You’re Gonna Fail That Test – How To Read the Body Language of Displacement Activities
Christopher Philip

Would it be at all surprising if I told you that I could tell definitively that you’re about to fail a test by just simple observation?

If you’ve spend time reading this website, the answer is likely not. We know that nonverbal communication is important in our daily lives and we understand that they have predictive qualities.

Research led by Dr. Bardi, Marshall University found that along with the concentration of the stress hormones cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) displacement activities predict 90% of the students passing the class.

The study took hormonal salivary measurements at the beginning of each course (organic chemistry) and after each major test. As well, displacement activities (DAs) were tracked via videotape as students took tests (at 5 minute intervals).

The DAs tracked included:

– Playing with the pen or paper,
– Massaging a part of the body,
– Stroking the hair,
– Visible expression of anger or disappointment (such as shaking head or raising eyebrow),
– Self-touching (prolonged contact of the hands with other parts of the body), and
– Rejection of the test (momentary or definitive refusal to continue the test, such as taking a break or leaving the room).

The researchers selected these behaviours as they were found to express emotional activation which strongly correlate with autonomic activation – meaning they are generally not done consciously, but rather due to stress related underpinnings.

Displacement activities were found to occur at rates of about five per minute during the first test and increased to nearly eight per minute in the final test. The mean number of DAs was significantly higher in students that dropped or failed the class in comparisons with those who passed (7.33 vs. 5.24/min). DAs were also inversely correlated with grade earned.

While the study was not able to tease apart the data, it did generally find that the more successful students were able to remain calm in the face of stress. However, equally likely is that the smarter students were also the more confident students and therefore, the least likely to show symptoms of stress.

The results also found that levels of DHEA as well as displacement activities did not change significantly through the semester suggesting that when things began poorly for students, they were unlikely to improve.

For our purpose, however, it is interesting that displacement activities which are mostly self-directed nonverbal expressions have a reliable indication of a person’s internal status. The motor patterns described herein, have been consistently associated with the human stress response and are mediated by the same brain areas which activate physiological stress and therefore often occur at an subconscious level. Additionally, DAs are easy for even a layperson to observe and quantify making them an extremely useful nonverbal tool.

If learning and assessing other people is part of your business, then paying attention to DAs is extremely valuable. Additionally, self-monitory DAs in one’s self, can also produce a better impression, so were a positive and calm persona is required, they should be avoided where possible.


Bardi, M.; T. Koone; S. Mewalt, & K. O’conor. Behavioral and physiological correlates of stress related to examination performance in college chemistry students. Stress. 2011. 14(5): 557–566.