Unconsciously Perceiving People (Part 1)

One of the amazing things about our brains is that we unconsciously process information from the people whom which we are interacting with, and we do it at amazingly high speeds. Even if we’re in a situation where we aren’t remotely concerned with the other’s appearance our brains are actively and unconsciously scanning and processing information about their mannerisms and gestures to help guide our behavior. What’s more amazing is that the information we receive by way of this processing is extremely relevant to our social interactions because these perceptions shape the course our interactions and the decisions we make.


If you’ve ever heard someone say “I don’t know what it was. I just had a bad feeling about (insert name).” They probably said this because unconsciously they were tipped off about a mannerism that suggested something about the other person that was not favorable. This gut instinct for the perception of people is often correct too. As a species and across cultures, humans share a lot of mannerisms. These mannerisms aren’t new.  In fact they’ve been around for thousands of years. Here check this out.


this dude is goofy looking. but he still makes you smile. sorry grandpa...

this dude is goofy looking. but he still makes you smile. sorry grandpa...

Here is a picture of an old man who is smiling. Odds are when you looked at this picture you probably smiled yourself and you didn’t’ even know it.  Your brain picks up on these physical cues with amazing dexterity. I ran a Google search for “smiling person” and when I looked over the results all I saw were dozens upon dozens of smiling faces.  As I looked through the pictures I realized that I was smiling myself the entire time and most of all, I couldn’t help it.


A study was conducted with adults to see if we truly do unconsciously process information about other people’s mannerisms. In this study the subjects were shown pictures of people’s faces both sad and happy at very high rates. Rates so fast that the subject couldn’t consciously tell what the face was depicting.  However, the results from the fMRI suggested the correct brain activity was present when the sad and happy faces were shown (at speeds as fast as 1/20 sec). What’s more amazing is that this study was conducted with children and adolescents. The results from that study suggested that children were better at distinguishing happy and sad than there adult counterparts. This suggested that children may be more attuned to mannerisms and physical cues than adults.


Another study that is telling of mannerisms was conducted when researchers delivered bad news to test subjects, but they did it using positive mannerisms. Mannerisms like smiling and nodding. The also did this with positive news and negative mannerisms like teeth gritting and scowling. The results came back and they suggested that subjects, in both cases, responded to the mannerisms over the actual news. In the case of social intelligence often times it’s the messenger and not the message that wins out. Stand up tall, smile, be happy. People will unconsciously notice.


One thought on “Unconsciously Perceiving People (Part 1)

  1. Kevin, I completely agree. When I teach my calculus classes I am pretty into it (’cause I am a math dork) and all over the classroom pretty excited about what I am saying. It definitely encourages positive class response and more interaction from my students. However, when I teach my finite mathematics course (the only thing I do on Tuesday/Thursday) I personally find the material kind of boring, and it shows in my class. It is like pulling teeth most days. The interesting thing that the opposite reactions happened when I was to tutor children at my job this past summer. When I tutored students who were excited to be there and wanted to learn, I wanted to teach them. Other students who you could easily tell wanted nothing to do with their parents investment in the tutoring center, were very hard to get across to. In part it was due to their lack of motivation, but I also noticed I had a lack of motivation (I am ashamed to admit) to teach them. So all in all, the bridge goes both ways in my neck of the woods.

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