Rapport is important. We need rapport to influence others, to teach and learn, to achieve difficult tasks in groups and even to mate. The latest research reveals gaining rapport is not just about matching body language and being positive, the picture is actually much more complicated. Studies have shown that expressivity is actually one of the most important factors in rapport. An expressive person displays their emotions nonverbally to those around them. Those who are more expressive have been found to elicit greater levels of liking and rapport from others.
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.
Nonverbal behaviour is an area of psychology that receives stacks of media attention. There are endless popular psychology pieces claiming to teach you how to tell if someone is lying or whether they like you or not. All well and good, these things are really useful to know. But where popular accounts often fail is they tend to be simplistic.
The BBC series, The Secrets of the Sexes, has gone from hero(ish) to zero in only one week. This week’s show asked whether science can predict sexual attraction. It wasn’t just the resounding answer of “No!” that sent my head into my hands.
The previous show on ‘Brain Sex’ had used the individuals involved in the show to highlight and explain psychological theories. This show relegated the theories to onlookers in a race to see if a couple of singletons could get any dates.
By the end, the programme was desperate for any kind of success, no matter where it came from. Even though it had almost no bearing on the theories of attraction proposed by the psychologists, the producers obviously wanted one of the couples to get together as if this would validate the programme. No such luck.
Its crowning achievement was to get an eager-to-please politics lecturer to slather himself in extract of cucumber and liquorice to make him irresistible. Needless to say, it didn’t work. This combined with the risible speed-dating efforts of ‘The London Seduction Society‘ (yes, it’s for real) made me wonder why any reputable psychologist would involve themselves – other than for money and fame of course.
As for the quality of the third and last programme in the series, your guess is as good as mine. Secrets of the Sexes
The first programme in the BBC series ‘Secrets of Sexes‘ looked at the idea of brain sex. It has come in for some criticism from Mind Hacks for simplifying a complicated area of psychology and for the using the idea of ‘brain sex’.
Any TV programme on a specialist subject like this is forced to simplify because too much heavy detail turns off viewers. This programme, however, generally did a good job of introducing some fascinating research and ideas about psychological sex differences.
On average, women have stronger verbal abilities. But what exactly does ‘verbal ability’ mean? Some of the tests that have been used are word fluency, use of grammar, spelling, reading, ability to understand, extend of vocabulary. In all of these areas women show an advantage over men. The only verbal area in which men sometimes show a small advantage is in the generation of analogies. It’s possible to argue that these tests don’t accurately represent ‘verbal ability’, but that’s nitpicking.
The differences between men and women in mathematical ability are actually fairly small. Men show a slight advantage in geometry, probability and statistics. On the other hand, women are slightly better at arithmetical calculations. Where there is a big gap is at the extremes of ability. Of the most able mathematicians (top 6%), there are 13 males for every female.
Men’s main advantage is in visuo-spatial abilities – although they only show a major advantage in one particular area: mental rotation tasks (you can see an example here). Men also show some advantage over women in other visuo-spatial tests such as judging the orientation of a line and visualising objects spatially, although these differences are not great. Men are also able to tell left from right under pressure more accurately than women.
There are some other less well-known physiological areas in which men and women differ. For example women’s sense of smell is much stronger than men, as is their sense of touch.
A number of caveats need to be applied to all this research. The most important is that on most of these tests there is a considerable overlap between the performance of men and women. In other words the differences are not that huge – it is best to think of an overlapping continuum for both men and women on which the average is slightly different for some abilities. Men and women have more similarities than differences.
There are two more programmes in this series and I would recommend you tune in.
[Big thanks to Ernie Govier for a gripping lecture (I’m not joking) on psychological sex differences – of which this post is a summary.]
A new study with the potential for considerable controversy, finds little physiological evidence for bisexuality in men. Psychological investigations into bisexuality in the past have mostly been based on self-report measures – this is one of the first to directly measure physiological arousal.
In this study a sensor was attached to the penis and participants were shown erotic films, some involving just men and some involving just women. Having been asked about their sexuality before the experiment, patterns of arousal were compared with the stated preferences. Arousal was as expected for those identifying themselves as heterosexual and homosexual,
“But the men in the study who described themselves as bisexual did not have patterns of arousal that were consistent with their stated attraction to men and to women. Instead, about three-quarters of the group had arousal patterns identical to those of gay men; the rest were indistinguishable from heterosexuals.”
The researchers are, quite rightly, extremely cautious about the implications of their study which is based on a fairly small sample (101). It is unclear what the relationship is between physiological arousal and emotional and cognitive factors.
Certainly Freud believed that humans were naturally bisexual and the sex researcher, Alfred Kinsey, found evidence from the thousands of interviews he conducted that most people had at least some attraction to both sexes. This kind of research flies in the face of conventional thinking on the subject – part of the reason it’s so interesting.
As for bisexual women, the NY Times goes on to report that, unlike bisexual men, other research has shown that those women identifying themselves as bisexuals have shown physiological arousal to both men and women. From this evidence the physiological case for bisexuality looks stronger in women than in men. NY Times (Free registration required)
The New Scientist has a report asking whether risk-taking men are attractive to women. The study found that taking risks only made men more popular with other men rather than with women. Risk-taking may work for men by a roundabout route though, women do prefer high-status men:
“So if he has higher status among other men, women might like him for his status, even though they don’t like the risk-taking in itself.”
New research, “…suggest that males with more feminine features are more widely attractive to women. Women who consider themselves highly attractive however, are more likely to go for classically masculine faces.”
→ From (the excellent) Mind Hacks blog