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University of Missouri
Miles Patterson

The Power of Nonverbal Communication

Miles Patterson, Professor, Psychology, UM St. Louis

By Jacqueline Lampert

I couldn’t do this study on my own. The UMRB grant allowed me to enlist a graduate student research assistant.

As you walk down the street and are about to pass a fellow pedestrian, what is your first reaction? Do you completely ignore the pedestrian, or do you glance over and offer a smile or a “hello?” Miles Patterson, a University of Missouri-St. Louis professor of psychology and the 2009 recipient of the University of Missouri President’s Award for Research and Creativity, has spent much of his life studying scenarios like this one while researching how nonverbal communication works.

“When I was in graduate school, there was very little work done on nonverbal communication,” says the psychologist, whose early research examined so-called “spatial intrusion reactions” from “experimental confederates.” Enlisted by Patterson, these confederates deliberately initiated interactions with “test participants,” for example with students studying at the library, to test how they would respond to and participate in these exchanges. They discovered that when a confederate suddenly sat in close proximity to another individual, that individual became visibly uncomfortable. Though this dynamic may seem like common sense now, there was little systematic investigation of the phenomenon at the time.

Since this early research forty years ago, Patterson has continued to pursue his interest in nonverbal communication. Especially intrigued by what he calls “give-and-take interactions” between people, he has studied “the subtle changes people make [with their bodies] as one person moves forward,” as well as reciprocal interactions “in pleasant, comfortable interactions” where one person mimics the other. These subtle changes can alter one’s impressions, according to Patterson, and in some ways make one more vulnerable to persuasive attempts. The speed with which these impressions are formed is part of his latest line of research.

Supported by a UMRB grant, Patterson studies how these rapid changes in judgment evolve over time. Using a videotape test of interpersonal sensitivity, he tracks judgment accuracy in test participants. Stripped of any obvious verbal comments, the videotape depicts “a series of scenes of people interacting: parents with children, a boss with an employee, two friends, romantic partners, two people who just finished playing a basketball game.” Participants are asked to evaluate the nonverbal behavior of the people featured in the scenes. As the participants watch each scene, Patterson measures their judgments with a potentiometer, an instrument that records the strength of their judgments over time. “They literally sit there with a dial,” he explains, “and make judgments on such questions as, ‘Who won the basketball game?'”

The UMRB grant allowed Patterson to enlist a graduate student as his research assistant. The assistant’s primary responsibilities involve recruiting subjects, running the study sessions, and organizing the data analysis. “There is a lot of managerial stuff that she has to handle in addition to just doing the study itself,” he observes. “This is a pretty considerable time commitment, which would not be possible for me to handle alone.” The grant provides support for the assistant for the year and exposes her to world-class research. “This is not just an opportunity for me,” adds Patterson; “it is an opportunity for the graduate student to learn methodology and apply some of what she has seen in classes.”

Patterson primarily teaches “Social Psychology” and “Psychology of Nonverbal Behavior” at both undergraduate and graduate levels. Having “invested a lot of time and energy over the years in theories of interactions,” he explains that his extensive research directly benefits students in these courses. Likewise, Patterson occasionally teaches “Environmental Psychology,” which explores the interface between human psychological processes and the environment. This course also builds on his early research, in that social behavior is closely linked to crowding and density, which affect how well people blend into or are impacted by social situations. In short, the experience and knowledge gained through four decades of research adds something special when Patterson stands in front of his class.