Glossy magazine articles on the body language of attraction often quote two vital nonverbal factors: posture mirroring and movement echo. The first is where the other person has adopted the same position as you and the second is where they copy your movement. While they both play a role, research suggests it’s not in fact the individual movements, but the patterns of movements that tell the story of attraction between two people.
In a study of nonverbal behaviour, Grammer, Kruck and Magnusson (1998) analysed videos of people meeting for the first time. Interactions were videotaped from behind a one-way screen and participants were asked afterwards how likely they would be to go on a date with the person they’d met.
The videos were analysed by categorising movements of the head, shoulders, arms, hands, trunk and legs. This information was then run through software to search for patterns. Overall, around 4,000 patterns of nonverbal behaviour were analysed.
Contrary to many previous findings, attraction was predicted by patterns of synchronisation and not simple mirroring of body language. What emerged were rhythmic structures of movement synchrony – patterns of bodily movement people adopted. In common with previous research, Grammer et al. (1998) found it was women who tended to start and control these patterns. Indeed, the more interested a woman was in a man, the more complicated these patterns became.
Effectively, then, potential couples test their compatibility nonverbally by constructing symphonies of body language, with women as conductors. Considering the complexity of this description, it’s clear why ‘movement synchrony’ never makes it to the glossies, although it’s probably much closer to the truth of how nonverbal attraction is negotiated.