In recent years, an entire literature has developed around the art and science of interpreting body language. Learning to do it well could mean, for example, you might perform better in negotiations or give better presentations. But now researchers say merely having an interest in trying to pick up social cues from other people could have implications for how you work with others.
A trio of social scientists have come up with a new way to measure this phenomenon. Led by Melanie Green, an associate professor of communication at the University of Buffalo, the researchers dub this trait mind-reading motivation, or MRM.
MRM is defined as "an individual difference in individuals' willingness to effortfully engage with other people's perspectives and mental states." So, for example, you might be more likely to look at a nonverbal cue, such as crossed arms, and think about what that says about a person's mental state (they may be angry, or just cold).
To measure how much MRM a person has, Green and her fellow researchers devised a scale of 13 questions such as, "When I see two strangers arguing, I often find myself speculating on what their conflict is," or "When I am conversing with more than one person, I like to think about how one person is interpreting what another person says in the conversation." Participants then responded to the question with a number from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree).
Green and her colleagues then conducted four separate studies to try to get a better understanding of MRM, one of which gave some insight into how having a high MRM might benefit individuals in a group setting.
In the study, 54 participants were broken up into same-sex pairs. The pairs then had to work together to build 10 toy models. The teams in which both partners achieved a high score on the MRM scale were more likely to report that they felt both had an equal hand in completing the task, and were more likely to rate themselves as agreeable and open.
However, a team that ranked highly in MRM was not significantly likely to complete the task in less time than a team that had low scores on the MRM scale. This could mean that while MRM might be helpful in fostering a spirit of cooperation (and making the task at hand more enjoyable), there isn't enough evidence yet to prove that it will help you get more work done.
While there is much more research to be done on MRM, Green and her researchers did write that in theory, it should encourage "pro-relationship behavior." People who are interested in MRM are more likely to want to draw deeper psychological portraits of the people around them, so they may be more empathetic than those who have a low MRM.
Jonathan Raskin, a professor of psychology and counseling at the State University of New York at New Paltz, still says that one should proceed with caution when trying to analyze someone else's behavior. After all, you're likely to base your interpretations on personal experiences--if you tap your fingers when you're anxious, you might assume that another person is tapping their fingers because they're anxious. But as long as you understand that your interpretations won't always be correct, trying to analyze another person's actions can still help you build a better sense of understanding with others, says Raskin.
"We feel understood, even though what they have is their own constructed understanding of what we understand," Raskin says.