When it comes to impressing potential dates, a little change in posture might make the difference between a swipe right and a swipe left. A new study led by a UC Berkeley researcher finds that, when all you've got is a moment, people who use more expansive, dominant gestures are the ones most likely to earn a second look.
The findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that for the postures of both men and women, bigger is often better – and offer some insight into why those gestures are so attractive.
In all stages of romance, body language does a lot of the talking. Positive facial expressions like smiling and laughing do double duty – they signal that someone is feeling close to another person and they also make that other person feel closer in return. Previous research has shown that between committed partners, gestures like nodding, smiling and leaning forward are linked to those partners' self-reported feelings of love.
But in the fast-paced world of speed-dating and dating apps like Tinder, first impressions are extremely brief, over with the swipe of a thumb. Still, humans are apparently quite good at making judgments on a potential mate in a fraction of a second.
"Physical features, such as pupil size, gaze directionality, eye color, facial symmetry, and nonverbal displays, are encoded by human minds in as little as 39 ms," the researchers pointed out. "Some of these cues (i.e., a direct vs. an averted gaze) influence decisions to pursue or pass over a potential romantic partner when rapidly observing photographs of models in a computer task."
To find out whether such gestures made a difference in a person's attractiveness in fleeting encounters in real life, a team of researchers led out of UC Berkeley studied 144 four-minute dates that were recorded at a speed-dating event on the Northwestern University campus in 2007.
Trained raters watched video of each person (without sound, unless they were rating laughs) and ranked how expansive or closed their behaviors were. An expansive posture might involve a stretched torso, open arms and a spreading out of the body to take up more space. They also looked at "affiliation clues" – how much they smiled, laughed and nodded. Then the scientists compared those ratings to the responses from each person's date. Would the date want to see that person again?
The researchers found that the more expansive the posture, the more likely the date was to want to go out with him or her. The pattern was true for both men and women, and it held up when the researchers tested a popular GPS-based dating app to see how users responded as they flipped through photos. Photos of people in more expansive postures – leaning back, spreading out, opening the arms – earned more interest than those in contracted postures, with the arms pulled in, taking up little space.
That's likely to be because expansive postures can signal both dominance and openness. Dominance usually comes with access to more resources – an attractive quality in a mate – and openness signals a higher likelihood of getting said mate.
"In a dating world in which success sometimes is determined by a split-second decision rendered after a brief interaction or exposure to a static photograph, single persons have very little time to make a good impression," the authors wrote. "Our research suggests that a nonverbal dominance display increases a person's chances of being selected as a potential mate."
That's true not just in humans, but across the animal kingdom, the study authors note:
"These expansive, inviting (i.e., open) displays are a well-documented characteristic of many mating displays in which a rump or other genitalia are openly exposed," the authors wrote. "Other examples include peacocks, which attract peahens by expansively fanning their tail feathers, and male gorillas, which occupy more space to flaunt their physicality by kicking and running in a sideways manner. Aside from commanding attention, such expansive displays — similar to those in humans — signal dominance and power within the hierarchically organized animal kingdom."