Dan Ariely is a behavioral economist. As I understand it, he studies the psychological and behavioral elements of how we make our economic choices. Recently, he described a fascinating experiment the illustrates the incredible power of body language. In brief, he took a scruffy college student, dressed him like a bum, and set him to panhandling on urban street corners. The student tried out a variety of non-verbal approaches and they measured the success rate of each approach. They discovered the he got the most money when he made eye contact with his marks and the least when he looked away. No surprise here. But then the experiment took an interesting turn.
After the student had been begging for some time, a real ‘professional’ beggar approached him and offered to teach him the ropes. The professional’s technique was simple. He would go up to his marks,and shake hands with them while also making eye contact. Only then would he ask for money. The difference between this technique and only making eye contact was dramatic.
Apparently, the social forces of a handshake are simply too strong and too deeply engrained to resist – and many people gave in and shook his hand. Of course, once they shook his hand, they would also look him in the eyes; the beggar succeeded at breaking the social barrier and was able to get many people to give him money. Once he became a real flesh and blood person with eyes, a smile and needs, people gave in and opened their wallets.
I’m not so much surprised at the result (many studies have been done relationship between touching somebody and getting them to comply with what you want them to do) as I am how much of a difference it can make. The right body language causes people to connect with you on a deeper, more personal level. If forces people to empathize with you, because they know, emotionally rather than intellectually, that you are just like them.
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