Nonverbal Communication Research Paper

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By virtue of a series of discoveries and conceptual departures in  the  social sciences, our  understanding  of the process of human communication has been expanded to include nonverbal communication. In the words of Ashley Montagu and Floyd Matson in The Human Connection (1979): “It is not merely a hidden dimension or a silent language that has been uncovered by the new wave of scientific explorers; it is more like a neglected universe of discourse and intercourse. We are becoming aware that the verbal domain is only the tip of the iceberg of communicative experience—that there is more, much more, to human dialog than meets the ear” (p. xiii). This entry discusses key ideas from the vast research literature on nonverbal communication (NVC).

Nonverbal behavior (NVB) is usually divided into several categories. One  category is paralanguage,  which refers to the content-free vocalizations and pauses associated with speech. Research conducted by Starkey Duncan and Donald Fiske (1979) shows how paralinguistic behaviors serve as regulators of social interaction. Another category is facial expressions. Paul Ekman’s research has shown how expressions indicate primary emotions (for example, see his 1992 article). A third category is kinesics or body language. The research reported by Ray Birdwhistell in Kinesics and Context (1970) is an example of the value of detailed recording of gestures and bodily movements. A fourth category is visual behavior, which includes gazing. Michael Argyle’s research, reported in Bodily Communication (1975) and elsewhere, has elucidated the meaning of and social functions served by various patterns of eye contact between people. The study of spatial behavior or proxemics is another aspect of NVB research. Edward Hall’s categories of interpersonal distance influenced the study of communication and culture (see The Hidden Dimension, 1966). Georg Simmel’s writing about spatial relations throws light on how space can reflect a group’s social standing as being dominant or marginal in a society (see Allen, 2000). The synergistic effects of these categories are illustrated by Albert Mehrabian’s multiplechannel research summarized in his 1972 book Nonverbal Communication.

Each of the  nonverbal channels is understood  in terms of both  interpretation—referred to as decoding— and communication, known as encoding. These functions are related: The interpretive function leads observers to infer the communicator’s intentions; the communicative function is used to influence the observers’ attribution of intentions. The knowledge generated by research provides a tool for agents of influence such as advertising executives and politicians. Certain NVBs have been shown to provide a window into emotions and intentions: For example, in her 2006 article, Christine Harris shows the NVBs and muscle activations that indicate the feeling of embarrassment (in succession—eyes down, smile control, head away, gaze shifts, face touch); and, in their 1982 book on Nonverbal Communication, Daniel Druckman,  Richard Rozelle, and James Baxter show that deceivers displayed more frequent leg movements, less time looking at the interviewer, and more fidgeting with objects than honest and evasive  role-players in their experiments. These are some of the cues that can be used to diagnose psychological states and lying (referred to as decoding); they are also the cues that  can be used to disguise one’s  feelings or intentions (referred to as encoding).

It would seem then that the research findings provide useful information for managing impressions. However, the research also suggests that the process may be more difficult than it seems. In a 1985 chapter, Bella DePaulo and her colleagues review evidence on the impact of controlling NVBs in order to perpetrate a lie. Pointing to a phenomenon referred to as leakage, these findings show that when certain nonverbal channels, such as facial expressions, are orchestrated to hide an intention, other channels, subject to less conscious control, can be revealing. Words and facial expressions have been found to be easier to control than body movements and such paralinguistic behaviors as tone of voice. These researchers also show that highly motivated liars may be easier to catch than their less motivated counterparts: When the stakes for pulling off a lie are high, more-difficult-to-control nonverbal channels are more revealing than verbal clues; less motivated liars are more likely to give themselves away with words. Thus, both context and channel are important for diagnosis. Likewise, they are important  for the communicator’s attempts to create certain impressions.

Another issue is the extent to which the findings are universal. Culture  has been shown to influence expressions: Based on a review of the research, Randall Gordon and his colleagues concluded that “the events that elicit emotions vary from culture to culture, but the particular facial muscle movements triggered when a given emotion is elicited may be  relatively universal” (2006,  p.  85). Cultural influences are referred to as display rules. These rules serve to control expressions that would be inappropriate in certain settings. Numerous studies have found differences among cultures in each of the NVB channels: Many of these studies focus on preferences for spacing or interaction distances; some show differences between cultures in gazing behavior, while others examine paralinguistic behaviors. (See, for  example, Michael  Argyle’s 1986  article on  display rules dealing with  intimacy.) However, while the cross-cultural comparisons are informative, the studies provide limited insight into the situations that  arouse such feelings as guilt, shame, or stress within cultures. Cultural  interpretations of situations—for example, as social transgressions—are central to the idea of display rules and have implications for the way we diagnose leaked NVBs.

Professional cultures also influence expressions and their interpretation. For example, when considering the field of international politics, four questions can be asked: What is the state of the leader’s health? To what extent do the  statements made by national representatives reflect actual policies? How committed are representatives to the positions put forward? How secure is the representative’s political status? Clues about what to look for are provided by NVC  studies. A furrowed brow and  raised eyelids together with change in vocal tone and heightened pitch suggest pain; deviations from baseline NVBs may indicate deception; an increase in the amount of NVBs expressed in several channels may signal strong commitment; and spatial behavior may provide clues to  political status. These indicators direct attention to relationships between nonverbal channels, abrupt changes in expressions, and the intensity of nonverbal displays. They provide a structure for focusing attention  on relevant details—that is, they suggest where to focus attention and what to look at. But they can also be misleading. Professional politicians are adept at masking intentions and feelings, particularly in the channels that are easier to control (facial expressions, spatial behavior). For this reason, knowledge about professional socialization and norms provides a broadened appreciation for the  meaning of communication.  (For more on NVC in the context of international politics, see the 2006 chapter by Gordon and his coauthors.)


  1. Allen, J 2000. On Georg Simmel: Proxemics, Distances, and Movement. In Thinking Space, ed. Mike Crang and Nigel Thrift, 54–70. London: Routledge.
  2. Argyle, M 1975. Bodily Communication. New York: International Universities Press.
  3. Argyle, M 1986. Rules for Social Relationships in Four Cultures. Australian Journal of Psychology 38 (3): 309–318.
  4. Birdwhistell, Ray 1970. Kinesics and Context: Essays on Body Motion Communication. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  5. DePaulo, Bella , J. I. Stone, and G. D. Lassiter. 1985. Deceiving and Detecting Deceit. In The Self and Social Life, ed. Barry R. Schlenker, 323–370. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  6. Druckman, Daniel, Richard Rozelle, and James C. Baxter. 1982. Nonverbal Communication: Survey, Theory, and Research. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
  7. Duncan, Starkey, and Donald W. F 1979. Dynamic Patterning in Conversation. American Scientist 67 (JanuaryFebruary): 90–98.
  8. Ekman, P 1992. Facial Expression of Emotions: New Findings, New Questions. Psychological Science 3 (1): 34–38.
  9. Gordon, Randall, Daniel Druckman, Richard Rozelle, and James C. Baxter. 2006. Non-Verbal Behaviour asCommunication: Approaches, Issues, and Research. In Handbook of Communication Skills, ed. Owen Hargie, 73–119. London: Routledge.
  10. Hall, Edward T. The Hidden Dimension. New York: Doubleday.
  11. Harris, Christine 2006. Embarrassment: A Form of Social Pain. American Scientist 94 (6): 524–533.
  12. Mehrabian, Alber 1972. Nonverbal Communication. Chicago: Aldine-Atherton.
  13. Montagu, Ashley, and Floyd M 1979. The Human Connection. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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