We’d all like to learn how to read people like Sherlock Holmes. And research shows understanding things like body language is even more powerful than you might think.
MIT found that the outcome of negotiations could be predicted by body language alone 87% of the time.
From The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism:
But most of what you believe about body language and analyzing others is based on myth or guesswork, not real research.
So how can you learn how to read people the right way? Let’s get answers from experts and studies.
But first we need to understand all the mistakes you’re making…
Here’s What You’re Doing Wrong
In The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help–or Hurt–How You Lead the author points out a number of common errors people make in reading people:
- Ignoring context: Crossed arms don’t mean much if the room is cold or the chair they’re sitting in doesn’t have armrests. Everything has to pass the common sense test given the environment. So ask yourself: “Should someone in this situation be acting like this?”
- Not looking for clusters: One of the biggest errors you make is looking for one single tell. That’s great in movies about poker players but in real life it’s a consistent grouping of actions (sweating, touching the face, and stuttering together) that is really going to tell you something. So ask yourself: “Are most of this person’s behaviors associated with X?”
- Not getting a baseline: If someone is always jumpy, jumpiness doesn’t tell you anything. If someone is always jumpy and they suddenly stop moving — HELLO. So ask yourself: “Is this how they normally act?”
- Not being conscious of biases: If you already like or dislike the person, it’s going to affect your judgment. And if people compliment you, are similar to you, are attractive… these can all sway you, unconsciously. (I know, I know, you don’t fall for those tricks. Well, the biggest bias of all is thinking you’re unbiased.)
(To learn the 4 rituals that will make you an expert at anything, click here.)
So you’re taking context into consideration, you’re looking for clusters of behaviors, you’re getting a baseline and you’re aware of your biases. Tall order. Let’s make it simple to start…
In reading people, when can you trust your gut?
Read more: How To Get People To Like You: 7 Ways From An FBI Behavior Expert
When To Trust Your Instincts
Good News: your first impressions are usually pretty accurate.
Bad News: whether they are wrong or right, first impressions affect us in a big way and we are slow to change them.
Sam Gosling is about as close to Sherlock Holmes as you can get. He’s a personality psychologist at the University of Texas and author of the book Snoop. Here’s Sam:
So with no tips from me or Sam, and nothing more to go on than a glance, what should you trust your gut about when you first meet someone?
Studies show if someone seems extroverted, confident, religious or conscientious — they probably are. And if they’re good-looking, trust your instincts even more. Why?
We all pay more attention to pretty people — and so our evaluations end up being more accurate:
And Sam says you can trust someone’s visual “identity claims.” These are the things someone chooses to display that says something about who they are or how they want to be perceived.
A class ring. T-shirts with slogans. Tattoos. Pay attention to them because they’re usually accurate signs. Here’s Sam:
Now this is all pretty personal. So what about if you’re trying to read someone in a professional context?
Want to know if someone is good at their job? Then watch them do it for thirty seconds — or even just six seconds. Your guess about their competence is more likely to be right than wrong:
Want to know if someone’s smart? Research says this is hard to tell from mere appearance when evaluating adults. But there’s a trick that can help. Are they funny? Because funny people are smart:
And there’s one other thing to listen for while they’re yakking. The word “I” can be very telling…
Powerful people don’t say it much. Less powerful people say it the most:
(To learn what Harvard research says will make you happier and more successful, click here.)
Okay, so you know when to trust your gut. Now there are a gazillion studies on behavior, so let’s focus on reading people to get answers to the questions we all want to know, like…
Read more: New Neuroscience Reveals 4 Rituals That Will Make You Happy
“Can I Trust This Person?”
Of course, people trying to deceive or manipulate you are going to fake signals that they are trustworthy.
So we need to focus on unconscious behaviors that aren’t easily controlled and convey a clear message.
In Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World, the authors mention one to keep your eye on:
- Speech mimicry and behavioral mimicry: Are they using the same words you use? Speaking at a similar speed and tone? Are they sitting the way you sit? Is a subtle, unconscious game of follow-the-leader going on? This is a sign the other person feels emotionally in sync with you. It can be faked but that’s difficult to pull off across an entire conversation.
Beyond that, trust people who are consistently emotionally expressive in their body language:
(To learn an FBI behavior expert’s tips on how to get people to like you, click here.)
And now let’s look at the other side of the coin: what tells you someone’s not-so-nice?
Is This Person Up To No Good?
Let’s start at the extreme. You can generally trust your gut as to whether someone is going to go full-Jeffrey-Dahmer on you:
Now I don’t want you stereotyping people or thinking you’re ready to be a criminal profiler. But if you really want to know if a man is dangerous, ask a short guy:
But, in general, you’re usually not sizing people up because you’re worried about your physical safety. How can you tell if someone is going to cheat or mislead you?
First, pay attention. Sounds obvious but you’re probably not doing it consistently throughout a conversation. A simple bit of motivation can make a real difference. When I spoke to Maria Konnikova, author of The Confidence Game, she said:
And there’s a consistent cluster of behavior that has been seen among people who are trying to cheat you.
Via Wray Herbert, author of On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits:
And let’s set aside violent people and liars — how can you just tell if someone is more likely to be a jerk? Give their clothing a look. A neat and formal appearance just says they’re conscientious.
But are their duds expensive? Is a woman displaying cleavage? Is a guy showing off his muscles? Hello,narcissism. Here’s Sam Gosling again:
(To learn how to deal with a narcissist, click here.)
So you’ve got a better idea how to spot the Ted Bundys, the cheaters, and jerks of the world. I told you we were going to focus on the important questions we’re all curious about when it comes to reading others…
So how do you know if someone is interested in you?
Read more: New Harvard Research Reveals A Fun Way To Be More Successful
Are They Flirting?
Ladies, you all consistently underestimate how attracted men are to you. (And research shows that women are more successful in their flirting when they’re more direct.)
And less attractive guys consistently overestimate how interested women are. Now who should definitely trust their gut as to whether the opposite sex is flirting with them?
Handsome men. Research says of all the people studied, they’re the most accurate judges:
So if you’re not Brad Pitt (or Angelina Jolie for that matter) what should you be looking for to tell if that special someone has the hots for you?
MIT research says the #1 sign a woman is interested in a man is whether she’s talking smoothly and quickly.
From Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes?: Bodies, Behavior, and Brains–The Science Behind Sex, Love, & Attraction:
And both men and women deepen their voice when speaking with someone of the opposite sex they find attractive:
And another clear sign to look for is touching. A touch on the shoulder, waist or forearm is a good. A face touch? You should hear slot machine noises when that happens.
From Close Relationships:
(To learn more about how to flirt scientifically, click here.)
Alright, we’ve learned a lot about how to read people. Let’s round it up and learn the real way you can project a better image so when people read you, you come off looking great…
Here’s how to read people 101:
- Don’t make the usual mistakes: Take context, clusters, baseline, and biases into consideration.
- First impressions are often accurate: With a number of traits you can trust your gut. But know which ones.
- Trust mimicry and emotional expression: But they have to be sustained and consistent.
- Awful people have tells: Pay attention to notice them. And look for narcissists in flashy clothing.
- Deepening voice and touching says “flirting”: True for both men and women.
And so now that we’ve been through a dizzying amount of research on reading others, how can you make sure you come off well when others read you?
Do you need to pay more attention to your body language? Nope.
Your facial expressions or your “behavioral mimicry”? Double nope.
When I spoke to Olivia Fox-Cabane, author of The Charisma Myth, she said all of that is doomed to fail unless you have an acting Oscar on your shelf:
Your body language and the signals you send are determined by what’s inside your head. Change how you feel inside, and what you radiate will follow. Here’s Olivia:
Next week I’ll cover what research says can help you do that. To make sure you don’t miss it, join my weekly email here.
In the end, it really is what’s on the inside that matters. We can shape that and smooth it, but you can’t go through life acting for any considerable stretch.
So try something simple: be the best you that you can be.
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This article originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.
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