John Suler's Teaching Clinical Psychology

Body Language in Teaching Psychology

by John Suler, PhD

body languageIn teaching my psychology classes over the years, I've developed a variety of exercises to help students appreciate the power of body language: how the body doesn't lie in that it reveals underlying thoughts and emotions, often without people even realizing it. These exercises are designed to help students tune in to the subtleties of body language and what they might mean about personality styles and interpersonal behavior.

Warm-Up #1: Hand Gestures:

Ask students to demonstrate and describe the meaning of various hand gestures. You'll be amazed at how many there are. Discuss how facial expressions and other body movements influence the meaning of a hand gesture. What do hand gestures mean in different cultures?

Warm-Up #2: Bar Body Behavior:

Discuss body language in a bar or club. What personality types can you detect just by how people use their bodies? What are the obvious and subtle behaviors of the braggart, the flirt, the wallflower, the drunk, etc.? Consider such factors as personal space, posture, eye contact, speed and angle of movement.

Warm-Up #3: The Tell

Gamblers and con artists long have known that people reveal their inner thoughts through body language without even knowing it. For example, if you place a coin in one hand behind your back and then present your fists to a body-savvy person, that person may be able to detect where the coin is. Your "tell" will indicate which hand holds it. You may lean your body to one side, hold one hand higher than the other, point your nose, or unintentionally leak some other behavior that gives away your "secret."

Have students form pairs to try this coin experiment. Some people are much more adept at it than others. If you're good at it yourself, demonstrate with a volunteer in front of the class. This exercise works best if the person with the coin is not told (initially) about the concept of the "tell."

Warm-Up #4: Mirroring (also works well as a warm-down to the role plays below)

Have students pair off. Either sitting or standing, one person in each pair takes the lead and begins to move in any way he/she wishes (tell them to avoid talking, since it's distracting). The task for the other student is to follow or mimic everything that the leader does. Encourage people to use both obvious and subtle behaviors. Do this for a minute or two, then switch roles of who is leading and who is following. Finally, tell the dyads to do the exercise one last time except that NO ONE is the leader or the follower. Both people in the pair should try to move in unison, as if they are mirroring each other simultaneously in a body language "dance." This is somewhat hard to do and takes a bit of practice before a pair gets the hang of it, if they can do it at all. If the pair IS successful, what usually happens is that there are rapid, minute shifts between leading and following.

Also have everyone switch partners several times and repeat the above steps.

This mirroring can be done with body language alone, facial expressions alone, or body language WITH facial expressions. This last one is considerably more difficult to do than the first two.

This simple exercise sensitizes the students to the details of body movement and expression. It also may say something about interpersonal styles. Some students prefer to "lead" while others prefer to "follow." In particular, some people are very empathically in tune with the others movements, while some people cannot focus on this. Also, moving in unison is easy with some people, but not others, which says something about how "in sync" a dyad is.

Improvised Role Plays

Divide the class into small groups. Ask the groups to create a role play that involves ONLY body language and NO talking. The group can pick any scene and characters it wants. Encourage the group NOT to over-plan the role play. Instead, suggest that they pick a scene, define the characters in the scene, and think of a few possibilities for events that might occur in the scene. Then * IMPROVISE * within that general structure. This makes for a much more spontaneous and interesting role play than the more rigid alternative of carefully scripting all the action.

Each group takes its turn at improvising its scene in front of the whole class. A group may "set up" the role play by telling the class where the scene is taking place and who is in the scene. Another interesting and fun alternative is for the group to provide NO introduction to the role play. The class can then guess what is happening in the scene.

Rather than having students come up with the ideas for the improvisations, the instructor can provide them. Give each group a card with a scene on it that they will role play - a scene that involves NO talking. For example:

  • It's 11:30 on New Years Eve. The bus is late.
  • It's the end of a party. You are the last people left.
  • You are all friends at a funeral.
  • You are family members on the way back from a vacation. A few minutes ago you had a big fight.
Each group takes its turn performing it's role play in front of the whole class. Before each group starts, you can read to the class the scene descriptions from the cards, or NOT read the descriptions and let the class guess what the scene is about. After each role play, the class discusses what they believe was happening in the scene based on what they saw in the body language. What are the personalities of the people, their relationships with each other, the issues affecting the group, etc.?

Photos of Group Dynamics

In my course Group Dynamics, we divide the class into two separate groups of 8 to 10 students. Throughout the semester, the groups meet separately every week to carry out a series of exercises designed to help us learn about our personalities, how people react to each other, the kinds of relationships that are forming, and how the group as a whole changes over time.

One of our exercises involves a photo shoot in which the groups chose a series of poses to portray important themes and issues in their group. They also chose a title for each image. As a whole class, we discuss what the images say about the groups. We focus on their body language provides important cues to the personalities of individual people, the relationships between people, and the personality of the group as a whole. Here's a collection of these photos in Flickr.


Readings about body language in photography

bullet Body language in photography
bullet Microexpressions
bullet Eye to eye
bullet Facial asymmetry and character

Books about body language:

body language in photos
The Definitive Book of Body Language, by Barbara Pease

This book is mostly written about body language in the worlds of business and politics, including such things as how liars gesture, what leg positions reveal, smiling, and interpersonal attraction as reveal through body language. Take it with a grain of salt, as not all of this information has a scientific basis. It's based mostly on the experience of the authors. Nevertheless, this book will give you lots to think about when examining body language.
body language in photos

Unmasking the Face: A Guide to Recognizing Emotions from Facial Expressionsn, by Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen

Unlike other books about body language, this one really is based on rather extensive psychological research. The authors discuss many photos that illustrate variations of the basic facial expressions of emotion: happiness, fear, anger, surprise, disgust/contempt, and sadness. They also describe the ways in which people might try to hide this emotions in their face, as well as exercises for understanding your own facial expressions and those of other people. This is an excellent book for learning how to identify the obvious and sublte emotions expressed in portraits.

body language in photography

What Every Body is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agents Guide to Speed-Reading People, by Joe Nararro and Marvin Karlins

Written by a former FBI counterintelligence officer and an expert on nonverbal behavior, this book attempts to educate the reader on how to quickly assess other people's honest and deceptive emotions as expressed through body language. As with the Pease book, it offers lots of fascinating information that you will find very useful, although it should be taken with a grain of salt. The information indeed comes from experience "in the trenches," so to speak, but has not been scientificially validated. From a scientific point of view, we must question whether the body language of people in the world of crime, politics, and business accurately reflects the body language in other social situaitons.



In-Class Exercises for Teaching Psychology

The Teaching Clinical Psychology Home Page