You can tell a lot about a person’s mental state just by looking at their body language. Are they laid back, or fidgety? Are they happy, or sad? Are they confident, or shy? But one thing you can’t detect is whether he or she is smart or dumb, creative or an unimaginative lump. Or can you?
A team at Stanford headed up by Jeremy Balienson, an associate professor in the communication department, has published new research, suggesting that people’s creativity and ability to learn can be gauged by body language. Using an array of Microsoft Kinect 3-D cameras to record and analyze the movements of subjects, the researchers performed two different tests to study the non-verbal cues of the intelligent and creative. Here’s what they learned.
In the first study, the researchers chose one subject as a “teacher” and primed them on several principles of a subject they knew little about: water efficiency. The teacher was then tasked to impart what he or she had learned to another subject over a five-minute span. After, the student would take a test to show how much knowledge they had absorbed.
What the Stanford scientists learned was that the more exaggerated a student’s upper-body movements were while they were being taught, the less likely they were to score well on the test afterwards. “For our sample and our task, students with very extreme movements with their upper body tended to learn worse than others,” Bailenson said.
In the second test, researchers recorded the movements of paired subjects who were asked to brainstorm ways to improve water-conservation techniques. The more ideas they came up with, the more creative the duo was judged to be. In this test, what the researchers discovered is that the more synchronized two subjects were in their body movements, the more ideas they came up with.
While this study isn’t useful for detecting creativity in a lone person, it could afford employers a new method to hire creative teams. “Imagine trying to hire pairs to work on a project,” Balienson said. “Give your dozen candidates a two-minute test to see which pairs synchronize and which ones don’t. So now you’ve got a basically innovative team detector.”
Although Balienson and his team caution that their results may be subject to bias, they do give employers new tools in which to design tests to gauge the intelligence and creativity of potential hires. If you want to hire creative thinkers, interview them in pairs, and beware of the over-eager interviewee nodding, bucking, and jiving when you’re trying to tell him or her about your company. That guy’s probably a little slow.