Believe it or not, science has discovered that you give out small, silent signals to others.

I guess it’s not really a surprise. We all find ourselves liking some people and not liking others because of some indiscernible “energy” or such. But scientists are beginning to pinpoint that “energy,” and body language plays a big role.

When you communicate with someone, your body language creates an instant visual first impression that answers a big question for your listener: “Can I trust this person?”

Until now, science had not been able to isolate the specific physical cues that could lead to distrust. But thanks to Dr. David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, we now know what gestures can undermine the perception of your trustworthiness.

Dr. DeSteno devised a study in which participants played an economic game, either cooperatively or selfishly. Half of the participants played face-to-face, and half played over the internet and could not see one another. Those who played face-to-face were videotaped from three camera angles.

In the game, the average level of cooperation between the two groups was the same, whether the communication was in-person or over the net. But accurately predicting the perceived trustworthiness of a partner was much greater when the communication was face-to-face. Somehow, the people playing face-to-face were better at picking up cues.

Based on the videos, the investigators built models that tied four specific gestures to perceived trustworthiness. These gestures were:

  1. Hand-touching
  2. Touching your own face
  3. Crossing your arms
  4. Leaning away

The more a participant performed these actions, the less he was trusted.

However, how could Dr. DeSteno be sure that other, unnoticed gestures were not contributing to the impression of untrustworthiness? People send many cues simultaneously. So he enlisted the help of a robot called Nexi, designed by Cynthia Brazil at the MIT Media Lab. For one group, Nexi was programmed to display only those gestures associated with lack of trust, while for the other group she displayed more neutral gestures.

Sure enough, those who saw Nexi display the four gestures rated her as less trustworthy than those who saw her speaking with other, more neutral gestures.

So let’s take a quick look at the four gestures that could undermine the perception of trustworthiness.

1. Keep your hands neutral.

Touching your own hands can make you look tentative and nervous, which could cause observers to think you are hiding something, not being honest, or that you lack confidence. Clasping your hands together may also be interpreted as a closing-off gesture: It could look as if you were putting up a fence between yourself and the people you’re speaking with. When you see Nexi do the gesture, it looks like she’s a plotting poker player gathering in a massive pile of other people’s chips.

2. Keep your hands away from your face.

Touching your own face is a common gesture that signals you are thinking. After all, you’re touching your head. But what you are thinking is unknown to those who are trying to determine if you can be trusted. And if they don’t know you well, the safe choice might be to decide that you’re up to no good. To touch another’s face is a gesture of intimacy and affection, but to touch your own face is seen as masking your expression.

3. Arms should stay relaxed and open.

Crossing your arms is a classic closing gesture. By doing it, you cover your heart and protect your solar plexus, the most vulnerable real estate on the body. Crossing the arms tends to communicate that your true feelings will remain undisclosed, and that you are not open for collaboration.


4. Lean in.

We like people who like us. When you lean in, you express the desire to be close. When you lean away, you could very well be seen as someone who is running away, disengaged, or avoiding contact–you’re aloof on the balcony, not moshing on the dance floor.

Successful public figures are trained to avoid these gestures, which is behavioral marketing: it’s hard to get elected and govern if you send negative body language signals.

Those of us in business also need to earn the trust of the people we seek to influence–which is almost everyone we meet, from direct reports to peers, to the big boss at the top of the food chain. With a little practice, you can avoid touching your hands and face, crossing your arms, or leaning away from people you’re conversing with.

If you watch the video of Nexi, it’s clear that Dr. DeSteno is right: Our minds ascribe moral intention to gestures–even those performed by robots–if they show any hint of emotional expression.

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