Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us



Parsing the Body Language That Leads to a Fight

• July 25, 2013 • 4:41 PM


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, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.

October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.

October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.

October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.

October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.

October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.

October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?

October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.

October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.

October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.

October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?

October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.

October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.

October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.

October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.

October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?

October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.

October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.

October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.

October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.

October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.

Follow us

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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