 15 minutes yielded dozens of patterns associated with the traits, such as slouching or keeping one's legs under the chair.

But when 21 volunteer judges were asked to evaluate the videotapes, minus the soundtrack, for the personality traits of the subjects, and to name the nonverbal clues to those traits, their showing was poor.

For example, "people who gesture a lot and look you in the eye are perceived to be dominant," said Dr. Gifford. "But that is not the case. A more accurate cue is usually missed: during conversations like these, dominant people fiddle with things much less than do less dominant people."

That mistake is quite common, other researchers have found. "People think dominant people look you in the eye more," said Dr. Patterson. "But it's actually the reverse: the more submissive partner has to attend more to the dominant one."

The nonverbal portrait of the submissive person, on the other hand, is someone who fiddles with objects, gestures little, keeps his legs folded under the chair and slouches slightly, Dr. Gifford found. The most common mistakes here, the study showed, were in judging people to be submissive when they held their heads down and kept their arms folded, instead of on the basis of the true cues. A Question of Musculature

People were judged to be arrogant "when they did not smile and faced their conversational partners but did not look them in the eye, as though checking them out," said Dr. Gifford. "But none of these turned out to be valid clues to arrogance."

And people were seen as cold and quarrelsome when they moved their hands and legs little during conversation, extended their legs toward their partner and wiggled their feet, kept their arms folded and looked little at the partner, with few nods or smiles. "None of these hold up," said Dr. Gifford.

"People make these judgments confidently," Dr. Gifford said. "But the evidence that they do so accurately is mixed or even discouraging."

A parallel kind of misreading is common with people whose facial musculature happens to emphasize certain expressions, said Dr. Maureen O'Sullivan, a psychologist at the Unversity of San Francisco.

"My husband carries his eyebrows high, with a big space between the eye and the eyebrow," Dr. O'Sullivan said. "It makes him seem perpetually surprised or interested, but that's just the natural lay of his facial muscles."

A similar misreading of sadness commonly occurs with people who, in the natural course of aging, find that gravity pulls the sides of the eyes features down.

While such misreadings are benign, other evidence suggests that even experts fare poorly when it comes to some crucial judgments. "Surprisingly, professionals like detectives and judges, who have a lot at stake, are no better than anyone else at catching lies," said Dr. Ekman. Secret Service Expertise

Dr. Ekman tested 509 men and women on their ability to assess which of 10 videotapes showed someone lying or tellng the truth about whether or not they liked a film they had just watched. Those tested included 34 Secret Service officers, 60 Federal polygraphers, 126 police detectives, 110 court judges and 67 psychiatrists.

Only the Secret Service officers did better than chance at catching the liars. Dr. Ekman said he believed that one reason for their skill is that their work demands they rely on nonverbal cues, like scanning crowds for potentially troublesome people. And, unlike most other law enforcement officials, who assume that most people are lying to them, the Secret Service, in interviewing people who have threatened public officials, must try to pick out the few who are lying from a large group telling the truth.

Yet even among the Secret Service officers, there was no relationship between how much confidence people expressed in their ability to detect lies and their actual performance.

That bears out earlier findings by Dr. Bella DePaulo, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, who reported in 1986 that there was little relationship between how accurate people feel they are at detecting lies and their actual ability.

It was Dr. DePaulo who discovered that one cue commonly thought to give away lying, "shifty eyes," is faulty. A review of studies showed that people who were lying actually looked the other person in the eye every bit as much as truthful people.

"The best way to tell if someone is lying is to look for discrepancies, such as between a person's tone of voice and his gestures," said Dr. Patterson. Dr. Ekman details the specific nonverbal cues that indicate a lie in his 1985 book, "Telling Lies" (Norton).

One reason for people's poor performance at detecting lies is that "people have a bias toward assuming they're being told the truth," said Dr. O'Sullivan, who did the study with Dr. Ekman. "We're not very good at reading lies because we don't expect them." Mannerisms and Meaning

Dr. Patterson does not put much stock in popular books on reading nonverbal messages. "With the exception of obvious, and sometimes obscene, gestures, most nonverbal behavior does not have a specific psychological meaning apart from its context," he said. "Mannerisms in and of themselves generally have no particular meaning."

He also said data emerging from microanalysis of videotaped movements would probably be of minimal help to people in reading nonverbal messages in daily encounters.

"The most important impressions we get from people's mannerisms and movements come to us very quickly, outside our awareness," he said . "If we were trying to look for the six things that add up to that impression, we'd probably make poorer judgments."

Dr. Ekman, however, said that training people in specific skills for reading nonverbal cues does seem to improve their accuracy. He has so trained judges, Secret Service officers and the others in his study.

"At the start of the course I give everyone the test of how well they detect lies," Dr. Ekman said. "It's quite sobering for them to see they can't trust their own judgment."

One of the most valuable contributions of the course, said Dr. Ekman, is to disabuse people of their private rules of thumb for lying, such as that a person is lying if he looks away while talking, is hesitant or nervously fiddles with things. "The most important message is to be more cautious about assuming you know when a lie is being told," Dr. Ekman said.

Another lesson is an awareness of instances when it is unlikely that a person's demeanor will reveal a lie. "The more often a person has told a story, the less likely you'll be able to tell if it's a lie," said Dr. Ekman. "And if someone strikes you as charming and likable, he's more likely to be seamless in any lies he tells you."

Another factor that makes it difficult to detect lies is that "the fear of being disbelieved looks the same as the fear of being caught lying," he said.

Dr. Ekman also trains people to read rapidly shifting facial expressions that indicate someone is trying to conceal an emotion and to look for discrepancies between the content of a person's words and his voice, body or facial expression. Other indications of lying are a sudden change in several channels of expression, such as when a person stumbles over his words as his voice gets higher, swallowing several times.

"It's no guarantee that a lie is being told, but it signifies a hot moment, when something is going on you should follow up with interrogation," Dr. Ekman said.

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  Misinterpretation of Communication

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Social conflicts often involve some misunderstanding. Conflict parties communicate by what they say (or do not say) and how they behave toward one another. Even normal interaction may involve faulty communication, but conflict seems to worsen the problem. The higher the level of conflict, the more costly misunderstandings may be. During the Cold War, miscommunication between U.S. and Soviet leaders could have been catastrophic in its consequences. At every stage and level of conflict, clear communication among parties usually works to reduce unwise decisions by and costs for the participants.

All communication has two parts: a sender and a receiver. The sender has a message he or she intends to transmit, and she puts it in words which, to her, best reflect what she is thinking. But many things can intervene to prevent the intended message from being received.

If the communication is verbal, tone of voice can influence interpretation. The bosses' words "hey, I noticed you were taking an especially long break this morning," could be interpreted as an attack if he said that in a disapproving tone; while the comment might be seen as a minor reminder about office rules, if it was said in a friendly way. If the employee had a problem requiring the long break, the comment might have even been a friendly inquiry about what has happening and whether the employee needed any help. Here, tone of voice as well as situational and relationship factors would influence the interpretation of the message.

Nonverbal cues also are important. Is the sender's posture open and friendly, or closed and cold? Is her facial expression friendly or accusatory? All of these factors influence how the same words will be received.

In addition to how the message is sent, many additional factors determine how the message is interpreted by the receiver. All new information we learn is compared with the knowledge we already have. If it confirms what we already know, we will likely receive the new information accurately, though we may pay little attention to it. If it disputes our previous assumptions or interpretation of the situation, we may distort it in our mind so that it is made to fit our world view, or we may dismiss the information as deceptive, misguided, or simply wrong.

If the message is ambiguous, the receiver is especially likely to clarify it for herself in a way which corresponds with her expectations. For example, if two people are involved in an escalated conflict, and they each assume that the other is going to be aggressive and hostile, then any ambiguous message will be interpreted as aggressive and hostile, even if it was not intended to be that way at all. Our expectations work as blinders or filters that distort what we see so that it fits our preconceived images of the world.

An analogy can be made to the science experiment done to test people's interpretation of visual cues. When people were given eye-glasses which turned the world upside down, they had to suffer through with upside down images for a week or two. But after that, their brains learned to turn the images back over again, so they were seeing things right side up. The same thing happens when we hear something we "know" is wrong. Our brain "fixes" it.

Given our tendency to hear what we expect to hear, it is very easy for people in conflict to misunderstand each other. Communication is already likely to be strained, and people will, most likely, want to hide the truth to some extent. Thus the potential for misperceptions and misunderstandings is high, which can make conflict management or resolution more difficult.


Links to Examples of this Problem:

Gareth Evans - Iraq's Invasion of Kuwait in 1990: A Failure to use Preventive Diplomacy
Evan's gives his assessment of why preventive diplomacy did not work in the case of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Misunderstandings were key to the problem in his view.
Roger Fischer, Elizabeth Kopelman and Andrea Schneider - Explore Partisan Perceptions
This is a short anecdote that illustrates how much our perceptions can be altered by our expectations.
Roger Fischer, Elizabeth Kopelman and Andrea Schneider -- Understand the Message as They Hear it
This is a story of a misunderstanding between the U.S. and Vietnam during the Vietnam war.
Alexander George- United States-Japan Relations Leading to Pearl Harbor
This is the story of the misunderstandings between the U.S. and Japan, which, George argues, lead to Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Links to Treatments for This Problem:



Active Listening

Dialogic Listening


Links to Related Problems:

Misinterpreted Motives       

Failure to Understand an Opponent's Perspective

Inaccurate and Overly Hostile Stereotypes

Crisis Communication

Cultural Barriers to Effective Communication

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