Psychology Expansive Posture
Sally D. Farley
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0267


Much can be gleaned about the affective, cognitive, and motivational states of others by attending to various channels of nonverbal communication. Although there are a variety of ways to organize the body of research on the psychological correlates of nonverbal behavior, researchers in social psychology and communication often distinguish between two dimensions: the hierarchical dimension (status/dominance/power) and the affiliative dimension (liking/romantic interest). Most nonverbal cues have implications for both of these dimensions, and postural expansion is not an exception. Postural expansion includes “enlarging” behaviors such as sitting more erectly, opening up the torso, and extending limbs away from the body. In contrast, postural constriction involves postures that ultimately make an organism appear smaller (such as slumping the shoulders, wrapping limbs around the body, or averting the gaze downward). Numerous researchers have noted the comparative similarity between postural expansion and constriction in humans and, respectively, dominance and submission displays in animals. For example, the bristling of a cat’s fur (piloerection) in response to threat serves to make the animal look larger and more threatening, while the exposure of a dog’s stomach in submission or appeasement serves to make the animal appear smaller, less threatening, or more vulnerable. Substantially more literature has investigated the association between postural expansion and the hierarchical dimension than the affiliative dimension, a bias that is duplicated here. Furthermore, it is important to note that the “hierarchical” literature addresses several related, but unique, questions: (1) How does postural expansion affect perceptions of others’ status/dominance/power? (2) Is postural expansion linked with actual differences in status/dominance/power or other relevant dependent measures? (3) Is postural expansion reliably linked with an important universal nonverbal expression?

Affiliation: Romantic Interest and Positive Emotion

There is a dearth of literature examining the ways in which postural expansion is associated with romantic attraction, liking, or interest in humans, and several of these important sources are dated. Earlier studies like Givens 1978, Grammer 1990, and McCormick and Jones 1989 identified postural expansion as a “courtship signal’ in the flirtation process. Moore 2010 is a more recent interdisciplinary overview. Renninger, et al. 2004 demonstrates that postural expansion differentiated successful and unsuccessful men in a bar setting. Only two experiments—Ahmetoglu and Swami 2012 and Vacharkulksemsuk, et al. 2016—investigate the role of expansive posture on dimensions of attraction or romantic interest, both finding that postural expansion increases attractiveness ratings. Van Cappellen, et al. 2020 is a recent experimental study that notes the importance of postural expansion in the expression of joy.

  • Ahmetoglu, G., and V. Swami. 2012. Do women prefer “nice guys”? The effect of male dominance behavior on women’s ratings of sexual attractiveness. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal 40:667–672.

    DOI: 10.2224/sbp.2012.40.4.667E-mail Citation »

    One of the few studies manipulating postural expansion and measuring target attractiveness. Authors exposed women to three levels of male “dominance” via video vignettes (“low dominance”—closed body posture; “medium dominance”—open posture, no gestures; and “high dominance”—open body posture with multiple arm movements, including touch of another). Postural expansion increased ratings of attractiveness, but operationalization issues make it difficult to disentangle postural expansion and touch.

  • Givens, D. B. 1978. The nonverbal basis of attraction: Flirtation, courtship, and seduction. Psychiatry: Journal for the Study of Interpersonal Processes 41.4: 346–359.

    DOI: 10.1080/00332747.1978.11023994E-mail Citation »

    Introduced five phases of courtship from an ethological perspective. During the first “attention” phase, men may signal interest via postural expansion (stretching arms away from the body), and during the second “recognition” phase, women may respond in kind, but also may engage in self-clinging behaviors (closing their postures) as a signal of non-threat.

  • Grammer, K. 1990. Strangers meet: Laughter and nonverbal signs of interest in opposite-sex encounters. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior 14.4: 209–236.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF00989317E-mail Citation »

    Based on an observational study of mixed-sex dyads in conversation. Argues that nonverbal behaviors are both polysemous and metacommunicative. Nevertheless, results showed that both men and women signal romantic interest through open postures and lack of interest through closed postures.

  • McCormick, N. B., and A. J. Jones. 1989. Gender differences in nonverbal flirtation. Journal of Sex Education & Therapy 15.4: 271–282.

    DOI: 10.1080/01614576.1989.11074969E-mail Citation »

    One of the first studies to emphasize how active women are in the flirtation process. Based on observation of seventy mixed-sex couples engaged in conversation in public settings. Catalogues “open posture” as an “escalation behavior,” designed to initiate flirtatious interaction. No sex difference in the use of open postures was found, but women were more likely to use closed postures than were men.

  • Moore, M. M. 2010. Human nonverbal courtship behavior—A brief historical review. Journal of Sex Research 47.2–3: 171–180.

    DOI: 10.1080/00224490903402520E-mail Citation »

    Important review and synthesis of courtship literature from zoology, ethology, and evolutionary and social psychology. Suggests that forward lean accompanied by an open posture is a positive interest signal, and closed posture and changing one’s body orientation away from another is a negative interest signal.

  • Renninger, L. A., T. J. Wade, and K. Grammer. 2004. Getting that female glance. Evolution and Human Behavior 25:416–431.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2004.08.006E-mail Citation »

    Summarizes two studies using naturalistic observation. In study one, men who were ultimately successful at engaging women in conversation made more expansive body movements and fewer restrictive body movements than those who were unsuccessful. The second study showed that men increased their expansive movements and decreased their restrictive movements in the presence of women, suggesting that postural expansion is a signal of mate value.

  • Vacharkulksemsuk, T., E. Reit, P. Khambatta, P. W. Eastwick, E. J. Finkel, and D. R. Carney. 2016. Dominant, open nonverbal displays are attractive at zero-acquaintance. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113.15: 4009–4014.

    DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1508932113E-mail Citation »

    Important article that reignited interest in posture and romantic attraction. Using a speed-dating context, Study 1 found that only postural expansiveness (not other affiliation signals like laughs) significantly predicted partners’ romantic attraction. In Study 2, both men and women got more “yes” responses on a dating app when their photos featured expansive versus restrictive postures, due to postural expansion increasing perceptions of dominance and openness.

  • Van Cappellen, P., M. Edwards, and M. Shiota. 2020. Shades of expansiveness: Full-body expressions of joy, awe, hope, and dominance. Poster presented at the 21st Annual Society for Personality and Social Psychology Conference, New Orleans, Louisiana.

    E-mail Citation »

    Investigates the ways in which expansiveness signals the emotions of joy, hope, dominance and awe. Participants (N = 146) configured mannequins to depict their typical representation of these four emotional states, and researchers measured the expansiveness of the mannequins. Joy was the most expansive of these emotional states both vertically (arms typically extended upward with the mannequin leaping) and horizontally (distance between outstretched arms typically widest). This study suggests that joy should be added to the list of emotional and motivational states (along with pride and dominance) for which postural expansion is important.

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