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Human Communication as a Primate Heritage

Instructor: Anne Zeller

Lecture Eight: Functions of Non Verbal Communication Systems

There is an appeal of familiar faces. Why do we like to look at patterns that we know rather than those we are less familiar with? Part of this has to do with understanding something better with repeated exposure. When we know someone well their non-verbal cuing is more familiar to us. This goes even to the point of individuals preferring to look at a mirror image of themselves rather than a photographic image of themselves because that is what they see most often. Their friends prefer the photographic image because it corresponds most closely with what they normally see . (Zebrowitz: 1997) As the length of acquaintance grows with people we like, we tend to rate them higher and higher on an attractiveness scale. In fact, people of similar “objective” measure of attractiveness are rated differently if one of them is known to have a more pleasant and appealing personality than the other. The attractiveness of familiarity gradient is a very important aspect of non-verbal communication in humans. Although there are many functions that non-verbal communicative cues fill at a proximal level, the ultimate species level of importance is reproduction. Non-verbal cues reveal basic information such as, recognition of individuals, age, sex, health, social success, and interactive information such as individual spacing emotional tenor, quality of attention and all the myriad details of social interaction we have discussed in these lectures. However, all of these levels of information contribute basically to how well we get along with each other and therefore how attractive we find each other.

The outcome of this pattern of responding to individuals who are perceived as attractive has obvious consequences for mating. Humans often use attraction as a major criterion when choosing a reproductive partner. Since attractiveness grows with familiarity, and familiarity is related to comprehensibility, the level of mutual comprehension of non-verbal cues is important in the early stages of establishing a successful mating relationship.

The question of how this pattern developed in the evolutionary past is one which deserves some discussion. Why would the early primates and ancestral hominids be drawn to others who looked like themselves? The simple answer has to do with natural selection. If two adjacent populations of different species have overlapping ranges and meet each other while foraging, resting, sharing sleeping trees etc., it might happen that sexual encounters would occur among them. Another possibility is that sub-adult members of one type may migrate to the other in search of a new potential group of mating partners. In modern group living primates, one sex or the other or both (depending on the species) usually leaves its natal group at around puberty and migrates to a new one. The important factor is to choose a new group of your own type. In chimpanzees it is usually the females who leave. In baboons the females stay in their natal groups and the young males migrate. Not only that, but after 5 or 6 years the males often change groups again. The overall genetic effect of these migrations is that parents do not usually breed with their offspring, even if they are unaware of the relationship. Of course, the animals do not choose to move for genetic reasons, but the result is the same. In other species both sexes leave and either spend time as solitary animals or join up in a unisexual group while they search for a new bisexual group to move into. In pair bonded species, like gibbons, the young are driven out by the parents after they are mature and they meet up with young migrants in a similar state and establish pair relationships where and when they can find a territory to live in and defend.

In all of these cases they must be able to recognize the appropriate mating partner, because establishing bonds and mating with an animal from a different species will not be very productive in terms of offspring survivability. Even in places where mating between two types of baboons, such as hamadryas and olive baboons does occur in the wild, and offspring are born, the hybrids have a mixed set of behavioural messages which does not allow them to do as well in either group (hamadryas or anubis) as would a non-hybrid youngster. (Phillips and Jolly, 1986)

This need to keep the genetic lines organized is even more crucial in situations such as occur in guenons (Cercopithecus monkeys) who are arboreal fruit eating forms who live in a wide range of habitats in Africa. In many cases several of these species share a habitat, with some being larger or smaller, or more or less fruit eating. This sharing allows them to focus on different aspects of the resource base while having the benefits of living in larger groups with more eyes and ears to focus on predators, and more bodies to defend their resources against other types of animals. Thus you get larger and smaller species of guenons living in mixed groups, or at least in very close proximity to each other. It is vital for them to be able to recognize and find attractive those of their own kind rather than the others who may be in the vicinity. This may be one of the reasons that different species of guenons have such striking facial colourations. They have a variety of stripes, beards, bushy eyebrows, forehead stripes and nose spots that distinguish quite clearly among the 12 or so species. In addition many have flank stripes, colour patterns on their legs and colour patterns on their hind ends that are similar to those on their facies. Thus they can be recognized coming or going. These colour patterns are also often associated with specific movement patterns such as head flagging in both sexual and aggressive contexts. These movements emphasize the patterns and promote species recognition. They are very characteristic communicative movements which are among the most ritualized in the cercopithecus signal repertoire (Kingdon 1980). The presence of such patterning is clearly build into the behaviour system and rests on a hard wired foundation. Animals can learn when and where to whom to direct these signals, but the pattern of the signals is set. This allows the species to recognize from generation to generation their own kind from another. The important thing is that because it is similar to themselves they also find it attractive and will respond appropriately thus preserving the pattern, and the species from generation to generation.

This need to keep the genetic lines organized is even more crucial in situations such as occur in guenons (Cercopithecus monkeys) who are arboreal fruit eating forms who live in a wide range of habitats in Africa. In many cases several of these species share a habitat, with some being larger or smaller, or more or less fruit eating. This sharing allows them to focus on different aspects of the resource base while having the benefits of living in larger groups with more eyes and ears to focus on predators, and more bodies to defend their resources against other types of animals. Thus you get larger and smaller species of guenons living in mixed groups, or at least in very close proximity to each other. It is vital for them to be able to recognize and find attractive those of their own kind rather than the others who may be in the vicinity. This may be one of the reasons that different species of guenons have such striking facial colourations. They have a variety of stripes, beards, bushy eyebrows, forehead stripes and nose spots that distinguish quite clearly among the 12 or so species. In addition many have flank stripes, colour patterns on their legs and colour patterns on their hind ends that are similar to those on their facies. Thus they can be recognized coming or going. These colour patterns are also often associated with specific movement patterns such as head flagging in both sexual and aggressive contexts. These movements emphasize the patterns and promote species recognition. They are very characteristic communicative movements which are among the most ritualized in the cercopithecus signal repertoire (Kingdon 1980). The presence of such patterning is clearly build into the behaviour system and rests on a hard wired foundation. Animals can learn when and where to whom to direct these signals, but the pattern of the signals is set. This allows the species to recognize from generation to generation their own kind from another. The important thing is that because it is similar to themselves they also find it attractive and will respond appropriately thus preserving the pattern, and the species from generation to generation.

In addition to facial cues which allow recognition of similarity and attractiveness there are also facial cues which allow recognition of age, sex and health factors. All of these would be important features to be aware of in potential mates, as well as in the individuals you spend time with. In particular, different features of age and sex indicators seem to have differing levels of attractiveness which help interactants determine who they prefer to associate with. These abilities are by no means limited to humans, but occur in many species of social animals, and thus govern levels of choice which we humans might see as social are from a more biological background than most us might have expected.

For example, when looking at facial cues to age, the changes in shape that accompany maturation have varying levels of attractiveness. The changes themselves derive from a change in forehead shape from large, rounded and bulging, to a relatively smaller, more backward sloping forehead as an individual matures. The eyes become relatively smaller as they grow more slowly than the rest of the face and the chin becomes larger and more protruding. The head in younger individuals is large in relation to the body, and thus becomes relatively smaller as the individual ages. With ageing skin becomes darker and loses the smooth unblemished nature of youth. Older faces tend to be more angular, wrinkled, pockmarked and leathery. Even micro-movement patterns of the face change as individuals age, and this can be recognized even in the absence of direct visibility of facial features. (Zebrowitz 1997 pg.15) The indication that the ability to recognize and respond to these cues as age indicators is more physiological than cultural, arises from studies in which people with certain types of brain damage are much less able to recognize age differences in photographs or real life tests than most people. Also young (pre-verbal) infants show markedly different responses to approaches by strange children vs. strange adults even when size is controlled for.

The important aspect of this ability is that in most cases a young appearing face is seen as attractive. This phenomenon peaks with the strong response shown to babies. The key stimuli among humans that indicate infancy are disproportionately large head with big eyes, bulging large forehead, receding chin, high placed eyebrows, small size and high pitched vocalization. The arms and legs are also relatively short and the infants have a rounded head and body outline. (Eibl-Eibesfeld 1989) Even young children and other babies will preferentially approach other babies and pictures of babies if given the choice between them and older children or adults. This very pronounced response stimulates a care taking response and is seen as less threatening and more loveable. In fact, infants with lower levels of the key stimuli seen as attractive are less often smiled at and vocalized toward even by their own parents. (Zebrowitz 1997; 76) This relative lessening of responsiveness and potentially protectiveness could have very severe adaptive consequences for the survival of such children. This has been supported by studies of the response of adults to videotapes of premature infants who have lower levels of the wide eyed, round head appearance of full term babies. These infants do not release as high a level of nurturing response or inhibit aggression as completely as so videos of full term high key stimulus infants. Appearance may not be the only factor, but responses to drawings of premature infants are less positive than to those of full term infants, so it may not just be the quality of their crying or movement patterns. These responses are common across several species. Young primates with neo-natal coat colour, and spasmodic movements are seen as very attractive and protected strongly by most group members. Adult monkeys also tend to inhibit their own aggression against such youngsters until the neo- natal coat colour begins to change. This protective response can be over ridden by other social factors, and infanticide does occur, both among humans and animals, but usually other social factors are present when this occurs.

In fact, the emotional power of this response is utilized by both advertisers and the entertainment industry. The strong positive attraction to the stimuli that are associated with infants have shaped the appearance of such figures as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Over time these figures have developed shorter, plumper arms and legs, larger eyes, larger rounder more bulging heads and large head to body size ratios. (Gould 1979)

These features can only be manipulated to a certain extent by adults, but eye shadow and eyebrow plucking, with eyebrows drawn on higher up the face, do give a wider-eyed, more appealing look. One of the balances that must be maintained by those manipulating their appearance in such a way, is that extremely infantile features are not as successful for releasing sexual responses as somewhat more mature features. The level of attractiveness aimed for is a mixture of the disarming, appealing young face, and the sexually mature body, which in females is also seen as curved.

The very widespread unlearned response of attraction to these features is very important in terms of selection and survival. The longer and more intensely that infants are dependant on their parents the more important this set of stimuli and responses are. It is fascinating to realize how deeply embedded such responses to non-verbal cues are in both humans and other animals. Not only do these features of large wide spaced eyes, sunken nose bridges, large lips, and shorter chins influence responses to the young, but adults with these features are seen to be physically weaker, less demanding, more acquiescent and having more warmth and good will. These assessments are made from judgements by college students about drawings so no aspects of movement, body size or sound are included here. These findings indicate that many people present a message about what they are perceived to be like from their appearance alone. Mature faced individuals convey an air of knowledgeability, forcefulness and leadership, when compared with those who have more infant-like features.

These judgements differ to some extent depending on whether the observed individual is male or female. Tall males can overcome the attributions of weakness, non-assertiveness and nurturance that tend to be associated with baby-like facial features, whereas women with infant-like features are usually assessed this way no matter what their height. This association of mature-face and leadership jobs was noted in West Point cadets where the dominant looking ones achieved higher ranks in junior and senior years than those with the more infantile features. This correlation was higher at the earlier part of their careers than it was later, suggesting that performance became more important than appearance over time. The perceived difference between males and females in the impact of having infant-like features may result more from stereotyped expectations of male and female behaviour which may override some indicators from facial features.

Part of this differential sex impact may result from the perception that women in general retain the appearance of young individuals more than do males of equivalent age. It has been argued (Zebrowitz 1997:94) that women cease growing earlier than do males and that their faces and skulls retain several pre-pubertal characteristics of lighter skin, smaller jaws, higher eyebrows, and less prominent nasal bridges. In spite of this women vary as widely as do men in the range of facial maturity and when mature faced women are compared with baby-faced men they were seen as equally warm. Also, mature faced women were seen as more powerful than men with more infant-like features. However, women with less mature faces are strongly categorized as warm, weak, submissive and naive whether or not that is really the case. In cases where baby-faced people are, in fact, quite competent, they may be seen to be more competent than a mature faced person who has shown equivalent behaviour. This 'contrast effect' can influence how others respond to a person whose facial features and actions do not correlate well.

Since baby faced features are seen as highly attractive, what are their effects on reproductive success? Mature faced teenage boys report having successful sexual encounters more often than less mature ones, thus indicating that the perception of forcefulness, assertiveness and competence are associated with sexual success. These individuals were seen as attractive and were often able to date attractive (read less mature faced) women. After a blind date the most frequent predictor of who would have a repeat date was the scoring on the level of attractiveness. Interestingly, actual couple formation usually paired people who were at similar levels of attractiveness when compared with other couples. In other words, although people aspired to highly attractive mates, they usually settled for those rated at a similar level to themselves. Men rated the attractiveness of the person they wanted to marry 5th on a list of 13 characteristics which suggests it is a very important feature to them. This may be related to the impression that attractive women are seen as having higher levels of sexual warmth. The more attractive a woman is rated, the higher her scores of femininity are considered, whereas attractiveness in men is correlated with masculinity. Increasingly attractiveness in men is also correlated with perceived increasing levels of social influence, whereas this correlation does not hold for women. Cute, round faced attractive women give the impression of being warm, sincere, and honest, while attractive, sexy women are not rated as having high levels of these characteristics. Female raters may even suggest that such women are less honest than less attractive women. (Zebrowitz 1997)

There is little evidence to support these associations of behaviour and social features with physical appearance, in spite of the ratings made by a wide range of people from many different cultures. Intelligence, assertiveness and leadership skills are not the preserve of the attractive, but there is some evidence that attractive people are more popular and may have higher levels of social competence. This finding may result from the discovery that attractive people are more likely to succeed in school as children, be responded to more leniently by the courts, have an easier time finding mates, and in general be more socially successful. This reduces the impacts of loneliness, anxiety and aggressive behaviour which can negatively impact an individual's social skills.

Judgements of health can also be made on the basis of facial attributes. For a long time physicians have used appearance, skin colour, texture, and wrinkling to help diagnose many diseases, along with swelling, lumps and skin temperature. Just looking at someone with a drawn lined, grey face, pinched nostrils, bags under the eyes (possibly from fluid accumulated due to kidney malfunction) gives the impression that the individual is unwell. Indications of emotional level expressed in the face can also suggest state of health. Suppression of emotion can be correlated with future arthritis, skin disease (Zebrowitz 1997) or possible psychological problems. Colour changes such as pallor indicating anemia, yellow skin as in jaundice and a flushed face indicating fever are all markers of less than perfect health. Asymmetrical bodies or faces are also seen as possible indicators of either physical or psychological illness. Many birds and animals prefer mates with symmetrical proportions, such as matching tail feathers in birds. Asymmetrical bodies sometimes indicate growth problems, or even underlying genetic problems, neither of which would be good attributes in a mate. Thus the appearance of most of these markers of ill health can have a very negative impact on the social success of an individual. They may not produce the effect of a reliable, honest, amiable individual, no matter what the actual situation may be. The importance of sending a message of health and cultural attractiveness in order to inspire the confidence of others cannot be underestimated.

Attractiveness is attained not only by 'cute' features but also by smiling, eye contact, large pupils, and high cheek bones -- which can be emphasized by make-up. In other words, behaviour and cosmetics can emphasize already attractive characteristics, or reduce the impact of less attractive ones (such as the use of lipstick on their pale lips to make them fuller and redder). Therefore humans not only read a wide range of social, psychological, emotional, physical and reproductive values from the facial information provided by others, they also act to enhance the impression they wish to present. This is ultimately an exceptionally important aspect of communication because it has a major impact on how successful that individual will be in establishing a social persona, finding a mate, and reproducing.

In terms of natural selection, reproductive success is the ultimate function of all communicative interactions starting from the earliest organisms and simplest systems and ranging up to our highly culturally modified and complex verbal languages. Along the way human code systems of space, movement, appearance, scent, and paralinguistic sound patterns have developed out of the system present in our evolutionary forebearers. But species success depends on individual survival and reproduction. This may be why the attractiveness factors are so widespread across cultures and are recognized by humans even at very early stages in their lives. Children's assessments of attractiveness correlate quite highly with those of adults, as do their assessments of warmth, problem solving skills and dominance indicators. These patterns are cross cultural and largely unlearned at a basic level even though cultural factors may modify population aspects of attractiveness that differ from group to group.

Since the whole basis of communication is to foster the interaction between individuals of a species, either for short term or long term goals, this underlying similarity of assessment based on facial features allows us to make some basic judgements about people. Whether these judgements are always correct is another matter, especially given the overlay of cultural factors that invest human lives. We use space, objects and colours differently between cultures but this lecture has attempted to show that there are some underlying universals in human non-verbal information transfer.

This series of lectures has focused on non verbal communication moving from the perspective and communication codes of animals, and primates in particular up to the communication patterns and codes used by humans. The functions of communication are multiplex, as we discussed in lecture #3 but in the last analysis, they are refined down to the behaviour and responses necessary to attract a mate and produce offspring. In the course of this journey of discovery on what factors underlie human non- verbal communication, we have gone from recognizing that sound, movement, colour and spacing are conveying information to examining how they are used to transfer information including the impact of cultural differences, use of deceptive communication, how the young learn the system, when the system of modern human (verbal) systems arose, and finally what are some of the basic signals in humans that allows us to communicate as a species outside the realms of language. This set of lectures has only introduced the topic and referred to different types of the information available . As we become increasingly aware of the complexity of primate systems we also become increasingly aware of the complexity of our own. I hope you have enjoyed this introduction to such a fascinating field.

References for Lecture 8

Eibl-Eibesfeld, I. 1989. Human Ethology. New York. Aldine do Gruyter.

Gould, S.J. 1979. "Mickey Mouse meets Konrad Lorenz." Natural History, 88:30-36

Kingdon, J.S. 1980. "The role of visual signals and face patterns in African forest monkeys (guenons) of the genus Cescopithecus". Trans. Zool. Soc. London. 35, 425-475.

Phillips, J. E. And Jolly, C.J. 1986. "Changes in the structure of the baboon hybrid zone in the Awash National Park, Ethiopia." Amer. J. of Phys. Anth.: 71 pg. 337-350

Zebrowitz, L.A. 1997. Reading Faces. Westview Press. Boulder Colorado.


copyright 1999 Anne Zeller
Send comments or question to Anne Zeller: azeller@artspas.watstar.uwaterloo.ca
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