Markus Koppensteiner and Karl Grammer devised a new system for mathematically describing the movement patterns of forty real German politicians giving speeches in parliament. Each 16-second, silent video was converted into a stick figure by using an interactive computer programme to place dots on key landmarks such as the elbows, shoulders and forehead. The movement of these landmarks generated dynamic coordinate data which was then crunched according to mathematical characteristics including the 'turbulence coefficient' (i.e. periods of high activity followed by periods of low activity), and the activity levels of body parts such as the head and arms.
Next, 150 participants, mostly students, watched these same video clips and rated the personalities of the moving stick figures. The key finding was that there were correlations between the personality characteristics attributed by the students to the stick figures and the motion patterns of those stick figures as identified by the researchers' motion analysis programme. For example, politicians who displayed a high turbulent coefficient (low activity interrupted by periods of high activity) tended to be rated as more agreeable. Those who displayed more head movements were considered less conscientious, and those who showed low turbulence (i.e. consistently high activity levels) with many horizontal and vertical arm movements tended to be considered more extravert.
Koppensteiner told the Digest that these results are preliminary so caution is advised. For example, it's far too soon to consider body language training based on the findings. 'Telling someone to move a lot (which I found to be a signal for high extraversion) would not turn this person into an extravert. Maybe it would just look strange,' he said. Part of the reason for the caution is that these movement patterns were considered all together, so it's not obvious what effect it would have if just one element were changed. Nor is it known whether a trained pattern of movement would provoke the same personality attributions as when that same pattern occurs naturally. Finally, the personality ratings in the current study were made in the absence of any speech so we don't yet know how movement patterns and speech interact.
Notwithstanding those caveats, Koppensteiner said that the findings do have exciting implications - for example, if the technique were refined, it's possible that it may one day be possible to analyse a politician's movement patterns and predict the kind of personality attributions that voters are likely to make about them. Also, if these attributions reflect politicians' actual personalities, then an analysis of their movement patterns could be used as a way to discern their personality. 'Although at an exploratory stage,' Koppensteiner and Grammer concluded, 'the current study hints that charisma is partly linked to individual differences in successfully presenting oneself on a non-verbal level.'
Koppensteiner, M., & Grammer, K. (2010). Motion patterns in political speech and their influence on personality ratings. Journal of Research in Personality, 44 (3), 374-379 DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2010.04.002
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.