Study: Nodding or Shaking Head Changes Opinion

ByABC News
August 12, 2003, 3:18 PM

Aug. 6 -- It goes without saying that the people who read this column are all rational folks who reach conclusions based entirely on the evidence and they can't be influenced by such unrelated events as their own body language. There's not a chance, for example, that your convictions are likely to be affected by anything as irrelevant as nodding your head in agreement with someone else's statement, or shaking it back and forth in disagreement.

Don't bet on it, says psychologist Richard Petty of Ohio State University, whose research shows that what we think about something can indeed be influenced by simply nodding or shaking our head.

But Petty's findings are a bit confusing. It turns out that simply nodding yes doesn't necessarily mean we are more likely to agree with whatever we are hearing. It may have just the opposite effect, reaffirming our own opposing views.

Myriad of Influences

And shaking no doesn't necessarily mean we will disagree more with what we are hearing. We may be more inclined to agree with arguments that we would normally oppose.

The findings also reaffirm something else. Old Sigmund was right when he concluded that we are very complex creatures, subject to influence by a vast reservoir of data that we may not even know is there.

"There's so much that goes on at the unconscious level," Petty says. "Freud was right about that. He was wrong about a lot of the details, but he certainly was right in that there's so much going on [in our brains] that we're just not aware of."

Petty's research, which he carried out with former doctoral student Pablo Brinol, now at the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid, began with a study that seemed to reaffirm something psychologists have known for years. When we nod yes, we tend to agree with what we are hearing.

"That has been shown before," Petty says.

The surprise came when a proposal read to the participants was supported by very weak arguments. The effect of the head movements was reversed.