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Understanding human interaction to help tackle societal issues

April 3, 2022

Work by Professor Geoff Beattie is challenging the dominant model of human communication.

Nonverbal communication is a well-known part of human communication that has fascinated the scientific community and popular culture for decades. Facial movements, hand gestures and body posture all contribute to our understanding of each other but until now, these had been thought of as separate from spoken language, rather than an integral part of it.

Work by Professor Geoff Beattie is challenging the dominant model of human communication. He claims that the spontaneous movements that accompany speech – movements that we’re barely conscious of – are part of language and can reveal hidden meanings and motivations behind our words and behaviour. Professor Beattie’s ground-breaking research examines the impact of this implicit nonverbal communication and implicit thinking on such diverse areas as effective public communication, racial bias in the job market and attitudes to climate change.

“These topics are all relevant to people in their everyday lives. For years, people have been over-interpreting nonverbal behaviour based on poor science and best-selling books on body language. I think people now want something less simplistic to help them understand each other, that is accessible but backed up by robust scientific research.”

Geoff Beattie, Professor of Psychology
A headshot of Professor Geoffrey Beattie

Professor Beattie brings science to a very broad audience. He uses a wide range of methods to get his research out to the public in ways that are accessible to everyone. As well as communicating his findings through academic journals, books, television and radio, and various internet platforms, the former resident psychologist on Big Brother has spread the word through a novel, festival appearances and a book now optioned for a Hollywood movie.

The meaning behind the words

As speakers, we are unaware of how and what we are communicating with our hand movements, so they often say a good deal more than we intend.

Professor Beattie’s research challenges conventional theories of body language by suggesting that while gesture is an integral part of speech, it can, at times, convey a different core message that the speaker is unaware of. These unconscious hand movements may give us a real insight into people’s underlying implicit attitudes, that are in contrast to what they report. Identifying gesture-speech mismatches can help us to detect deception in others. The research on gesture more generally can help organisations communicate more effectively.

This work has generated huge amounts of public interest, including Professor Beattie’s analysis of Jose Mourinho’s body language for BBC Sport (one million hits in the first week) and his analysis of Trump’s body language, which was published in media channels across the world.

Two people sitting on beanbags having an informal conversation

Professor Beattie has worked with numerous media organisations, including the BBC and ITV, who have embraced his findings and the impact it can have on broadcasting and public communication in the future. He has also spoken at global conferences about the way marketing can use insights on implicit communication to influence customer thinking and behaviour.

“[Professor Beattie’s] presentation was received extremely well and I know that it inspired new thinking and new approaches in the industry internationally.”

Founder of Cassidy Media Partnership and former Board Director of The Marketing Society

Implicit racial discrimination

In the past decade, there has been a growing awareness of the possible role of implicit bias in employment decisions, given that certain racial groups are underrepresented at higher grades within many organisations.

Research at Edge Hill has explored the connection between implicit and explicit cognition in decision-making. Professor Beattie found that underlying attitudes to family origin can affect the way employers perceive a candidate’s CV, making them more likely to subconsciously focus visual attention on negative aspects if the candidate is from certain racial groups.

Closeup shot of an unrecognisable group of people joining their hands together in a huddle

Professor Beattie’s research goes further, suggesting a whole new measure of implicit attitudes to replace the existing Implicit Association Test (IAT), the most widely used assessment tool for implicit attitudes in modern social psychology. The new multi-attribute test (or m-IAT), developed at Edge Hill, is set to change the way implicit racial bias is studied in the future.

“Professor Beattie’s research has helped organisations to improve their recruitment and selection processes, in particular by showing them how minorities are subject to greater scrutiny than white candidates. We apply this learning directly to our work, helping clients to understand when, where and how techniques such as the IAT are best used.”

Senior Partner and co-founder or Pearn Kandola

Attitudes versus action

Despite decades of environmental campaigns encouraging us to adopt a lower carbon lifestyle, the message still doesn’t seem to be getting through. Why is there such a mismatch between what people say about climate change and what they do?

Innovative work at Edge Hill is identifying the psychological barriers to climate change mitigation to find out why many climate change campaigns just don’t work. One problem is that campaigns and initiatives are often based on people’s self-expressed (and socially desirable) explicit attitudes to climate change. Using eye-tracking experiments, Professor Beattie found that positive implicit attitudes are more useful for predicting the amount of visual attention people pay to carbon labelling on products.

Climate change protestors hold their placards high.

He also found that people exhibit ‘optimism bias’, a cognitive bias that causes someone to believe that negative things won’t happen to them, when thinking about climate change. This causes them to focus on positive messages around climate change and unconsciously search for information that supports their position. However, the research showed that it is possible to change implicit attitudes to carbon footprint using emotion-based visual material and this results in at least short-term change in behaviour.

Professor Beattie is currently working with Dr Laura McGuire (also in Psychology) on a project looking at whether children’s implicit attitudes to sustainability can be modified through education programmes. This could have significant real world implications for producing much needed behavioural change to ameliorate the effects of climate change.

Our research means that

  • People can understand each other better, avoid misinterpretation of nonverbal communication and identify deception in others.
  • Employers can take measures to eliminate implicit racial bias when recruiting, ensuring greater equality and diversity in higher-level roles.
  • Environmental organisations have scientific evidence to support future campaigns around climate change that could, ultimately safeguard the planet.

Find out more about Professor Geoff Beattie’s research by viewing their profile on Pure:

Professor Geoff Beattie’s research

April 3, 2022


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