The Naked Power: Understanding Nonverbal Communications of Power

Because  power is something we often avoid discussing openly, its  nonverbal communication is fascinating to lay people and psychologists alike. When directly asked, people interpret many different nonverbal signs as indicating high or low  power – unfortunately, these ideas are often exaggerated and misguided. Likewise, social psychologists still have no good understanding of the nonverbal cues to  power. This article sheds more light on what is actually underlying  nonverbal communication of  power. We identify two new insights: First, much of the  nonverbal communication of  power takes places unconsciously and is hard to control. Second, people use abstract schemas to judge  power, and they not only apply these schemas to understanding body talk, but also elements of art, advertisement, and architecture.

Most western societies are egalitarian societies. Because the value of equality is held in high regard, Westerners often dislike to talk about, and thereby revealing, who is in charge, who has more to say than others, and who has  power (Hofstede, 2001). This makes the  nonverbal communication of  power and hierarchies, which is present in all societies, all the more important. Which nonverbal cues are associated with  power or powerlessness, and where research on this topic is currently going, is the topic of this article.

Lay People Often Get Power Communication Wrong

Nonverbal communication of  power seems fascinating to lay people and psychologists alike. For a recent survey of the literature, Judith Hall and her colleagues located 211 studies conducted between 1937 and 2002, and more have been conducted since (Hall, Coats, & Smith LeBeau, 2005). One should suppose that from that many studies, we know already a lot about  power. Yet, Hall and colleagues conclude from their survey two uncomforting facts:

1. Lay people probably often see  nonverbal communication of  power where none is, and over-interpret cues as signalling powereven when they are not diagnostic. For instance, observers interpret smiling, gazing, touching, less pauses, and many other things as indicating  power even though Hall and colleagues found little evidence that these signs reliably signal  power. Actual relations between  power and nonverbal behaviour only existed for more facial expressiveness, more bodily openness, smaller interpersonal distances, less vocal variability, louder voice, more interruptions, and more relaxed sounding voices. Thus, people seem to have somewhat exaggerated views of what communicates  power.

2. The studies Hall et al. summarized were very heterogeneous and sometimes contradictory, and we have no good explanations for these contradictions. This indicates that we still know very little about the  nonverbal communication of  power.

article author(s)