Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Nonverbal dominance displays in many non-human species are known to increase the displayer’s apparent size. Now researchers led by assistant professor of psychology Abigail Marsh have found that humans also employ a variety of nonverbal cues that make them appear larger or smaller. Physical size, the researchers say, is closely linked to social dominance.

Marsh and her team report their findings in an article published in the May 27, 2009 edition of the journal PLoS ONE.

While several psychological studies previously have demonstrated that physical size affects perceptions of status and that status alters perceptions of physical size, “No prior study has assessed whether human nonverbal cues can, like the nonverbal cues of non-human animals, create the appearance of changes in physical size that influence the displayer’s perceived status,” says Marsh, who directs the Georgetown Laboratory on Social and Affective Neuroscience. “Our study suggests that certain nonverbal dominance cues in humans may function as they do in other species by creating the appearance of changes in physical size.”

Citing existing research, the authors argue that social dominance and physical size are inextricably linked.

“In species ranging from montane lizards to mountain gorillas, physical size is a direct and primary determinant of social dominance, with physically larger animals attaining greater social status than smaller animals,” they write. “Appearing larger may enhance social dominance because larger appearing opponents are more likely to spur an opponent to withdraw and thus win by forfeiture.”

Social dominance facilitates success in competition for territory, reproduction, and survival in many species. Greater physical size enhances human and non-human animals’ ability to attain these goals. In humans, physical size also confers advantages in social dominance and the acquisition of resources. Supporting this claim, the authors cite research that taller men earn more money (as much as $600 per inch) and achieve higher job status and that 10 of the 12 United States presidential elections from 1952 to 1996 were won by the taller candidate.

Marsh and her colleagues show that high status and low status cues lead to changes in apparent physical size and that body postures and other nonverbal cues alter people’s apparent size. The difference in perception predicts how effective individuals are in conveying social dominance or subordination. Marsh says these results suggest parallel functions in the nonverbal dominance cues of humans and other animals.

In the study, participants judged people in a variety of poses on apparent height, weight and dominance. The high status cues shown to be highly indicative of perceived dominance include lowered brows, direct gaze, open body posture, and outwardly-directed gestures, such as pointing. Low status variants of these cues included raised brows, averted gaze, closed posture and self-directed gestures such as touching one’s own neck.

“Our results demonstrate convergence between human behaviors and the status displays of non-human animals and highlight the importance of low-level perceptual processes in shaping some of the complex processes that underlie human social behavior,” says Marsh.

Georgetown U.

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