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Covert communication in laboratories, classrooms, and the truly real world

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Hundreds of research studies have demonstrated that one person's expectations for the behavior of another person can actually affect that other person's behavior. These studies implicate the operation of processes of covert communication, communication that is subtle, largely nonverbal, and ordinarily unintended. The earliest studies of these processes showed that through their expectations, laboratory researchers unwittingly affected the responses of their research participants. Later studies showed that teachers' experimentally induced expectations about their pupils affected the pupils' intellectual performance. Most recently, studies of covert communication processes have extended to diverse contexts, such as the judicial and health care systems. For example, research indicates that judges' beliefs about the guilt of trial defendants can be unwittingly communicated to juries by the judges' nonverbal behavior during jury instruction. In addition, studies of covert communication in medical contexts show that physicians' effectiveness in persuading their patients to enter into treatment can be predicted from their tone of voice in talking to or about their patients. For example, one study showed that surgeons who used a bossy tone of voice when talking to their patients were more likely to be sued by their patients than were surgeons who used a more respectful tone. In sum, then, we have learned a great deal about the importance of subtle processes of nonverbal communication, but a great deal more is yet to be learned about these processes as they occur in the relatively sheltered context of laboratories and classrooms and in the rough-and-tumble of the truly real world beyond.
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Keywords: field research; interpersonal expectations; laboratory re-search; mediating mechanisms; nonverbal communication

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2003-10-01

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