Skip to content

How hand gestures alter the perception of your speech

Research has found that words are more accurately heard when accompanied by hand gestures.
Credit: Ded Pixto / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • A team of researchers from the Netherlands found that hands gestures, when used strategically, influence how certain words are heard.
  • Participants were 20% more likely to hear and interpret the words being spoken when accompanied by a matching hand gesture, and 40% as likely to hear the wrong word when the gestures did not match.
  • Previous research has suggested that certain hand gestures can signal extraversion and dominance, and that speaking with gestures in general tends to lead to being evaluated as warm, agreeable, and energetic.

It’s true that politicians, orators, business executives, and other types of leaders tend to be fond of speaking with their hands, but does the habit actually have influence over how others interpret those words? A team of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Radboud University, and TiCC Tilburg University—all located in the Netherlands—sought to find out.

In a 2021 paper published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the group detailed a series of experiments on volunteers who viewed videos of people speaking with and without hand motions. They found that hand gestures, when done right, do influence how certain words are heard.

After showing the participants the videos of people speaking under different conditions, the researchers asked them questions about what they had heard. Those conditions involved the speaker emphasizing different parts of words in a sentence (e.g. OBject versus obJECT). Other conditions involved the speaker making various types of hand gestures. For example, chopping, pointing, or sweeping motions made with the hands and arms. Sometimes those hand motions coincided with sections of words being stressed, but sometimes they were random.

The team recorded the volunteers as they viewed the video recordings, questioning the participants afterward about what they had seen and heard. They found that the participants were more impacted by syllables spoken in conjunction with hand gestures: In 20 percent of the cases the viewer was more likely to have heard and interpreted the word being spoken when accompanied by a hand gesture. Interestingly, however, participants were 40 percent more likely to hear the wrong sound when a mismatch between the word spoken and the hand gesture occurred.

In addition to making your words more clear, past research has found that speaking with your hands really can alter the perception of your character. Markus Koppensteiner at the University of Vienna has analyzed the way that people talk with their hands and how the speaker is perceived. His research has suggested that certain hand gestures can signal extraversion and dominance.

For example, extraversion appeared to be associated with more hand movements overall. Vertical movements, meanwhile, seemed to be linked to the perception of authority. For example, hands sweeping up from torso to shoulder height. People making these expansive gestures with their arms tend to be rated lower in agreeableness, but higher in domination. This was, according to Koppensteiner, a consistent result in his papers.

According to body language expert Carol Goman, Ph.D., “Studies have found that people who communicate through active gesturing tend to be evaluated as warm, agreeable, and energetic, while those who remain still (or whose gestures seem mechanical or “wooden”) are seen as logical, cold, and analytic.” In fact, a 2015 study that analyzed TED Talks found that the most popular, viral speakers used nearly twice as many as the least popular speakers used.

The Dutch research team of this recent study suggests that their findings imply that hand gestures are an important part of in-person communications that have a direct impact on what the listener actually hears. Furthermore, they suggest that our responses to hand gestures used by someone speaking to us may be something that we learn as we grow up. Or, as they also note, it’s equally plausible that there is an evolutionary reason for our enhanced responses to hand-talking rather than a learned behavior.

Although these experiments were conducted with only Dutch speakers, the team believes that it’s likely they would have found the same results with other languages.

This article was originally published on Big Think in February 2021. It was updated in October 2022.


Up Next