Participants were then asked to rate the silent, animated movies for specific personality traits.
Although some traits, such as conscientiousness, appeared to be hard to discern from the hand gestures, others were clearly visible. Extraversion, for instance, appeared to be linked more to hand movements overall, punctuated with only brief periods of stillness.
Extraversion appeared to be linked more hand movements overall, punctuated with only brief periods of stillness
Perceptions of authority, meanwhile, appeared to come from the scale of vertical movements – whether your hand sweeps from the level of the lectern, say, to shoulder height. People who regularly make these kinds of expansive gestures tend to be rated as being less agreeable, but more dominant. “It is a very consistent result, across many papers of mine,” Koppensteiner says.
In one particularly striking article from 2015, Koppensteiner found that these personality ratings, based solely on the silent animations of stick men, could predict the amount of applause the politicians actually received in the real-life speechesthat the animations had been drawn from.
There was a catch, however, since those rating also predicted whether the politicians were heckled – suggesting that the gestures of dominance can be perceived as positive or negative depending on the context. Perhaps, in the wrong circumstances, gestures of dominance can also be seen as arrogant, aggressive, or overbearing.
Besides altering the perceptions dominance, the expansive vertical hand movements also altered estimates of the speaker’s physical height. “People were mostly impressed by the real height of the stick figures, but if they moved their arms up and down vigorously, and with lots of expansive arm movements, you seem to be judged as being taller,” he says.
The exact psychological mechanism is not clear. Since previous research had shown that taller people are naturally considered to be better leaders, it’s possible that the movements create a kind of visual illusion to increase your perceived height, and this then contributes to perceptions of greater dominance. But it could also work in the opposite direction: the increased dominance leads to the altered perceptions of height.
“We know that if people are in high-status positions, they are seen as being taller,” Koppensteiner says. As he points out, people often overestimate Tom Cruise’s height, and although that could be due to clever camera work, it could also come from the way he projects his confidence.
The most successful TED talk videos contain almost twice as many hand gestures
Koppensteiner’s results would seem to support the conclusions of less formal studies. The author and body language trainer Vanessa Van Edwards, for instance, has analysed hundreds of TED talks to understand why some talks go viral while others sink with very little interest – even when they deal with broadly similar topics conveying equally enticing messages. She found that the most successful videos contained almost twice as many hand gestures (465 compared to 272). And in line with Koppensteiner’s research, the number of expansive gestures also predicted viewers’ ratings of the speakers’ charisma and competence.
It’s worth emphasising that Koppensteiner hasn’t yet tested whether people can mimic these expansive gestures to change the ways they are perceived. Even so, he suspects that many people are putting on something of a deliberate performance, although that may be easier for some personality types than others. “You can produce certain behaviours and certain outcomes and impressions in people, but there may limits,” he says.
Given that public speaking is consistently rated our biggest phobia, any small tip to improve the experience could offer a small confidence boost that will surely be welcomed by many people. Let your hands do the talking, and you might just find that the words take care of themselves.