Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Emotion and body language

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Emotion and body language: What can body language tell us about people's emotions?[edit | edit source]

This page is part of the Motivation and emotion book. See also: Guidelines.
Completion status: this resource is considered to be complete.

Introduction[edit | edit source]

Body language is considered to be a universal form of non verbal communication and helps us to better understand individual’s emotions. The deciphering of people’s emotions can be sent or received through non verbal communication or body language. Through body language individuals may be able to better understand another individual’s emotion by being able to recognize and interrupt their body language. A message is often sent verbally and the matching of body language can ensure the success of the message. Body language is important in communication as it gives us an indication to an individual’s character, emotions, and reactions. Body language can be described as gestures, body and eye movements, posture and mannerisms. Body language can express our state of mind through unconscious movements and positions. For example, if in doubt of something we hear, we may raise an eyebrow, a scratch on the nose may indicate we are puzzled. A shrug of the shoulders may mean lack of interest, concern or sympathy. A gentle hit to the forehead with your hand may mean you forgot something, an individual who dislikes being center of attention may fiddle with their hands or rub them together or rock from side to side. Albert Mehrabian, a researcher from the 1960’s, work states within his original findings that 7% of meaning is in the words that are spoken, 38% of meaning is in paralinguistic (the way that the words are said) and 55% of meaning is in facial expression and body language (Mehrabian, 1977. Although there were many researcher and methods developed before his time dating back as far as the 16th century, some of these researchers and methods will be discussed. Some individuals appear to have the ability of interpreting body language or influencing individuals with their body language to understand or modify their emotions. With the awareness of Albert Mehrabian’s research findings it helps an individual become a better communicator by being able to manipulate body language to suit the situation or alter a situation by reading another’s person’s body language.

What is Body Language?[edit | edit source]

Our body posture is thought to be a “kind of language” (Mattsson & Mattsson, 2002, p.136), it has been found to be a remarkably powerful means in both expressing and recognizing emotion and a strong resource of information to expose the goals, intentions and emotions of individuals (Kana & Travers, 2012). Body language can reveal your feelings and meanings to others, but in addition, exposes their feelings and emotions to you. The process of sending and receiving body language signals happen on a conscious and unconscious level (Mehrabian, 1969). Body language includes gestures, body movements (specifically leg and foot) and eye behaviour, posture, body position and mannerisms (Mehrabian, 1969). A gaze and facial expressions to convey or interpret an interaction without using words is also considered body language as it may provide clues to a state of mind or attitude (Mehrabian, 1969). How we touch a person and ourselves, personal space or how our bodies relate with other non-bodily objects e.g. pens, cigarettes, glasses and clothing, and our breathing, heartbeat and perspiration are all thought to be examples of body language (Mehrabial, 1977).

People demonstrate a wide collection of nonverbal behaviours dependent on their emotional state (Kret, Stekelenburg, Roelofs & de Gelder, 2013). For example sometimes these behaviours are deliberate for communication and other times unconscious. This non verbal behaviour or body language can give extensive information about a person, their emotional state, their attitudes and what they are concentrating on or distracted by. Through observation people are able to read others body language and gain a better understanding of their emotions and react to the situation suitably. The interpretation and exchange of body language is constantly occurring most of the time unconsciously (Mattsson & Mattsson, 2002). Basic communication gestures around the world are the same – when we smile we are happy, sad or angry, the face boast a frown or scowl, a nod of the head is considered a ‘yes’ (Meyers, 1998). Even though cultures communicate a collective facial language for basic emotions, they vary in how and how much they express and communicate emotions (Meyers, 1998). A point to remember is that facial features are not perceived in solitude and usually happen with a broad selection of visual auditory, olfactory stimuli and sensory stimuli from the skin, tongue and internal organs (de Gelder & Van den Stock, 2011).

Positive body language

Positive body language[edit | edit source]

  • Relaxed, uncrossed limbs
  • Open palms
  • Leaning forward
Positive body language
Negative body language

Negative body language[edit | edit source]

  • Leaning away
  • Crossed limbs
  • Tight and unrelaxed shoulders
  • Feet pointing away from you or towards the exit
Negative body language

History of Body Language[edit | edit source]

Before investigating the world of body language a brief understanding of where emotions have come from needs to be addressed as there have been many theorists such as Charles Darwin, Bulwer, Duchenne, Sir Charles Bell and Paul Ekman, who have different theories of how and why the body reacts to emotions and the order in which it happens. Emotions are described as being multidimensional (Reeves, 2009) and comprise of four components including the feeling component, a biological component, a purposive component and social - expressive component (Reeves, 2009). The feeling component can be described as where emotions can be subjective and make us feel an individual way with meaning and significance (Reeves, 2009). The biological component comprises of the bodily arousal which prepares us for multiple situations, where by the purposive component gives us a purpose or a goal directed character (Reeves, 2009). Finally the social – expressive component explains emotions relating to communication through postures, gesture, facial expressions and voice (Reeves, 2009), which is where I hold the greatest interest for this discussion.

Illustration 1 Francis Bacon was an English philosopher, politician and scientist. Wrote 'The Proficience and Advancement of Learning " first published in 1605

Body language has only begun to receive great interest in the 20th century, yet there is substantial historical connection to emotions and body language. One of the first people to explore the body and human relationships or gestures was John Bulwer in 1644. His inspiration came from Francis Bacon (refer to illustration 1) and his 1605 work, The Proficience and Advancement of Learning (Smith, 2010). Bulwer often quotes “the hand speaks all languages” (Smith, 2010, p.171) meaning that the hand has the ability to describe body language.

Sir Charles Bell published The Anatomy and Philosophy of Expression in 1806, which illustrates how science and art interact to understand and interpret how bodily systems function as the foundation for the expression of emotion. (Neher, 2008)

In 1862 Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne, a French neurophysiologist, published his studies of facial expressions (refer to illustration 2) .

Illustration 2 "Horror and Agony" from a photograph by Gullaume Duchenne

By using electrical stimulation he was able to differentiate between authentic and artificial smiles (ten Brinke, MacDonald, Porter & O’Connor, 2012). His main photography subject was an elderly man who was suffering from facial anaesthesia which allowed De Boulogne to connect the electrodes to stimulate muscle movements without causing any major discomfort. Many of his colleges didn’t agree with his methods but through his investigations of twisting, pulling and electrical stimulation today we are able to better understand human facial movements and the difference between a real and fake smile. Two different muscle sets in the face control muscle movement, one which runs down the side of your face which you are able to control and the other muscle which is involuntary pull back your eyes to create a narrowing in the eyes and produces laugh lines from the outside corners of your eyes (Parent, 2005).Refer to Illustration 3.

Illustration 3 - muscles in the face

The evolutionary approach to emotions dates back to Charles Darwin and it has been assumed that emotions are universal across cultures , that animals and humans share similar emotional expressions, children who are deaf and blind show similar expressions without the knowledge of being told or seeing particular emotions (Seamon & Kenrick, 1994). Darwin proposed the evolutionary approach that specific facial and body expressions are associated with both animals and humans alike, facial expressions and the movements of the body are to be seen together for an in depth analysis of emotion (Meeren, van Heijnsbergen & de Gelder, 2005). One of Darwin’s many observations which have been used by many researchers after him is “one of the most important points, small as it may at first appear, is that the muscles round the eyes are involuntarily contracted during violent expiratory efforts, in order to protect these delicate organs from the pressure of the blood” (Darwin, 1899). This demonstration of body language or changes in facial expression displays the emotion of anger, which many individuals recognise.

Another influential individual behind the science of body language is Dr Paul Ekman from the mid 1960’s who based a lot of his research on Darwin’s work. Ekman distinguish between genuine and fake smiles, as did Duchenne in 1862, by using a coding system called the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) which describes the facial movements by distinguishing the specific muscular action created (Ekman, 2004).

As well as influential theorist there have been many theories and approaches which coincide with their belief such as the cognitive approach, bodily feedback theory, preconscious processing theory, two factor theory and the cognitive appraisal theory. The cognitive approach to emotions refers to the association between the stimulus event, bodily reactions and the conscious understanding of emotion (Seamon & Kenrick, 1994). The notion of the bodily feedback theory is that the bodily changes e.g. trembling hands, to stimulus occur before the emotion is conscious - determined on the emotion to experience (Seamon & Kenrick, 1994). The preconscious processing theory insists on that the stimulus event is processed in the lower brain centre and then leads to the bodily changes and cognition simultaneously (Seamon & Kenrick, 1994). The assumption of the two factor theory is that the bodily changes and the conscious classification of an emotion are both necessary for the cognitive occurrence of an emotion (Seamon & Kenrick, 1994). The cognitive appraisal theory believes that our bodily changes of emotions occur only after we have made a conscious interpretation and establish that a stimulus might be significant or threatening (Seamon & Kenrick, 1994).

What does body language tell us about emotions?[edit | edit source]

It is very easy to make a mistake when looking at body language as we tend to look at one gesture or action at a time. When interpreting body language it is important to look at clusters of gestures or actions, the congruence and context of the message (Pease, 1999). An individual gesture may have many meanings when put into a cluster of gestures as does an individual word put into a different sentences (Pease, 1999). For example the crossing of hands across the body may mean cold or could imply a defensive barrier depending on the words spoken and the tone behind the words.

Another aspect of interpreting body language is to look at the congruence of the message, is the body displaying the same message as the words spoke? Non verbal signals are said to influence the message more than the words and often if they are contrasting then the verbal message is ignored (Pease, 1999). A person may be telling another person that they really care for them but the body language is rigid and with no eye contact.

Illustration 4 - Does he have a headache or hiding his tears?

Context is another influencing factor when reading body language, as tightly crossed arms and legs while waiting for a bus may be interpreted as cold or signify defensive. Or rubbing your forehead may imply you have a headache or maybe hiding your tears (see illustration 4). The environment and surroundings need to be taken into consideration before a final interpretation is made. Furthermore it is worthy to consider the physical restrictions or disabilities people may suffer while looking at body language as a weak hand shake may mean an arthritic hand or an occupation of a surgeon whose hands are his income and clothing may impact on body language by hiding body parts or restricting movements(Pease, 1999).Status, power or prestige has also been related to a person’s ability to communicate, a person in a higher socio economic group or occupation is able to communicate his actions with greater impact with words and gestures than a person who is less educated or unskilled who relies more on gestures than words (Pease, 1999). Some people are believed to be more perceptive or intuitive in reading and understanding the non verbal cues of communication or body language and women are generally more perceptive than men (Pease, 1999). The perception or intuitive nature can be learnt through studying people but others are considered to just have a natural tendency to feel and understand people’s emotions. Through observant examination, emotions may be distinguished from non-verbal signs. Keep in mind that these are indicators and not exact confirmation. Related clues in addition can be used; in particular congruence, context, back ground information, what is being said to the person, the tones and pronunciation in the voice (Pease, 1999). There are 80 muscles in the face, 36 which are involved in facial expression which combine to make thousands of facial expressions, seven are regarded as universal (Reeve, 2009). Below you will find a list of the common characteristics of these seven emotions which tend to be universal throughout all cultures and fairly obvious to recognise.

Universal body language recognized around the world[edit | edit source]

Happiness[edit | edit source]
  • Relaxed body
  • Large smile from the mouth and eyes
  • Cheeks lifted
  • Twinkle in the eyes
  • Open arms and palms, or clapping hands (Myers, 1998).
Sadness[edit | edit source]
  • Sagging of the body, especially the head, shoulders and arms (Levy & Duke 2003).
  • Lethargic, slow motionless movement
  • Trembling lip
  • Mouth corners down
  • Monotone speech
  • Lack of eye contact
  • Tears or glassy eyes (Pease, 1999).
Fear[edit | edit source]
  • A 'cold sweat'
  • Lack of colour / pale face
  • Aversion to eye contact, eye lids lifted
  • Moist eyes and dry mouth - licking lips, drinking water, rubbing throat
  • Trembling uneven lips
  • Visible high pulse (noticeable on the neck or movement of crossed leg)
  • Sweating
  • Defensive body language with rigidity and tightness in muscles: clenched fists, elbows drawn in to the side, jerky movements, crossed arms and legs, rubbing of palms
  • Breathless and/or holding breath
  • Inability to sit or stand still (Myers, 1998).
  • “the inner ends of the eyebrows are raised, and the corners of the mouth depressed, by a person suffering from grief or anxiety”(Darwin, 1899).

Disgust[edit | edit source]
  • Upper lip raised
  • Tongue pushed outward
  • Nose wrinkled (Myers, 1998).
Embarrassment[edit | edit source]
  • Red or flushed neck and/or face
  • Aversion to eye contact
  • False smile (Pease, 1999).

Surprise[edit | edit source]
  • Raised eyebrows
  • Widening of eyes
  • Open mouth
  • Sudden backward movement (Darwin, 1899).
Anger[edit | edit source]
  • Neck and/or face is red or flushed
  • Heavy breathing
  • Eyebrows drawn together
  • Tensed raised shoulders
  • Baring of teeth and snarling
  • Clenched or tight fists
  • Leaning forward and stand over tactics
  • Invasion of personal body space (Pease, 1999).

Body Language assessment methods[edit | edit source]

A powerful tool in expressing and recognising emotions has been posture and the body language portrayed through the posture can function as a wealthy resource of information that can expose goals, intentions and emotions (Kana & Travers, 2012). A sunken body shape is suggestive of depression, while an intensifying posture indicates authority and strength (Levy & Duke, 2003). Strong, swift movements are related to aggression, horizontal movement patterns of the arms imply communication whereas vertical movement patterns refer to giving a presentation (Levy & Duke, 2003). Inner characteristics of a person can be interpreted through the way a person stands or moves; the creative thinker may move around the room to help thought processes and keep ideas flowing, the person which stands securely on the ground and conveys strength and determination in walking, may be seen as a pragmatic individual (Mattsson & Mattsson, 2002). The person who is inflexible in arguments, may sit and stand in a permanent position and make few variations in posture, a change in posture may indicate a change in point of view (Mattsson & Mattsson, 2002). “The movement style of dominant individuals are often characterised by relaxation in the body, and easy, asymmetrical posture such as leaning and hip shifting” (Levy & Duke, 2003, p.41).

A great deal of research has been developed and tested on facial and verbal emotion expression and perception but there is limited research on body movement (Dael, Motillaro & Scherer, 2012). Facial expressions are a very useful source of information into understanding emotions which may sometimes require a close proximity where as reading body language may be observed from a distance and give an overall view of the situation (Mehrabian, 1969). A few methods have been developed to better understand body language such as the bodily expressive action stimulus test (BEAST) (de Gelder & Van den Stock, 2011) and Laban Movement Analysis (LMA) (Levy & Duke, 2003) but these methods are either time consuming, use researchers own perception and intuition of characteristics with no concrete data analysis. Or measure the body movements using electromyography or accelerometers, motion tracking systems to measure gait and emotional arm movements. These all become limiting in showing true behavioural movements and limited to laboratory settings due to equipment set and expensive specialised equipment (Dael, Motillaro and Scherer, 2012).

From these research methods one has been developed further and has the name of Body Action and Posture coding system (BAP) which was designed to study multiple emotions. The BAP categorizes actions and postures in two forms of units called the body posture units and action units. The body posture units which “represent the general alignment of one or a set of articulators (head, truck, arms) to a particular resting configuration, which shows periodic changes known as posture shifts (e.g. a person leaning backwards, arms crossed)” (Dael et al., 2012, p.101). A “action unit which is a local excursion of one or a set of articulators (mostly arms) outside a resting configuration with a very discrete onset (start point), a relatively short duration , and distinct offset (end point) where the articulators returns to a resting configuration (e.g. head shaking, pointing arm gesture)” (Dael et al., 2012, p.101). By using the two units researchers were able to categorise emotions. As individuals we all show similar emotions this study was able to distinguish the difference between these emotions through behavioural patterns or body language and generate meaningful ambiguity between similar emotions such as pride and elated joy or sadness and relief (Dael et al., 2012).

Summary[edit | edit source]

In closing it can be seen that body language has been researched since the 16th century and has become a useful resource in the ability to better understand emotions. Body language can be illustrated as gestures, body and eye movements, posture, body position and can express our emotions through automatic unconscious body and facial movements. There has been many methods used to study body language such as BEAST, BAP and FACS and Charles Darwin and Paul Ekman were integral researchers in the development of these research studies. More study needs to be done to further understand body language and I have only touch the surface of the many research experiments that have been performed and the research will continue for many years to come.

References[edit | edit source]

  • Darwin, C. (1899). Expressions of Emotion in Man and Animal New York: D. Appleton and Company. Retrieved from
  • de Gelder, B., & Van den Stock, J. (2011). The bodily expressive action stimulus test (BEAST). Construction and validation of a stimulus basis for measuring perception of whole body expression of emotions. Frontiers in Psychology, 2(181), 1 -6.
  • Ekman, P. (2004). Emotional and Conversational nonverbal signals; Language, Knowledge and Representations. 39 – 50, Kluwer Academic Publishers Netherlands. Retrieved from sighted 11 August 2013
  • Ekman, P. & Friesen, W.V. (1969). The Repertoire of NonVerbal Behavior: Categories, Origins, Usage and Coding. Semiotica, 1, 49-97.
  • Kana, R.K & Travers, B. G. (2012). Neural substrates of interpreting actions and emotions from body postures. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 7, 446 – 456
  • Kret, M.E., Stekelenburg, J.J., Roelofs, K., & de Gelder, B. (2013). Perseption of face and body expression using electromyography, pupillometry and gaze measures. Frontiers in Psychology, 4(28), 1-12
  • Levy, J. A., & Duke, M.P. (2003). The use of Laban Movement Analysis on the study of personality, emotional state and movement style: An exploratory investigation of the veridicality of “body language”. Individual Differences Research, 1(1), 39 - 63
  • Mattsson, B., & Mattsson, M. (2002). The concept of “psychosomatic” in general practice Reflections on body language and a tentative model of understanding Scandinavian Journal Primary Health Care ,20, 135 - 138
  • Meeren, H.K.M., van Heijnsbergen, C.R.J., & de Gelder, B. (2005). Rapid perceptual integration of facial expression and emotional body language. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 105(45), 16518 - 16523
  • Mehrabian, A. (1969). Significance of posture and position in the communication of attitude and status relationships. Psychological Bulletin, 71(5), 359 -372
  • Mehrabian, A. (1977). Non verbal Communication. USA: Transaction Publishers
  • Meyers, D, G. (1998). Psychology (5th ed.). New York: Worth Publishing.
  • Neher, A. (2008) Sir Charles Bell and the Anatomy of Expression RACAR XXXIII | Numbers 1-2 | 2008 Dawson College sighted 8 /8/2013
  • Parent, A. (2005). Duchenne De Boulogne: A Pioneer in Neurology and Medical Photography The Canadian Journal Of Neurological Sciences, 32, 369-377
  • Pease, A. (1999). Body Language How to read others thoughts by their gestures. Australia: HarperCollins Pty Ltd
  • Reeve, J. (2009). Understanding Motivation and Emotion (5th ed.). USA: Wiley.
  • Seamon, J.G. & Kenrick, D.T. (1994). Psychology (2nd ed.). New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
  • Smith, J. E.H. (2010) The Body as Object and Instrument of Knowledge: Embodied Empiricism in Early Modern Science pp 161 – 184. In C.T. Wolfe, & O. Gal (Ed.), Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 25, pp 161 – 184 Springer Dordrecht Heidelberg, London. Retrieved from
  • ten Brinke, L., MacDonald, S., Porter, S., & O’Connor, B. (2012). Crocodile Tears: Facial, Verbal and Body Language Behaviours Associated With Genuine and Fabricated Remorse Law and Human Behavior, 36(1), 51–59