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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.

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