Gesturing on the ‘phone

“Speakers often gesture in telephone conversations, even though they are not visible to their addressees.”

But why? Given that everyone realises (that from the listener’s point of view at least) it’s entirely pointless. In one of the few scientific examinations to tackle the subject, Dr. Janet Beavin Bavelas and colleagues at the Human Interaction Laboratory, Department of Psychology, University of Victoria, Canada, set up a series of experiments to probe the ‘gesturing to an invisible person’ effect.

“To test whether this effect is due to being in a dialogue, we separated visibility and dialogue with three conditions: face-to-face dialogue (10 dyads), telephone dialogue (10 dyads), and monologue to a tape recorder (10 individuals).”

The 50 participants (psychology students) were asked to talk about a photo of a very elaborate eighteenth century dress, either face-to-face (with another psychology student), or via a telephone (with another psychology student), or, in the monologue case, directly into a tape recorder.

NOTE, OCTOBER 12, 2010: This image is from the study. We have now redacted in response to Dr. Bavelas's concern — expressed in a letter she sent us — for the anonymity of the research subject.

As expected, subsequent analysis of the resulting video recordings showed a fair degree of gesturing. The ‘over-the-phone’ gestures tended to be shorter and “…harder to describe” than in the face-to-face condition (as well as being predominantly one-handed). In contrast, the tape recorder gestures “…were tiny and strange”. Although the experiments revealed significant differences between the three modes of communication, comprehensive clarifications for pointless-gesturing-via-telephone behaviours remain elusive. Nonetheless, say the investigators –

“We speculate that demonstration, as a modality, may underlie these findings and may be intimately tied to dialogue while being suppressed in monologue.”

The full paper, ‘Gesturing on the telephone: Independent effects of dialogue and visibility’ which was published in the Journal of Memory and Language, vol. 58, issue 2, February 2008, pages 495-520, can also be read in full here . . .

UPDATE (October 12, 2010): Dr. Bavelas asked us to remove the original image that she published in her study, so as to preserve the research subject’s anonymity. We immediately redacted the image.