While we often talk about prominent examples of nonverbal behavior, like the triumphant pose, many are actually quite subtle.
A fascinating new study out of the University of British Columbia looked at the marked impact of something as simple as head position in evaluations of a person’s inclination towards dominance. This study found that a slight downward tilt of the head, while still maintaining eye contact, is often perceived as a dominant and intimidating signal.
In their first experiment, study authors Zachary Witkower and Jessica Tracy recruited subjects online to view a series of computer-generated images of faces. After being shown each image, the participants were asked to rate the person based on perceptions of dominance. This involved answering questions like whether that person “would enjoy having control over others” or “would be willing to use aggressive tactics.”
Consistently, they found that the faces slightly tilted downwards, while still maintaining a level gaze, were rated higher in dominance than the control. While an upward head tilt was also generally significant, its effect was greatly dwarfed by the downward tilt.
Of course, the attentive reader would notice that there could be something wrong with asking participants to look at computer-generated images. In order to address this, the study authors went further and conducted additional studies.
The first of these simply sought to replicate the previous study using actual images of people’s faces, maintaining the same control as well as an upward and downward tilt for comparison. This generally replicated the findings of the first study.
But what about the downwardly tilted face has this impact? Is it knowing that the head is tilted? Or does tilting the head downward have certain impacts on facial muscles that create this impression?
In addressing this final question, Drs. Witkower and Tracy conducted a third study which, instead of exposing participants to images of faces, instead exposed participants to narrow bands of those same faces, this time just showing the eyes.
Noting that these bands still showed marked differences, such a model helped evaluate whether it was a change in eye position or the actual head tilt that promoted a sense of dominance. They also showed participants images of faces, tilted and otherwise, with the eyes missing.
This final study found that the dominance-inducing effect of head tilt was only present when the eyes were, and it did not seem to require the entire face. This indicates that something about the eyes and the related muscles convey that image of power.
Questions of dominance are incredibly important in many of the same contexts that microexpressions are. In conducting an interview or interrogation, it behooves the investigator to show a sense of authority and power. Similarly, recognizing this tactic in other people might greatly benefit your ability to read them effectively.