Lean In, Make Eye Contact To Create Impressions of Empathy – How Leaning In Body Language Creates Greater Credibility
Christopher Philip

2131498182_f503eefd62_bSometimes the meaning of a body language cue is presumed. That is, we see it in some context, or hear it touted enough times by “body language experts,” that it becomes common knowledge and understood as gospel. I could list more than a few cues figured to have some universal meaning, but of which, has had no scientific empirical support whatsoever.

However, having seen the cues personally myself, I have often come to similar conclusions. That said, one can not, and should not, withhold skepticism in such a malleable field such as nonverbal communication. For one, people often lie and this means that people can use common nonverbal signals (whose meaning has empirical support) to fib their way through any given situation. For example, we’re told to hold open expansive postures on job interviews to display confidence. But anyone can do this, even the most timid.

Another issue with certain body language is that because it is taken as common sense, few researchers are willing or able (due to funding constraints) to test cues of which people already believe to be somewhat intuitive in their meaning.

One such cue is “leaning in body language.” Many popular body language experts including Allan Pease, “Definitive Book of Body Language” and Joe Navarro, “What Everybody Is Saying,” are two such notable candidates to advance this common sense cue as defining interest. When someone leans in, rather than out, they signal that they are interested in the conversation/person rather than disinterested in the conversation/person.

A throughout examination of the primary literature has come up lacking on proof that is indeed so.

However, I recently caught up to a study by Nia Dowell and Jeffrey Berman, University of Memphis who have advanced findings to confirm that leaning in body language is indeed an indication of liking, except not in the way you might have expected.

Rather than track liking, the study tracked impressions that therapists made on observers.

In the study, four different therapists were filmed across four combinations of eye contact and trunk lean. Participants then viewed the videos and rated the therapists on levels of empathy, therapeutic alliance and treatment credibility.

The results showed that eye contact and forward trunk lean (rather than leaning away) enhanced the perception of the therapists along the aforementioned criteria.

This suggests that therapists can specifically use these nonverbal cues to improve their practice and impressions.

While the results were aimed specifically at the therapists, we can draw other more universal inferences. While the cue does not tell us if trunk lean indicates interest when done by another person, it does tell us that when used, does indeed create the impression of interest.

While it could very well be that leaning in does mean that a person is more interested or attracted to another person, I haven’t yet come across any specific research that adds support to this commonly held believe. I would, however, have no specific reason to be doubtful. I have myself leaned in, or away, when drawn toward or away, respectively, from an idea or person. So I do think truck lean does, in a general sense, provide clues to liking and disliking.

What is interesting about this specific study is that trunk lean creates the impression of empathy in this context specific use and lends support to the fact that the cue can be used specifically to modify the impression one makes toward a preferred result.

Image Credit: McPig


Dowell, Nia M. and Jeffrey S. Berman. Therapist Nonverbal Behavior and Perceptions of Empathy, Alliance, and Treatment Credibility. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration. 2013. 23(2): 158-165. DOI: 10.1037/a0031421.