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Body Language Reversal


Explanations > Understanding body language > Body Language Reversal

Liking | Alertness | Confidence | So what?


Body language traditionally is about how the way the body is held and moves indicates how the other person is feeling and maybe what they are thinking. The reversal on this is that if you deliberately hold your body in particular ways, it is possible to trigger a change in what you are feeling or thinking.

As Briņol and Petty (2009) point out:

A person’s bodily movements or responses, like other variables in persuasion settings, can influence attitudes by affecting one or more of these underlying processes: (a) affecting the amount of issue-relevant thinking that occurs, (b) producing a bias to the thoughts that come to mind, (c) affecting structural properties of the thoughts such as thought confidence, (d) serving as persuasive evidence (i.e., arguments), and (e) serving as simple peripheral cues to change.

This appears to be a case of Self-Perception Theory, where people are assumed to deduce how they feel by watching themselves.


Appearing positive increases positive feelings. Nod and you will like things more. Smile and you will become happier.

In research, people who nodded increased their preference for a neutral object (like a pen) and decreased their liking when they shook their heads (Tom, et al., 1991). People who held a pen between their teeth (forcing a 'smile') liked cartoons more than those who held a pen between their lips (which stops smiles).

Much earlier, Wells and Petty (1980) found that nodding and shaking head changed liking for music.

(Cacioppo et al., 1993) found that moving things closer to people resulted in them liking them more than if they are further away.


When people are slumped, they think less about issues (Riskind and Gotay, 1982). If you sit up straight (like you parents told you to do) you will also become more alert.

On the other hand, standing up reduces reflective thinking, in contrast with a relaxed position, and may result in more biased and less considered judgements (Briņol and Petty, 2009).


Standing makes you higher than others and so may well make you feel more powerful, whatever the situation. In fact any vertical implication may also be substituted and may some effect (Schubert, 2005).

Writing with your non-dominant hand and reduces self-esteem (Briņol & Petty, 2003), as can doing any thing that is more difficult than you might expect.

So what?

Does this mean you can change how you feel any time just by how you stand and move? Of course not, although you may be able to nudge things in the right direction.

Where it is particularly useful in changing minds is that if you can get the other person to move their body to a positive position then they may be more persuadable. For example, to get them to listen more, you could try getting them to sit in a firm chair (relaxed sitting down, but firm to keep them alert). Similarly, if you nod you will increase the chance the other person will follow suit and so become more positive.

See also

Using Body Language


Briņol, P., & Petty, R. E. (2003). Overt head movements and persuasion: A self-validation analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 1123-1139.

Briņol, P. and Petty, R.E. (2009). Embodied Persuasion: Fundamental Processes by Which Bodily Responses Can Impact Attitudes. In G. R. Semin & E. R. Smith (Eds.), Embodiment grounding: Social, cognitive, affective, and neuroscientific approaches. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Cacioppo, J. T., Priester, J. R., & Berntson, G. G. (1993). Rudimentary determinants of attitudes II: Arm flexion and extension have differential effects on attitudes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 5- 17.

Riskind, J. H., and Gotay, C. C. (1982). Physical posture: could it have regulatory or feedback effects on motivation and emotion? Motivation and Emotion, 6, 273-298.

Schubert, T. W. (2005). Your highness: Vertical positions as perceptual symbols of power. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 1-21.

Tom, G., Pettersen, P., Lau, T., Burton, T., & Cook, J. (1991). The role of overt head movement in the formation of affect. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 12, 281-289

Wells, G. L., & Petty, R. E. (1980). The effects of overt head movements on persuasion: Compatibility and incompatibility of responses. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 1, 219-230.


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