Symbolic Gestures Can Prompt Behaviors, Shape Perceptions

Michal Parzuchowski

Michal Parzuchowski

Non-emotional gestures can “prime” abstract concepts, like “honesty,” and prompts people to behave consistent with these ideas, according to Michal Parzuchowski and Bogdan Wojciszke of University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Sopot, Poland.

Bodgan Wojciszke

Bodgan Wojciszke

They evaluated a symbolic gesture, putting a hand on one’s heart (“HOH”), which is associated with “honesty” in Poland, where the studies were conducted.

In the U.S., this gesture has a different meaning: Patriotism when enacted during The Pledge of Allegiance.
This distinction demonstrates cultural variation between specific gestures, and suggests opportunities for related research in other geographies.

HOHv NeutralVolunteers who performing this gesture were described as appearing more “honest” and trustworthy than when the same people enacted a neutral control gesture.

In addition, participants who performed the hand-over-heart gesture behaved more honestly when they provided more honest assessments of others’ attractiveness and refrained from cheating, compared to volunteers who performed neutral gestures.

Bodily experience associated with abstract concepts can influence both perceptions of others, and one’s own behaviors to align with the intangible idea – and the effect doesn’t depend on peoples’ emotional states.

More than 35 Polish volunteers listened to parts of a recorded job interview in which the applicant made several low-credibility statements like “I have never been late for work” and “I have never argued with members of my family.”

As they listened, participants viewed the speaker’s photograph.
Half of the participants saw a photo showing the speaker with both of hands placed behind the back, whereas the other half saw an image of the speaker with right hand over the heart (HOH).
Then, all participants rated the speaker’s credibility.

Participants rated the speaker pictured with hand over heart as more believable, suggesting that the gesture, locally associated with honesty, leading volunteers to perceive the person producing the signal of honesty “…as more credible, even if her statements are not very credible.”

Other volunteers rated the appearance of women in photographs, previously rated by independent judges as “moderate to low attractiveness”.
The women were described as the experimenter’s friends, to “prime” social desirability for a favorable evaluation from participants.

HOH-hipResearchers asked volunteers to enact gestures to “increase their cognitive load”:  Half the volunteers completed ratings while holding their right hand over their hearts whereas the other participants placed hand on their hips.

Participants who held their hand over their hearts rated less attractive faces significantly lower than volunteers who held their hand on their hips, suggesting that they the “’Hand-over-Heart’ gesture influenced people to respond more honestly,“…even if it meant being impolite.

HOJH v shoulderIn another study, more than 50 volunteers solved math problems and reported number completed .

Some wrote solutions with their dominant hands, but others held a “breathing monitor band” by either:

  • Putting right hand on left shoulder, or
  • Right hand over heart.

Participant had an incentive to exaggerate the number of completed problems because researchers told volunteers that one randomly-selected participant would be receive cash prize for each correct answer.

Those who held their hands on their shoulders claimed they solved 45 percent more problems than either of the other two groups, whereas people who held hands over hearts accurately reported completed problems, suggesting that temptation to embellish problem-solving performance was overridden by acting consistently with the gesture associated with honesty.

Bodily sensations influence the way we think, feel, and act…(and) a bodily sensation may activate the concept associated with it; this in turn may shape information processing, and behavior,” concluded Parzuchowski and Wojciszke.

These findings validate the idea of “embodied cognition” – bodily experience and states can influence thinking and likewise, thinking can affect bodily experience and states.
Other examples include judgments of height, weight, importance influenced by physical experiences.

Anita Eerland

Anita Eerland

People whose native language is read and written from left to right typically make smaller estimates of weight and height when leaning to the left (“posture-modulated estimation”) because their language leads them to represent numbers along a continuum with smaller numbers on the left and larger numbers on the right (“mental-number-line theory”), according to Anita Eerland now of Open University of the Netherlands with Max Planck Institute’s Tulio Guadalupe, and Rolf Zwaan of Erasmus University.

Tulio Guadalupe

Tulio Guadalupe

They induced people to lean slightly to the right or to the left by asking them to stand on a Wii Balance Board while answering estimation questions.
Eerland and team changed the directional lean as subjects leaned left or right, or stood upright without mentioning changes in position

When participants were leaned to the left, they produced significantly smaller estimates were than when they leaned to the right.

Eerland-Zwaan Wedding

Eerland-Zwaan Wedding

These results may vary for participants whose native language is read and written from right to left, and Eerland and team suggested replicating this study with other language groups.

Lynden Miles

Lynden Miles

Thoughts can lead to changed body position, found University of Aberdeen’s Lynden Miles, Louise Nind, and C Neil Macrae, when they asked volunteers to think about the future.

Imagining future events caused participants to shift their body position to lean forward, whereas they leaned back when asked to think about the past.

Similarly, qualitative dimension ratings can be affected by physical experience.

When volunteers judged a proposal’s importance, they rated it more momentous when holding a heavy object, according to University of Amsterdam’s Nils B. Jostmann, Daniël Lakens of Utrecht University and Institute Superior de Ciências do Trabalho e da Empresa, Lisbon’s Thomas W. Schubert.

European participants guessed the value of foreign currency in Euros while recording answers on either a heavy clipboard or a light-weight clipboard.
Those who held the lighter clipboard estimated lower average values.

In addition, volunteers estimated the importance of University students participating in making foreign study grant decisions.
Participants who held the heavier clipboard rated student participation as more important.

George Lakoff

George Lakoff

Jostmann and team experimentally demonstrated the impact of body, physical objects, and abstract metaphors on thinking, originally posited by University of California, Berkeley’s George Lakoff and Mark Johnson who linked

  • Control and Mood to direction:

“I have control over him,”
“I am on top of the situation,”
“He’s at the height of his power,”
“He ranks above me in strength,”

“I’m feeling up today”
“He is under my control,”
“His power is on the decline.

“I’m feel down in the dumps.”

  • Love, interpersonal connection to physical force

“I could feel the electricity between us”
“There were sparks
“They gravitated to each other”

  • Anger to heat, pressure

“He’s hot under the collar
“She said it in the heat of anger

John Bargh

John Bargh

Similarly, trustworthiness was associated with the physical experience of warmth when volunteer participants judged a new acquaintance as trustworthy after only a brief interaction when participants held a cup of warm coffee instead of a cold beverage, according to Yale’s John Bargh.

Embodied cognition” is one explanation for the interactive influence of symbolic thought, movement, and bodily experience on one’s behavior and peoples’ perceptions of others.

-*What metaphors and symbolic gestures affect your behavior?

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3 thoughts on “Symbolic Gestures Can Prompt Behaviors, Shape Perceptions

  1. kathrynwelds Post author

    Zac Reichert, M.A.writes: I have been doing research on the effects you described and am impressed how elegantly you framed the research and made it easily applicable. I would enjoy discussing some of these as they relate to the world of work. Great work,

    Reply
  2. kathrynwelds Post author

    Chandra Kill writes: While reading it, I couldn’t help but think about behavioral interviewing questions used on candidates. Hand placement, body language and leaning are all indicators, but I never imagined that the physical placement or movements could actually cause a person to be more honest or answer differently. Truly fascinating. Thank you for sharing!

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Where does the truth lie? Gestures and Honesty in Hiring « KRESS Inc Background Checks

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