10/20/2011 12:42 pm ET Updated Dec 20, 2011

Body Language Improves Our Communication, Research Shows

By Christie Nicholson
(Click here for the original article and podcast)

Texting, e-mailing, IMing, DMing. These methods are great ways to keep in touch—but they also carry the risk of miscommunication. The lack of vocal inflection is one reason, but there are other more cues we lack in digital conversation.  

In a recent study, seven pairs of subjects controlled virtual avatars. One avatar described a word without mentioning the actual word. For example, for the word "water," you might say "wet." The other avatar tried to guess the word

Researchers found the pairs were much more successful in communicating the word when both avatars used hand gestures, as opposed to when one, or both, of the two avatars stayed still.

The study is in the journal Public Library of Science One.

In a second experiment the researchers had some of the “guessing” avatars portrayed as pre-recorded animations. So the avatars’ gestures while listening did not necessarily match the gestures of real listeners. And their communication was less successful than pairs that interacted with genuine gestures.

The study provides evidence that communication is really two-way. And that active listening, with appropriate gestures, can be as important for understanding as what’s being said.