You can tell a lot about a person merely by what their appearance is telling you; these ‘channels’ of the body are what express the mind’s emotional state, and help to judge someone’s personality, and whether something is affecting their state of mind. Nonverbal behavior is an important component to forming impressions about people's personality, sociability, and mood, among other things (Ambady and Rosenthal, p. 439). When someone typically tries to figure out what someone’s emotional state may be, three determinants are used; the emotional state of the observer, the emotional state of the observed, and the information available to the observer by which he is making his analysis. These channels of the body are what provide the information to the observer in order to determine what the other person is experiencing (O’Sullivan & Scherer, 1980).
However, what is often overlooked is the way we look by default. Our appearance in particular is often one way in which we communicate non-verbally. Whatever we choose to look like often plays a huge factor in conveying a message to those around us about our personality, our mood and our disposition. We often make snap judgments about those around us simply based on how they look - a result of a plethora of psychological events and phenomena which subconsciously give us impressions of others through their appearance. The importance of appearance as a component of nonverbal communication is apparent due to our inexplicably accurate means of determining personality and making value judgments about others before investing oneself in social relationships with others.
Research indicates that physical appearance, in and of itself, causes us to make inferences regarding someone's personality (Warner and Sugarman, p. 792). Essentially, the more physically attractive we find someone, the more likely we are to think they are good people; when we judge someone to be physically attractive, we make an attribution about their personality and their abilities that is overall positive. Furthermore, physical attractiveness is also strongly associated with high sociability in perceptions of judges; someone we find attractive is also presumed to be very socially comfortable and successful (Warner and Sugarman, p. 796). However, the most important distinction to make about this phenomenon is that different people have different personality dimensions by which they judge both attractiveness and personality; some people may find some attractive and others unattractive. At the same time, the results are the same; more attractive people are judged to be more trusting and positive (p. 798).
On that note, narcissists often use this ability to positively judge attractiveness to their advantage; narcissists have been shown to be extremely popular with those whom they hold zero acquaintance with (Back et al., p. 132). Social perceptions of narcissists being extremely charming and amiable at first sight stem from their ability to make positive impressions through physical appearance. Narcissists, through their characterization as "craving attention and admiration," often take better care of themselves and their physical appearance, taking steps to be more physically fit and pick attractive clothing; this leads to the immediate impression, at zero acquaintance, that a narcissist is physically attractive and, by extension, more sociable (p. 133). Narcissists gain greater social mileage from physical attractiveness, as they lean on it more heavily to influence others into believing they are sociable; as a result, short-term relationships are preferred by the narcissist (p. 133).
These indications are often extremely accurate; our capacity to form impressions about other people is a "critical human skill" (Ambady and Rosenthal, p. 431). In essence, physical appearance is an observable cue, just like other kinds of nonverbal behavior, that can tell one about the person being evaluated or judged. There are many characteristics that can be influenced through physical attractiveness, such as those surrounding social competence. The accuracy by which we can link attractiveness to sociability is often linked to the hypothesis that "attractive targets might actually rate themselves more positively, because of the influence of self-fulfilling prophecies" (p. 432). Teachers who are trained in nonverbal skills and are naturally, or by hard work, physically attractive are shown to have tremendously higher influence on students and higher ratings; their ability to convey nonverbal information and hold the attention of students (through the inference of sociability) is shown to be tremendously positive (p. 440).
The exposure effect often plays a significant role in how we perceive people via their appearances; "preferences need no inferences" (Zajonc, p. 151). This means that the exposure effect can take place subconsciously. One does not have to be aware that they prefer something for that preference to occur. As we spend more time among a certain kind of people, we grow more accustomed to their appearance and feel at ease around them; as a result, we can also feel uncomfortable around those who do not look like us. "the form of experience that we came to call feeling accompanies all cognitions, that it arises early in the process of registration and retrieval, albeit weakly and vaguely, and that it derives from a parallel, separate, and partly independent system in the organism" (Zajonc, p. 173). This means that thought and feeling are very different things, which leads to the exposure effect occurring without anyone knowing about it.
Channels of expression can also contribute to one's physical appearance, as how we move strongly determines how we look (O'Sullivan and Scherer, 1980). Facial expression is one very important channel – the movement of the facial muscles and features can tell someone a lot about what someone is experiencing. A furrowed brow may mean concentration or frustration; flared nostrils could imply that the person is angry. Smiling and frowning can mean that the person is happy or sad, respectively. The eyes carry a whole range of movements that can convey a number of emotions. As a result, it could be easy to see how looking at the face can contribute greatly to determining someone’s emotional state.
Body language, like the face, can tell people everything they need to know about a person’s state of mind. Crossed arms can imply that the person is impatient; a slumped posture can telegraph laziness in a person. The speed and way in which a person walks could also demonstrate whether or not they are feeling rushed or determined, proud or dejected, or many other emotions. The body has many moving parts; the way in which someone moves or positions them can form an impression in the observer of what the person is thinking, or how they are feeling at that particular time.
In O’Sullivan and Scherer’s experiment, a set of participants are exposed to various criteria and asked to participate in both honest and deception-based interviews. For the honest group, subjects were asked to speak frankly about their emotions, as nice videos played of nature scenes. With the deception group, horrible amputations and disgusting images were shown, and the subjects were asked to conceal their behavior and emotions. The subjects were either only videotaped in the face or the body, or only the sound was collected. People were then asked to observe these single channels to determine the state of mind of the subject through these individual criteria (O’Sullivan & Scherer, 1980). According to the results, people were able to determine that the people in the deception group were stressed, despite their attempts to hide their emotional state. The group that examined the speech channel had the highest probability of finding the correct judgment and correlation between real attitudes and perceived attitudes. However, with the inclusion of other experiments, the researchers make it clear that “it would be unwise to claim that any one channel predominates in judging other people” (O’Sullivan & Scherer, p. 276).
Usually, the deception-based behavior was judged very differently than the honesty-based behavior for a couple of reasons; first, the voice pitch level went up in the subjects who engaged in deceptive behavior, which could have made the speech channel much more prominent as an indicator. Secondly, the theory of nonverbal leakage could have influenced the behavior; “people learn to monitor and disguise the content of their speech more than their face, body or voice quality” (O’Sullivan and Scherer, p. 276). Even though they manage to hide what they are feeling in their voice, the participants could have ‘leaked’ their true feelings through contradictory expressions in the face or body. The determination of a person’s state of mind through communication channels such as the face, body and speech can be very complicated. There is no one channel that tells an observer more than another about the state of the person being observed; all of them contribute in their own ways to communicating what is going on in the mind of the observed. Single-channel investigation of a state is, therefore, inherently flawed (O’Sullivan & Scherer, 1980).
The application of these value judgments regarding personality and sociability via appearance and other nonverbal behaviors happens in myriad ways. For instance, perceiving and categorizing sexual orientation, particularly in men, is largely tied to appearance. Even with minimal outright cues, people make assumptions and inferences regarding whether or not a man is homosexual or heterosexual, regardless of their accuracy (Rule et al., p. 1019). Due to its status as an ambiguous social category, sexual orientation is conveyed through both intentional and unintentional cues, appearance being intentional (through the choices we make in clothes and hairstyles). Through these choices, if a person makes intentional choices in their physical appearance that are commonly associated by others to be shared by those who are homosexual, judges might assume that they are gay. People are often somewhat accurate and prescient about determining and perceiving sexual orientation through these cues of appearance; however, people's perceptions about their ability to accurately guess sexual orientation are often overstated (p. 1020).
Between appearance and other nonverbal behaviors, the pervading values of a culture are often successfully conveyed to others (Weisbuch and Ambady, 2009). Often, cultural preferences are also used to arm oneself with preferences and biases with which to judge others based on appearance. For example, attitudes toward slim women are more favorable than non-slim women; at zero acquaintance, individuals will infer more positive personality and sociability attributes to slim woman than those who are not (p. 1112). This is often a result of popular culture and the media portraying slim women attractively, creating a nonverbal bias in those who observe women in real situations. Variances often occur based on differences in exposure to media and other factors that perpetuate certain attitudes that conflict with that perception - regional differences in what is considered beauty lead to positive judgments made against other types of individuals. This ties in greatly with the exposure effect, as the more used we become to positive portrayals of people with certain appearances, the more we will prefer those kinds of people.
The importance and influence of appearance as a component of nonverbal communication cannot be overstated. As one of the first attributes of a person that is observed, physical attractiveness plays a substantial part of how people are perceived and judged. Substantial inferences about one's personality, sociability and openness are gleaned from one's appearance, accomplished through clothing, behavior and physical attractiveness. Much of this relationship is related to nonverbal bias of physically attractive people over those who are unattractive, granting the former greater positive responses to behavior and shaping societal notions of attractiveness implying greater personhood (Weisbuch and Ambady, 2009). Person perception is used by narcissists to charm others of zero acquaintance into friendship and relationships, and by many to gauge the sexual orientation of others (Back et al, 2010; Rule et al., 2008). There are many ways in which our appearance influences how others perceive and judge us; becoming aware of these factors and how they influence can help us better understand our interactions.
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