Illustration: Ashley Siebels
We’d all like to learn how to read people like Sherlock Holmes. And research shows understanding things like body language is even more powerful than you might think.
MIT found that the outcome of negotiations could be predicted by body language alone 87% of the time.
After extensive studies, the MIT Media Lab concluded that it could predict the outcome of negotiations, telephone sales calls, and business plan pitches with 87 percent accuracy simply by analyzing participants’ body language, without listening to a single word of content.
But most of what you believe about body language and analyzing others is based on myth or guesswork, not real research.
So how can you learn how to read people the right way? Let’s get answers from experts and studies.
But first we need to understand all the mistakes you’re making…
Here’s What You’re Doing Wrong
In The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help–or Hurt–How You Lead the author points out a number of common errors people make in reading people:
- Ignoring context: Crossed arms don’t mean much if the room is cold or the chair they’re sitting in doesn’t have armrests. Everything has to pass the common sense test given the environment. So ask yourself: “Should someone in this situation be acting like this?”
- Not looking for clusters: One of the biggest errors you make is looking for one single tell. That’s great in movies about poker players but in real life it’s a consistent grouping of actions (sweating, touching the face, and stuttering together) that is really going to tell you something. So ask yourself: “Are most of this person’s behaviors associated with X?”
- Not getting a baseline: If someone is always jumpy, jumpiness doesn’t tell you anything. If someone is always jumpy and they suddenly stop moving — HELLO. So ask yourself: “Is this how they normally act?”
- Not being conscious of biases: If you already like or dislike the person, it’s going to affect your judgment. And if people compliment you, are similar to you, are attractive… these can all sway you, unconsciously. (I know, I know, you don’t fall for those tricks. Well, the biggest bias of all is thinking you’re unbiased.)
(To learn the 4 rituals that will make you an expert at anything, click here.)
So you’re taking context into consideration, you’re looking for clusters of behaviors, you’re getting a baseline and you’re aware of your biases. Tall order. Let’s make it simple to start…
In reading people, when can you trust your gut?
When To Trust Your Instincts
Good News: your first impressions are usually pretty accurate.
First impressions are often quite helpful but you have to be willing to update them quite rapidly. That’s what’s very hard to do.
So with no tips from me or Sam, and nothing more to go on than a glance, what should you trust your gut about when you first meet someone?
We all pay more attention to pretty people — and so our evaluations end up being more accurate:
Overall, people do judge a book by its cover, but a beautiful cover prompts a closer reading, leading more physically attractive people to be seen both more positively and more accurately.
And Sam says you can trust someone’s visual “identity claims.” These are the things someone chooses to display that says something about who they are or how they want to be perceived.
A class ring. T-shirts with slogans. Tattoos. Pay attention to them because they’re usually accurate signs. Here’s Sam:
Identity claims are deliberate statements we make about our attitudes, goals, values, etc… One of the things that’s really important to keep in mind about identity statements is because these are deliberate, many people assume we are being manipulative with them and we’re being disingenuous, but I think there’s little evidence to suggest that that goes on. I think, generally, people really do want to be known. They’ll even do that at the expense of looking good. They’d rather be seen authentically than positively if it came down to that choice.
Now this is all pretty personal. So what about if you’re trying to read someone in a professional context?
Want to know if someone is good at their job? Then watch them do it for thirty seconds — or even just six seconds. Your guess about their competence is more likely to be right than wrong:
In the 1st study, consensual judgments of college teachers’ molar nonverbal behavior based on very brief (under 30 sec) silent video clips significantly predicted global end-of-semester student evaluations of teachers. In the 2nd study, similar judgments predicted a principal’s ratings of high school teachers. In the 3rd study, ratings of even thinner slices (6 and 15 sec clips) were strongly related to the criterion variables.
The current study lends support to the prediction that effective humor production acts as an honest indicator of intelligence in humans.
And there’s one other thing to listen for while they’re yakking. The word “I” can be very telling…
Powerful people don’t say it much. Less powerful people say it the most:
Pennebaker finds that people who use “I” at higher rates tend to come across as more personal, warm and honest. While people who use “I” at lower rates come across as more self-confident… He also finds that the highest status person in a relationship tends to use “I” the least, and the person who is the lowest status tends to use the word “I” the most.
(To learn what Harvard research says will make you happier and more successful, click here.)
Okay, so you know when to trust your gut. Now there are a gazillion studies on behavior, so let’s focus on reading people to get answers to the questions we all want to know, like…
“Can I Trust This Person?”
Of course, people trying to deceive or manipulate you are going to fake signals that they are trustworthy.
So we need to focus on unconscious behaviors that aren’t easily controlled and convey a clear message.
In Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World, the authors mention one to keep your eye on:
- Speech mimicry and behavioral mimicry: Are they using the same words you use? Speaking at a similar speed and tone? Are they sitting the way you sit? Is a subtle, unconscious game of follow-the-leader going on? This is a sign the other person feels emotionally in sync with you. It can be faked but that’s difficult to pull off across an entire conversation.
Beyond that, trust people who are consistently emotionally expressive in their body language:
These results suggest that cooperators may be more emotionally expressive than non-cooperators. We speculate that emotional expressivity can be a more reliable signal of cooperativeness than the display of positive emotion alone.
(To learn an FBI behavior expert’s tips on how to get people to like you, click here.)
And now let’s look at the other side of the coin: what tells you someone’s not-so-nice?
Is This Person Up To No Good?
Let’s start at the extreme. You can generally trust your gut as to whether someone is going to go full-Jeffrey-Dahmer on you:
We then report two experiments in which participants, given a set of headshots of criminals and non-criminals, were able to reliably distinguish between these two groups, after controlling for the gender, race, age, attractiveness, and emotional displays, as well as any potential clues of picture origin.
Although men generally perceived masculinized faces and voices to be more dominant than feminized versions, this effect of masculinity on dominance perceptions was significantly greater among shorter men than among taller men. These findings suggest that differences among men in the potential costs of incorrectly perceiving the dominance of rivals have shaped systematic variation in men’s perceptions of the dominance of potential rivals.
But, in general, you’re usually not sizing people up because you’re worried about your physical safety. How can you tell if someone is going to cheat or mislead you?
First, pay attention. Sounds obvious but you’re probably not doing it consistently throughout a conversation. A simple bit of motivation can make a real difference. When I spoke to Maria Konnikova, author of The Confidence Game, she said:
When your motivation is high, you actually become much more accurate at judging other people accurately. Most of the time, our motivation isn’t very high because that takes more of our resources, but when we’re motivated, we suddenly become much better judges of character. We become much better able to read cues. Then you start being able to discern certain things.
And there’s a consistent cluster of behavior that has been seen among people who are trying to cheat you.
Again and again, it was a cluster of four cues: hand touching, face touching, crossing arms, and leaning away. None of these cues foretold deceit by itself, but together they transformed into a highly accurate signal. And the more often the participants used this particular cluster of gestures, the less trustworthy they were in the subsequent financial exchange.
And let’s set aside violent people and liars — how can you just tell if someone is more likely to be a jerk? Give their clothing a look. A neat and formal appearance just says they’re conscientious.
Narcissists tend to put much more care into their appearance. The women tend to show more cleavage. The guys tend to show more muscles.
(To learn how to deal with a narcissist, click here.)
So you’ve got a better idea how to spot the Ted Bundys, the cheaters, and jerks of the world. I told you we were going to focus on the important questions we’re all curious about when it comes to reading others…
So how do you know if someone is interested in you?
Are They Flirting?
Ladies, you all consistently underestimate how attracted men are to you. (And research shows that women are more successful in their flirting when they’re more direct.)
And less attractive guys consistently overestimate how interested women are. Now who should definitely trust their gut as to whether the opposite sex is flirting with them?
Handsome men. Research says of all the people studied, they’re the most accurate judges:
…the less attractive men (who believed they were better looking than the women rated them) were more likely to think beautiful women were hot for them. But the more attractive guys tended to have a more realistic assessment. And the women? Perilloux and her coauthors found that women underestimated men’s sexual interest.
So if you’re not Brad Pitt (or Angelina Jolie for that matter) what should you be looking for to tell if that special someone has the hots for you?
MIT research says the #1 sign a woman is interested in a man is whether she’s talking smoothly and quickly.
The number one tip-off that a woman was interested in a man for more than friendship was her own speaking rate. Did she talk smoothly and quickly (a good sign), or hesitantly and awkwardly?
And both men and women deepen their voice when speaking with someone of the opposite sex they find attractive:
We found that both sexes used a lower-pitched voice and showed a higher level of physiological arousal when speaking to the more attractive, opposite-sex target.
And another clear sign to look for is touching. A touch on the shoulder, waist or forearm is a good. A face touch? You should hear slot machine noises when that happens.
From Close Relationships:
The behavior that participants rated as reflecting the most flirtation and the most romantic attraction was the soft face touch, followed by the touch around the shoulder or waist, and then the soft touch on the forearm. The least flirtatious and romantic touches were the shoulder push, shoulder tap, and handshake.
(To learn more about how to flirt scientifically, click here.)
Alright, we’ve learned a lot about how to read people. Let’s round it up and learn the real way you can project a better image so when people read you, you come off looking great…
Here’s how to read people 101:
- Don’t make the usual mistakes: Take context, clusters, baseline, and biases into consideration.
- First impressions are often accurate: With a number of traits you can trust your gut. But know which ones.
- Trust mimicry and emotional expression: But they have to be sustained and consistent.
- Awful people have tells: Pay attention to notice them. And look for narcissists in flashy clothing.
- Deepening voice and touching says “flirting”: True for both men and women.
And so now that we’ve been through a dizzying amount of research on reading others, how can you make sure you come off well when others read you?
Do you need to pay more attention to your body language? Nope.
Your facial expressions or your “behavioral mimicry”? Double nope.
…trying to control your facial expressions is not just impossible, it will even backfire. Since the micro-expressions will be incongruent with the main expression, they’ll give the impression that something is not quite right and you can end up seeming fake — which, of course, ruins trust and charisma…
Your body language and the signals you send are determined by what’s inside your head. Change how you feel inside, and what you radiate will follow. Here’s Olivia:
The same way that athletes get themselves “into the zone” you get yourself into a mental zone of whatever body language you want to emanate. And that way it will cascade through your body from whatever mindset that you wanted to get. So it really is mind over matter in the sense that whatever’s in your mind will come out through your body language.
In the end, it really is what’s on the inside that matters. We can shape that and smooth it, but you can’t go through life acting for any considerable stretch.
So try something simple: be the best you that you can be.
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