Interview With Jason P. Martens

Jason P MartensJason Martens is a PhD student at UBC working in the UBC emotions & self lab under director Dr. Jessica Tracy. His main study focus is nonverbal expression and he has conducted a variety of studies on the expression of pride. He also studies terror management and how people experience anxiety in relation to death.

1. You take an evolutionary approach to posture and other nonverbal communication. Why is it important to use this perspective rather than any other?

I think most perspectives have something to offer the research community, but I think the evolutionary approach has many advantages. For one, you can borrow from a vast evolutionary-focused literature when forming and testing hypotheses. For example, the nonverbal pride expression has many similarities with the dominance displays of other primates, including those most related to us: the great apes. This means you can do comparative work with these primates; a possibility which simply doesn’t make sense unless you take an evolutionary approach. This approach also suggests hypotheses that otherwise wouldn’t be obvious. Darwin suggested that emotion expressions originally had a physiological function that aided in the displayer’s survival. This idea led my colleagues and I to wonder if expanding one’s chest, a key behavior associated with pride, might have lung capacity benefits. Indeed, this appears to be the case.

2. Do you believe all nonverbal expressions have some foundation in biology and evolution or do you think we spontaneously created certain gestures and postures through cultural learning?

First, all nonverbal expressions will have some foundation in biology and evolution since we are biological organisms and products of evolution, but this could be as basic as restricting what movements are possible. For example, we can’t expand our necks for display like how some lizards can do. In addition, an evolutionary approach does not mean gestures and postures can’t be be products of cultural learning. Emblems are a great example. These culture-specific gestures are entirely learned, and include the “okay” hand gesture where the thumb and index finger touch to form a circle. In North America, this is a positive gesture, typically meaning “okay”. In other countries, the same gesture has negative connotations and implies an insult. Even evolved expressions that are cultural universals are influenced by culture. Display rules dictate when an expression can be displayed and by whom, and how expressions are displayed can also vary slightly between cultures, often called cultural accents. These accents can be thought of as similar to linguistic accents, where the same basic language is spoken between cultures, but slightly differently. Similarly, the same basic expression can be displayed between cultures, but slightly differently.

3. You have conducted many studies on the expression of pride, do you think there are other universal gestures or postures that will make headlines as the science behind nonverbal behaviour develops? If so which, and why?

There are many possibilities for the next expression to garner considerable attention. I think the nonverbal shame expression is a great candidate. There is considerable work showing how shame can have maladaptive effects, but shame likely functions in adaptive ways as well. The potential adaptive functions of shame are much less understood, but one possibility is that shame aids interpersonal interactions by clearly communicating status. This seems like a likely function given the similarity between shame displays and the low-status crouching displays of the great apes, which are thought to decrease the number of violent conflicts. Time will tell whether this hypothesis holds up to scrutiny. Regardless, the coming years have considerable promise to help clarify why humans seem to universally display shame.

4. In your paper you present that pride is universal in nature, however, isn’t it the sort of posture that is ripe for fakery? If it’s well known that a certain posture implies that a person deserves higher status, and thus resources or prestige, then why wouldn’t everyone just put their hands on their hips, puff out their chest, and command respect? What’s stopping them?

This is a common problem that evolutionary biologists have encountered with animal displays. Evolutionary theorists have hypothesized that in order for a display to be effective, it should be costly in order to dissuade would-be-fakers. One often cited example relates to the extravagant feathers of peacocks. The feathers are costly to produce and maintain, so only the best quality mates have them, which makes the feathers an “honest” signal that is hard to fake. In our evolutionary history when pride was first evolving, it likely was a costly display. Standing erect with your chest expanded and arms out, essentially proclaiming that you deserve high-status, makes you an easy target for attack; essentially making yourself a bullseye for anyone that wishes to challenge you. This makes it unlikely to be faked unless you actually have the resources to withstand an attack. We might still see hints of this when a puffed up male enters a pub, making himself a target for rivals.

We also likely have cultural specific ways to look for and punish would-be fakers. For example, Fijians have practically eliminated fakers by having strict norms against displaying pride. Instead, status is displayed through other, culturally accepted means. In North America, reputation likely comes into play to keep the number of fakers down. Someone might get away faking pride in order to reap the benefits of status in a single encounter, but if they do this too often without backing up their assumed status, people will start to dislike them and consider them arrogant. These reputational costs likely keep fakers to a minimum.

5. What major advances do you predict will come out of nonverbal research in the coming years?

It is tough to predict what major advances will happen in the years to come. In many respects, nonverbal research is still in its infancy, partly because of the difficulty in conducting the research. Nonverbal behavior studies often involve trained confederates, behavioral coding, and complex methodologies in order to test our hypotheses. These challenges will surely still be here in the years to come, but one area that I see advancing is our ability to sell the research. There are already movements in this direction. TED talks, this website, and media attention on nonverbal expressions are helping to educate the general public on how important the nonverbal world is for humans. In the years to come, I see researchers taking more ownership of their research and selling their science to the general public. We are really at a time where we can give the public a more nuanced understanding of nonverbal behavior. As a researcher in the field, this is an exciting time to be a part of nonverbal research!

6. In what direction will you be headed in future research? What areas of study are you looking into next?

Right now I’m interested in leaving the lab and looking at real world displays. Lab studies give us excellent control of variables, but there is considerable appeal in seeing how people respond when they are unaware that they are subjects of research. I see great potential in looking at the ways politicians, teachers, and other influential individuals use nonverbal behavior to their advantage. One possibility is that highly influential individuals consciously control their nonverbal behaviour, and less influential individuals’ nonverbal behavior is more automatic. Lab studies will still form an important part of my research programs, but heading outside the lab is an exciting direction I look forward to taking.


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