A New York Times blog post this week shared the results of a study from MIT, Northeastern University and Cornell on the nonverbal cues of deceitfulness. The experimental study involves a token sharing exercise with pairs of participants both online and face-to-face that tested whether participants considered their activity partner as trustworthy, and how they came to that conclusion.
It turns out that when you don’t have the time to actually get to know someone, you rely heavily on physical cues for assessment:
“Lack of face-to-face contact didn’t make people more selfish,” said the study’s lead author, David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern. “But a person’s ability to predict what their partner was going to do was greater face to face than online. There is something the mind is picking up that gives you greater accuracy and makes you better able to identify people who are going to be trustworthy.”
The researchers identified four gestures that together were consistently interpreted as signaling untrustworthiness: leaning away from someone; crossing arms in a blocking fashion; touching, rubbing or grasping hands together; and touching oneself on the face, abdomen or elsewhere. It is important to note that both online and offline players showed comparable levels of trustiworthiness overall, but the participants who met with their partners face-to-face were much better at assessing levels of trustworthiness as played out in the token game.
To further determine whether participants were reading these cues or something else from their partners, researchers then programmed humanoid robots to either mimic these behaviors or not. It turns out that even in robots these gestures were seen as untrustworthy:
Students in both groups rated the robot equally likable. But those who had unknowingly witnessed the cues associated with distrust also rated the robot as less trustworthy, compared with students exposed to only the conversational gestures.
These are probably old hat findings for professional poker players and international negotiators, but for the rest of us, it’s broadly applicable in our daily lives. Buying a used car, interviewing a job candidate, out on blind date? Watch out for the crossed arms and the hand rubbing.