12 February 2009

Body Language and Wealth

I found an interesting article on the news the other day, about two psychologists who have found that one's body language is related to one's social economic status. You can find the report on the study by Michael Kraus and Dr. Dacher Keltner here and here. I have made a little search, and Michael Kraus is an advanced graduate student working in Dr. Keltner's lab. If your interest is piqued, then you might as well see what other things they research by visiting their lab website here.

Now this finding strikes me as a fascinating finding. In the core of the study of the human behavioral processes is the debate on whether humans are totally separate from animals as a creature, or if humans simply are higher order animals. It is a question of whether us humans are different or not with respect to other animals. Do we belong to the same category or not?

In a somewhat long-winded way, my own research also deals with this topic. Not that I am arguing for or against a specialized language faculty in the brain, but there are indeed people who argue that humans have a special capability to handle certain things that other species do not handle, like language. Some people argue that we humans are equipped with a special language acquisition device, which enables us to learn language easily and effortlessly.

Other people on the other hand argue that the way we deal with language is no different from the way we deal with other sensory input. We treat speech sounds using categorical perception, but other sounds are not treated the same way. But then other scientists argue that other animals such as Japanese quail and chinchillas also do categorical perception.

So where can one draw the line? At this point, the debate in science is still raging strong, and both sides have good arguments. This article I believe is interesting, because it shows that we humans also have an animalistic side. If we have power, we will do whatever it takes to show the other person that the other person is weak, and it would be detrimental to make a move that would make the person with power somehow dislike the other person. After all, the weak person wants the powerful person to like him. But the powerful person does not need the weak person to like him. He has power, and so he doesn't need the other person.

It brings memories, as kids, when we want something from our parents, when we would sweet talk those who have the power to grant our wishes, so that they would grant it. Same principle at work here.

I tend to believe that humans are just higher order animals. There may be lots of things that we humans can do and that other animals cannot. One of them is having conscious thought. However, if one looks at things closely, most of these behavior can be explained by simple general principles. In language processing, linguistic phenomena can be explained by positing simple general principles of cognition. People have argued that we don't need a language-specialized black box in our head. Same thing with social dynamics.

This now ties back to what I always have believed in. That humans are selfish, and humans are curious. I used to believe that humans are inherently evil as well, but it seemed to be redundant with selfishness and curiosity. I am down to these two tenets now. And the findings of Kraus and Keltner just adds further evidence to these.

(Eesti Suursaatkond Washingtonis, from my Embassy Row Series)


  1. I agree...humans are a more sophisticated kind of animals... :-(

  2. Sidney,

    Why the sad face? There's nothing wrong with that I think...