Menus Subscribe Search
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

July 30 • 4:00 PM

Still the World’s Top Military Spender

Although declining in real terms, the United States’ military budget remains substantial and a huge drain on our public resources.



July 30 • 2:04 PM

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.


July 30 • 2:00 PM

The (Mostly Awful) Things You Learn After Investigating Unpaid Internships for a Year

Though the intern economy remains opaque, dialogue about the role of interns in the labor force—and protections they deserve—is beginning to take shape.


July 30 • 12:00 PM

Why Coffee Shortages Won’t Change the Price of Your Frappuccino

You’re so loyal to Starbucks—and the company knows it—that your daily serving of caffeine is already marked up beyond the reach of any fluctuations in supply.



July 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.


July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


July 29 • 6:00 AM

What Are the Benefits of Locking Yourself in a Tank and Floating in Room-Temperature Saltwater?

After three sessions in an isolation tank, the answer’s still not quite clear.


July 29 • 4:00 AM

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays.


July 29 • 2:00 AM

Geographic Scale and Talent Migration: Washington, D.C.’s New Silver Line

Around the country, suburbs are fighting with the urban core over jobs and employees.


July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?


July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

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