The Perception of Dominance in Nonverbal Behaviors
Sponsored by Missouri Western State University Sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation DUE-97-51113
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The proper APA Style reference for this manuscript is:
WELLS, C. J. (2003). The Perception of Dominance in Nonverbal Behaviors. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 6. Available online at Retrieved April 25, 2017 .

The Perception of Dominance in Nonverbal Behaviors
Missouri Western State University DEPARTMENT OF PSYCHOLOGY

Sponsored by: Brian Cronk (
AbstractPrevious research has suggested there is a link between nonverbal behavior and perception of dominance. The purpose of this study was to investigate this relationship. Digital Photographs were taken of models to be rated by students from a regional college in Northwest Missouri. Results showed significant findings for three of the four conditions tested. Students rated models as being more dominant when they were standing, looking directly at the camera, and gesturing as opposed to sitting, not looking directly at the camera, and not gesturing. The results also showed students perceived that a slumped posture as more dominant than a straight posture. However, this finding was not significant. There are certain limitations that need to be taken into account when analyzing these results. Further implications are discussed in the paper.

The Perception of Dominance in Nonverbal BehaviorsNonverbal communication plays a critical role in the perception of others’ feelings and intentions. Many studies have been done to more closely examine the relationships between verbal and nonverbal communication. It has been found that, “The centrality of nonverbal cues in making interpersonal judgments has received strong endorsement in recent investigations of person and social perception,” (Burgoon & Le Poire, 1999). With this being said, one of the major problems that researchers have faced is which behaviors indicate and produce specific social perceptions. Schwartz, Tesser, & Powell (1982) state that, “…little is known about how these signifiers operate as a system.” There can be many different combinations of nonverbal behaviors in an infinite array of contexts or situations that have to be interpreted by an individual or individuals and these behaviors can end up getting interpreted in many different ways. Burgoon & Le Poire (1999) suggest, “The view of nonverbal cues having multiple but discernible meanings is consistent with the social meaning model of nonverbal communication, which holds that many nonverbal behaviors comprise a socially shared vocabulary analogous to verbal communication.” They go on to say, “As with verbal language, a given behavior may have multiple meaning, but the range of possible interpretations is finite, fairly limited, and often constrained by the nature of the social situation.” “Dominance behavior, defined in general agreement with most students of dominance, as behavior directed toward the control of another through implied or actual threat...,” (Ridgeway, 1987). Many studies have been established linking dominance perception in nonverbal behavior as well as many different theories and suggestions as to how these two concepts are related. Brundage (1977) reports that subjects perceived as being dominate in his study used, “…strong movements in significantly greater proportion of their total movements than did the submissive subjects.” Others have suggested, “…spatial contrasts-as opposed to specific gestures located in space-form a system to express social dominance,” (Schwartz, Tesser, & Powell, 1982). For example, they focused on body position (or what they referred to as “areal radiation”) in space as a means to display dominance. (The right side is considered to be more dominant than the left side, a person positioned in front of another person is said to be more dominant, and someone who is standing is thought to be more dominant than someone who is sitting). The strongest support they found pertained to dominance related to someone who is standing as opposed to sitting. Burgoon & Le Poire (1999) focused more toward the immediacy (body lean, posture, and gaze frequency), expressivity (facial animation, gesturing, vocal variety, and rapid tempo), conversational management (short response latencies, interactional synchrony, etc.), and relaxation (postural asymmetry, absence of adaptor gestures, and absence of nervous vocalizations) of nonverbal behaviors to find perceptions of dominance. Their study revealed that there was strong support for all of these except conversational management. Richards & Rollerson (1991) did a study on the relationship between submissiveness and female victimization. They looked at body boundary, what they defined as basically body control and body coverage. They found that women who were calm, wore more body concealing clothing, and used “less expansive movements” were perceived as submissive. “The submissive women gestured more with hand and foot movements, whereas the dominant women gestured with arm movements and leg swings. Submissive women also tended to maintain established postured for extended lengths of time, whereas the more dominant women adjusted postured more frequently.” A later study done by Richards & McAlister (1994) “…revealed no significant differences in the body boundary indicators of dominant and submissive subjects…” and contributed their earlier findings to some unknown variable further stating the results, “do not provide an explanation for the differentiated body movements and clothing that have been associated with submissive women.” However they did find that, “Women with weak versus strong barriers were found to differ with regard to femininity (at the .10 probability level).”On the basis of the literature discussed I hypothesize that the models in this study who are standing, looking, gesturing, and sitting in a straight posture will be perceived by subjects as being more dominant than the women who are sitting, not looking, not gesturing, and sitting in a slumped posture.


MethodParticipants. Subjects for this study were thirty undergraduate students from a regional college in Northwest Missouri. Eight students from an experimental psychology class were used as models in photographs.

Materials. Digital photographs were taken of subjects to present to other students to be rated on dominance. There were two people per photograph, varying in body position from standing to sitting, “slumped” postures to straight postures, arm gestures to no arm gestures, and eye contact versus no eye contact.

Procedure. Female participants (N=8) were used as models in photographs to demonstrate dominate/submissive positions. The participants were randomly paired off into four groups of two people each. One was assigned to a dominant role and the other to a submissive role. They were then instructed how to pose based on posture, gestures, facial expressiveness, and spatial positioning (sitting versus standing). Four pictures (two sets) in total were taken of each group. After the first picture had been taken, the pairs switched roles and the person who was assigned to model the dominant role was assigned to model the submissive role and vice versa until both sets of pictures had been taken. After all the pictures had been taken, they were presented to two different classes. Both classes were asked to choose who they felt appeared to look more dominant in the pictures (the person on the left or the person on the right) and then they were asked to rate the perceived dominance of both of the people in the picture on a scale of one to ten (1=very submissive, 5=neutral, and 10=very dominant). The independent variable is the nonverbal body language that the models were asked to display in the pictures and the dependent variable is the students’ perceptions of these nonverbal behaviors.

ResultsA paired samples t-test was calculated to compare the mean “standing” dominance ratings to the mean “sitting” dominance ratings. The mean of the “standing” ratings was 6.80 (sd=1.80) and the mean of the “sitting” ratings was 4.24 (sd=1.19). A significant difference between “sitting” and “standing” dominance ratings was found (t(26)=-5.183, p<.01).A paired samples t-test was calculated to compare the mean “gesture” dominance ratings to the mean “no gesture” dominance ratings. The mean of the “gesture” ratings was 7.72 (sd=1.34) and the mean of the “no gesture” ratings was 5.07 (sd=1.38). A significant difference between “no gesture” and “gesture” dominance ratings was found (t(29)=-7.193, p<.01).A paired sample t-test was calculated to compare the mean “eye contact” dominance ratings to the mean “no eye contact” dominance ratings. The mean of the “eye contact” ratings was 5.87 (sd=1.09) and the mean of the “no eye contact” ratings was 5.23 (sd=.90). A significant difference between “no eye contact” and “eye contact” dominance ratings was found (t(29)=-2.817, p<.01).A paired sample t-test was calculated to compare the mean “straight” dominance ratings to the mean “slouch” dominance ratings. The mean of the “straight” ratings was 4.78 (sd=1.26) and the mean of the “slouch” ratings was 5.38 (sd=1.54). No significant difference between “straight” dominance ratings and “slouch” dominance ratings was found (t(29)=1.345, p=.189).

DiscussionThe results suggest that the participants’ perception of dominance for an individual is based (at least) partially on nonverbal behavior. It was hypothesized that participants would rate the models in the photographs as being more dominant when they were standing vs. sitting. Schwartz, Tesser, & Powell (1982) found the strongest support in their study for dominance in the standing position. While the results from my study suggest that standing is seen as more dominant than sitting, I did not find my strongest correlation here-I found it in the gesturing/no gesturing condition. Richards & Rollerson (1991) found that women who were calm and used less expansive movements were seen as submissive. The results from my study support this finding. The participants rated the gesturing position as more dominant than the no gesturing position. Burgoon & LePoire (1999) found strong support for body lean, posture, and gaze frequency (as well as many other factors) as indicators of dominance. Making direct eye contact with the camera as opposed to looking away from the camera was also rated as more dominant by the participants. However, I found no significant evidence for straight posture being perceived as more dominant than a slumped posture. Instead it was found that the participants rated the models in the slumped position as more dominant than the models who were sitting straight. There are many limitations that need to be taken into account when reviewing this study. I believe that the biggest limitation was the pictures that were used to be rated. There was not enough time taken to thoroughly examine and select quality photographs to be used for the study. Simple elements such as the angle of the photograph or facial expressions of the models could have had confounding effects. The photographs themselves could have been too suggestive or simple to rate. The order that the pictures were presented could have been too suggestive of what type of results I was expecting. Generalizability could also be a potential problem considering all the participants and the models used in the photographs were college students. Some directions for further research would be to introduce more than two models into the pictures to make decisions more difficult. Multiple models all displaying dominant positions could be used to determine perceived dominance. Better involvement and explanations on how to pose for the photographs could make a difference in results. Random sampling of the population as well as the models could help to control for generalizability.

ReferencesBrundage, J.R. (1977). Body movement indications of dominance in a dyadic interaction. Dissertation Abstracts International, 38, 1947.Burgoon, J.K. & Le Poire, B.A. (1999). Nonverbal cues and interpersonal judgments: Participants and observer perceptions of intimacy, dominance, composure, and formality. Communication Monographs, 66,105-124.Ridgeway, C.L. (1997). Nonverbal behavior, dominance, and the basis of status in task groups. American Sociological Review, 52, 683-694.Richards, L. & McAlister, L. (1994). Female submissiveness, nonverbal behavior, and body boundary definition. Journal of Psychology, 128, 419-425.Richards, L. & Rollerson, B. (1991). Perceptions of submissiveness: Implications for victimization. Journal of Psychology, 125, 407-412Schwartz, B., Tesser, A., & Powell, E. (1982). Dominance cues in nonverbal behavior. Social Psychology Quarterly, 45, 114-120.

Submitted 4/22/2003 6:16:07 PM
Last Edited 4/22/2003 6:25:49 PM
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