Gender Differences in Reading Nonverbal Behaviour

In testing understanding of nonverbal behaviour, research has found that women fare better than men.

Fingers Crossed

[Photo by Katie Tegtmeyer]

Here’s a simple exercise to test your skill at reading nonverbal behaviour: watch some ‘reality’ TV with the sound turned off and try to work out the subtext of what’s going on. Who likes who? Who has something to hide? Who is everyone afraid of? Some psychologists, in testing understanding of nonverbal behaviour, have found that women fare better than men. While this might be explained by some experiential, or even intrinsic, failing in men, new research suggests it might have more to do with interpersonal goals.

Interpersonal perception
In Horgan and Smith’s (2006) study, participants were given an ‘interpersonal perception task’. They watched a video which shows people’s naturally occurring behaviour in different scenarios. These cover situations of competition, deception, kinship, status and intimate relationships. For each video they have to try and work what is going on. In the deception situation, for example, they decide whether someone is lying. Each of these answers is then compared with what was actually going on.

People watching the videos are split into three groups and the experimental manipulation is this. One group is told, before they watch the videos, that this test is designed to discover whether potential job applicants would make good social workers. Here the researchers are trying to cue participants to think women, stereotypically, should be better at this task than men.

In contrast, the second group are told this test is for uncovering potential interrogators rather than social workers. This is aimed at activating the stereotype that men should perform better than women. The final (control) group is given no specific information about the context of the task. Despite these initial instructions, everyone watches and rates the same video sequences.

The results showed that people performed worse when they were in the condition that was incongruent with the stereotypical expectations of their gender. So, when women were told it was a test for interrogators, they didn’t perform as well as when they were told nothing. Similarly men performed worse when they thought it was a test for social workers.

Conversely, when the conditions were congruent with stereotypical expectations, performance wasn’t improved compared to the control. It seems, then, that gender expectations tend to reduce performance in understanding nonverbal behaviour rather than enhancing it.

This evidence does not support the idea that women are better at understanding body language across the board, rather that it depends on the context. It might be that findings showing women are better at understanding nonverbal behaviour than men are down to interpersonal goals.

Interpersonal goals
These results can be explained by thinking in terms of people’s interpersonal goals. Imagine a man who is fantastic at reading nonverbal signals when playing poker but terrible when he turns away from his chips to speak to his wife. This might be because when the goal – beat the other guy – is more congruent with his interpersonal aim – establish control – he does it well. When the goal – sweet-talk wife – is incongruent with his aim – establish control – he fails.

This example assumes, of course, that a man’s aim is always to establish control, rather than build relationships, which it isn’t. Despite this, it’s incredible how powerful stereotypes can be. Indeed, this study demonstrates the power gender stereotypes have to affect our own skills in reading nonverbal behaviour.

ยป This post is part of a series on nonverbal behaviour.

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Author: Jeremy Dean

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology. He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book "Making Habits, Breaking Habits" (Da Capo, 2013) and several ebooks.

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