Study: Hand gestures, non-verbal communication bring clarity to conversation

NIJMEGEN, Netherlands — It’s long been understood that non-verbal communications are important way of conveying meaning and intent, perhaps even more so than verbal communications. But new research indicates that mixing words with gestures will bring the most clarity to a listener.

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands found that gestures can actually speed up language processing between two individuals in a conversation.

Person using hand gestures while talking
A new study finds that using hand gestures and other forms of non-verbal communication while asking a question to a person can help them process what you’re saying and come up with a response faster. (Photo by Headway on Unsplash)

“Bodily signals appear to profoundly influence language processing in interaction,” explains Judith Holler, of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, in a release. “Questions accompanied by gestures lead to shorter turn transition times—that is, to faster responses—than questions without gestures, and responses come even earlier when gestures end before compared to after the question turn has ended.”

Holler and her team analyzed the interactions of seven groups comprised of three participants. Each group was left alone in a recording studio for 20 minutes. The interactions between the individuals were filmed using three high-definition cameras. Focusing on the question-and-answer components of conversations in the groups, Holler’s team calculated that questions were answered much faster when the asker used head nodding and hand gestures to complement their words.

“The empirical findings presented here provide a first glimpse of the possible role of the body in the psycholinguistic processes underpinning human communication,” explains Holler. “They also provide a stepping stone for investigating these processes and mechanisms in much more depth in the future.”

The speaker’s gestures could be cuing the listener that they are ending their question early, thus giving the listener more time to think of a response.

The full study was published in September 2017 in the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.

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