’Body language has an enormous influence on our perceptions of people’: Münster University psychologist Simon Breil researches into how much is revealed by non-verbal features such as gestures and facial expressions

Simon Breil © private source

Simon Breil © private source

Münster University psychologist Simon Breil researches into how much is revealed by non-verbal features such as gestures and facial expressions

First impressions count: a smile on the lips, or dynamic gestures, have a positive effect on the way people’s personalities are judged. This is the conclusion which Dr. Simon Breil comes to in a study now published. Simon Breil is a research associate at the Institute of Psychology at the University of Münster. The meta-analysis undertaken looked at studies carried out over the past 40 years dealing with the connection between non-verbal cues and the perception of personalities. In this interview with Kathrin Nolte, Simon Breil describes the influence of body language and the overestimation of non-verbal cues, as well as revealing how applicants can present themselves favourably in job interviews.

What influence does body language have on perceptions of other people?

In general, we can say that body language has an enormous influence on perceptions of people. First we need to define, though, what is meant by body language. For our study, we used a broad-based definition which included not only gestures but also facial expressions. In other words, whether people smile, how they maintain eye contact with another person, and whether they are shaking or appear to be tensed up. What we noticed was that people differ greatly in how they act during contact with one another - and in how they are perceived as a result.

What non-verbal cues indicate what kind of personality?

Let’s first look at perception: we examined classic body language, gestures, paraverbal elements such as stress, speed or volume of speech, and external factors such as clothes, hairstyle and make-up. We divided personality into five areas. These are the Big Five personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness - in other words, how friendly people are - and neuroticism, i.e. how well people handle stress and how emotionally stable they are. As far as our perceptions are concerned, we can say that all non-verbal cues are used to make initial assessments of these five traits. If a person smiles, for example, this is accompanied by a more positive assessment of their personality. It is assumed that such people are more sociable, more industrious and more intelligent. People displaying dynamic gestures are likewise perceived as being more extravert, more sociable and more friendly. People wearing a smart suit or a costume, for example, give an initial impression of being more industrious and more conscientious. Our conclusion is that the perception of personality is very strongly influenced by how we act - and, indeed, before a single word has been spoken.

How reliable are non-verbal cues in judging a personality?

In order to establish the extent to which an initial perception is linked to the real personality, we looked in the studies at how participants viewed themselves. Basically, we can say that we assess the relevance of non-verbal cues as being much greater than they actually are. Although the initial impression, which we gain within 15 seconds, is often quite accurate, the influence of body language is overestimated. The quality of extraversion - in other words, people’s sociability and extraversion - can be assessed well on the basis of body language. In comparison, the other four personality traits drop significantly.

What can individual people take away from your research for their private or working lives?

There are two aspects, depending on the role you’re playing. If you want to make a good impression in a job interview or on a date, for example, you should be aware - particularly at the beginning - that gestures and facial expressions have a big influence on how you are perceived. The results of the study show that a certain behaviour is registered in a certain way by the person sitting opposite. And it is especially in a job interview that you can exploit that. Before the interview, for example, applicants should practise looking friendly and making a self-assured impression rather than a nervous one. The clothes you choose to wear are also important for the way we are perceived. The person in the role of the decision-maker should not overestimate the perception of non-verbal clues. In other words, he or she can incorporate these aspects into the decision-making process, but what is more important is to systematically gather specific information during the interview which is important for the job being advertised.

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