The Naked Power: Understanding Nonverbal Communications of Power

So, the question is: If neither lay people nor social psychologists know all the details about  nonverbal communication, how is it that it is actually going so smoothly and effectively? Can we communicate  power nonverbally without knowing how we do it? It turns out the answer is yes. New insights into the  nonverbal communication of  power come from the application of two recent trends in the cognitive sciences. Firstly, a lot of it seems to happen unconsciously, including reactions to it. This may explain why it goes so smoothly, even though actual beliefs about it are often wrong. Secondly, it seems to operate not only with concrete images of how the powerful, or the powerless, behave, but in fact with highly schematized images that are then applied to many things in the environment. In the present article, we will describe some of these recent developments that lift the veil of  power'snonverbal communication.

The Automaticity of Nonverbal Power Communication: Portraits, Gaze, and Posture

Let us first investigate how conscious our  nonverbal communication of  power is. Two recent reviews of nonverbal behaviour in general argued that it largely takes place on automatic, unconscious levels (Choi, Gray, & Ambady, 2005; Lakin, 2006). Two phenomena can serve us as excellent examples because they are unintuitive to most people.

The first example concerns the communication of status by how much of the body in comparison to the face is visible in a portrait. The second example concerns the communication of  power by how much one looks at others while speaking. Before you read on, try to think about it: When you look at portraits of persons, do you usually consciously observe how much of the body the portrait depicts in addition to the face? Or, when you talk to your superior, do you consciously register how often he looks at you while he is speaking, compared to when you are speaking? Most people would probably answer that they do that very rarely.


So, what's up with the ratio of face to body in portraits? Research from the last 25 years has consistently revealed that members of powerful or high status groups (e.g., men, Whites) are portrait in such a way that more of the face, and less of the body, is seen in comparison to portraits of members of powerless groups (e.g., women, Blacks). In addition, portraits of people that show less of the body create the impression that the person is more powerful and competent than portraits that show more of the body, and where the face is less prominent. This has been termed face-ism, a subtle communicative device to uphold powerdifferences in the media (Archer, Iritani, Kimes, & Barrios, 1983; Schwarz & Kurz, 1989; Zuckerman, 1986; Zuckerman & Kieffer, 1994). The effect is also present for the depiction of single individuals. A recent study by Calogero and Mullen (in press) shows that cartoons George W. Bush depicted more of the body, and less of the face, in times when he was perceived as less powerful and less dominant – namely, after he had started wars.


Now, let us look at the issue of looking while speaking. The powerful differ from the powerless in how much they look at their interaction partner while speaking. Research on this topic has revealed that the powerful look at their interaction partners more while speaking than while listening, while the powerless look more while listening than while speaking. In addition, people who look more at their interaction partner while speaking are also judged as being more dominant than people who look more while listening. This has been termed visual dominance – and it seems to be a very effective way to communicate and create powerdifferences (Dovidio & Ellyson, 1982; Dovidio, Ellyson, Keating, Heltman, & Brown, 1988).

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