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Thesis Format

Integrated Article


Doctor of Philosophy




Heerey, Erin A.


Although nonverbal behaviour has long been a topic of research, it is often studied in isolation from social partners and the social environment. This work presents three empirical chapters that reintroduce the social environment to the investigation of nonverbal cue exchange, focusing on the value of social rewards and the perceptive and affiliative functions of nonverbal communication. Findings reported in Chapter 2 indicate that the subjective value of social rewards changes as a function of social media use saliency. Specifically, thinking about a recent social media post, but not a synchronous conversation, increases the value of social rewards, such that people are willing to forego monetary gain to see a genuine smile. In Chapter 3, I show that although the amount of nonverbal behaviour does not necessarily enhance interpersonal judgement accuracy, accuracy does increase with familiarity, suggesting that people retain and update models of specific social partners. In Chapter 4, I demonstrate that social interactions on video-chat platforms, compared to face-to-face settings, are characterized by reduced interpersonal coordination and increased self-coordination, both of which have negative downstream effects for interaction outcomes (e.g., lower liking and worse interaction quality). Together, these findings indicate that the functions of nonverbal social cues and the subsequent judgments receivers make are strongly affected by the presence of social partners and the interaction environment. Thus, because nonverbal communication contingencies change as a function of individuals, situations, and interaction modalities, investigations of nonverbal cues should prioritize diverse social contexts to foster a well-rounded understanding of nonverbal behaviour.

Summary for Lay Audience

Conversations are the building blocks of social life. The complexity of these encounters is often overlooked, partly because the patterns of conversation are so entrenched in our development that they feel automatic and effortless. Social learning begins in the first few months of life, and patterns of nonverbal behaviour are continually reinforced through ongoing social exposure. Specifically, people learn to decipher and predict their social partners’ behaviour and to coordinate their own behaviour with a partner’s, all of which are important for promoting positive social outcomes and relationships.

However, social interactions are difficult to study because they are multifaceted, with behavioural influences from everyone involved. To minimize their complexity, researchers have studied social cues in isolation from the social context by simulating social partners with photographs, videos, and other means. These methods can enhance understanding of associations between behaviours and outcomes because there is careful control over the environment. However, this changes the social context substantially, meaning that these findings may fail to generalize to more natural conversations. Specifically, these effects should be replicated in natural social encounters because social behaviours are learned and reinforced through inherently social processes.

The research presented here investigates unmanipulated social encounters. My findings show that thinking about social media use, but not a recent conversation, increases the value and desire to see positive social cues, such as smiling faces. This indicates that social media may not fulfill social needs in the same way as face-to-face conversations. I also show that in a competitive game, people do not use general nonverbal signals to make accurate deductions about other people. Instead, increased familiarity with specific people and their unique behaviour is important for making accurate judgements, particularly in a competitive context. Finally, I show that conversations that occur on Zoom show less coordination between the nonverbal behaviours of interaction partners, and instead show more coordination with one’s own behaviour, leading to worse quality conversation and less liking between interaction partners. Together these findings demonstrate that the social context changes the way we value, signal, and coordinate social behaviour and thus is an important consideration for researchers.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.