Do Hands Speak Louder Than Words?

It's an old bromide, but some folks probably couldn't talk if you tied their hands behind their back. Gesticulating is sort of an international language in that most of us talk with our hands as much as our voices.

And it turns out that's a good thing, according to new research from Colgate University, published in the current issue of Psychological Science. Psychologist Spencer D. Kelly of Colgate and colleagues at Radboud University in The Netherlands have found that gestures and the spoken word are so mutually interdependent that "gesture and speech are actually part and parcel of language -- that is, they together constitute language."

Barack Obamam and George BushPlay

The research also shows that if the gesture matches the words (as in showing a chopping action while discussing chopping vegetables) the message is more quickly, and more accurately, understood than if the gesture doesn't match the words (twisting instead of chopping, for example.)

In other words, what you "say" with your hands is as important as what you say with your mouth.

A 'Bushism'

OK, don't we always match our words with our gestures? Not always, according to the researchers who cite a much-watched video clip -- "number two on David Letterman's Top 10 George W. Bush moments." This Bushism, as it has become known, shows the president saying, "The left hand now knows what the right hand is doing."

Unfortunately, the president raised the right hand when referring to the left hand, and the left hand when referring to the right hand. That "incongruent gesture," according to this research, should make it more difficult for viewers to understand what the president was saying. However, proving that was beyond the scope of the research.

Seventy college students participated in two studies aimed at showing whether our gestures really matter. Each participant was shown a number of videos depicting specific actions, like chopping vegetables, accompanied by an audible description of the act. Sometimes, though, instead of showing chopping, the video showed twisting, or some other action that did not mimic the sound track, and the participants were asked to determine if the action matched the words.

Talking With Your Hands

As might be expected, the students got the message more quickly if the gesture matched the sound. And if the gesture did not fully match the words, they were far more likely to miss that, thus making more errors than when the gesture matched the words.

"When gesture and speech convey the same information, they are easier to understand -- they are faster and produce fewer errors -- than when they convey different information, and this effect appears to be driven by mutual interactions," the researchers write. "This integration is obligatory. People cannot help but consider one modality (gesture) when processing the other (speech.)"

"If you really want to make your point clear and readily understood, let your words and hands do the talking," they conclude.

Although the researchers say their work suggests that the spoken word is a little more potent than our gestures, we can all think of exceptions.

Thumbs Up

An injured football player being carried off the field cannot speak as loudly with his voice as he can with two raised thumbs, a universal symbol for everything from "I'm OK" to "We shall overcome."

The former president notwithstanding, our gestures probably do reflect our words nearly all the time, as the research suggests, because the two "modalities" are so interconnected.

But sometimes, even when the two don't match, the meaning is inescapable.

Quite a few years ago, the Dallas Cowboys were getting trounced during "Monday Night Football," and the game was so lopsided that the cameramen were searching the crowd for some fitting symbol of defeat. One camera slowly zoomed in on a lone Cowboy fan, way up in the cheap seats, seemingly faithful to the end.

But as the camera closed in, the fan slowly raised one finger in the universal sign of disdain.

Dead silence in the broadcast booth until Don Meredith, the former Cowboy ace and a commentator on the broadcast, drawled, "That's right, folks. Dallas will always be No. 1 in the eyes of her fans."

No words necessary. There's no doubt about what the fan was really saying, Dandy Don notwithstanding.