Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


boxing-ring

(ILLUSTRATION: IAROSLAV NELIUBOV/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Parsing the Body Language That Leads to a Fight

• July 25, 2013 • 4:41 PM

(ILLUSTRATION: IAROSLAV NELIUBOV/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Oddly enough, it seems no one in academe has really looked at the subtle non-verbal cues that indicate we’re going to exchange blows. Until now.

For the sake of argument, say you’ve gotten into a pretty heated exchange with someone you know when that person takes a deliberate look around the vicinity. Prepare for an altercation.

Turning the head is one of the two strongest non-verbal cues of an impending fight, according to a new study by two criminologists, Richard Johnson and Jasmine Aaron, at the University of Toledo. Struck, as it were, by the relative paucity of research into what cues could predict a fight between adults, the two surveyed 178 undergraduates about what behaviors suggested to them that trouble was brewing.

There’s a lot of folk wisdom about what to look for before somebody up and slugs you, presumably offered as a way to avoid said slugging, and the researchers found plenty of it on the Web in discussions about body language. (A lot of those stated they came from “scientific research,” but the Toledo duo could never track down any of that alleged research.) This being the Web, a lot of the advice contradicted other advice; staring at you is a warning sign—as is avoiding eye contact. Maybe that’s why movie tough guys always wear sunglasses, since merely having eyes apparently is an incitement.

The two top choices were intuitively the most obvious concerns—invading your personal space and taking a boxer’s stance.

Writing in the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior, the researchers explained that they presented a written description of a tense scenario to their subjects, leaving the age, race, gender, and social status of their putative assailant (an “adult acquaintance”) as a cipher. They were then given 23 actions that person might take next, and were asked to rate how concerned they would be about impending doom as a result.

The two top choices were intuitively the most obvious concerns—invading your personal space and taking a boxer’s stance. While anyone who wants to be Max Schmeling would be a concern, getting in your face could easily vary across cultural definitions of where your face begins and whether close talking, or perhaps in this case close yelling, is OK.

Three other behaviors signaled potential violence—the aforementioned glancing around, clenching hands (making a fist?), and the verbal cue of making a threat.

After those, a range of actions generated some concerns—a tense jaw, hands in pocket, pacing, neck stretches, rapid breathing, sweating, taking off clothing (how Marquess of Queensbury!), and yelling among them. Wanna ratchet things back? Placing hands on your hips or avoiding eye contact were seen as the least threatening of the 23 options.

The study participants, of course, were only a subsection of Midwestern undergrads under age 30 (median age 20). But they were split among men (56 percent) and women, and somewhat diverse. Seventy percent identified as white, 20 percent as black, and seven percent as Latino. There were some differences between those subsets, but not much. Men were more concerned about putting your hands in your pockets, while women feared the boxer’s stance more (to blatantly stereotype, getting into the stance isn’t how I’ve seen girls’ fights devolve, so I have no doubt it’s a scarier signal to them). In general, the researchers suggest, while there’s a documented difference in how the sexes perceive non-verbal cues, “cues related to human aggression may be so primal that they transcend sex differences.”

There were also some smallish differences among ethnicities. Caucasians and African Americans shared a greater concern for looking around as a predictor than did Latinos, while Latinos were more worried about tensed jaw muscles.

The researchers didn’t ask about their subjects’ history of violence, whether they were brawlers or crawlers, and were quick to note that their results point to “cognitive perceptions” which might, or might not, hold true in a real or even simulated confrontation. Past experience certainly could color response: I’m fine if you put your hand in your pocket, but maybe somebody who’s stared down the barrel of a Glock has a different take on that.

The study, which is apparently the first word on this subject, will no means be the last. It’s an important issue to examine. Consider the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case, which was likely fueled by stereotypes—a punk in a hoodie versus a puffed-up cracker—then ignited by non-verbal cues. Recognizing their potential might have been a good first step toward avoiding the lethal result.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.