Two signals of social rank: Prestige and dominance are associated with distinct nonverbal displays

Zachary Witkower, Jessica L. Tracy, Joey T. Cheng, Joseph Henrich

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Converging evidence suggests that high rank is communicated through various nonverbal behaviors (e.g., expansiveness), but prior studies have not examined whether 2 distinct forms of high rank-known as prestige and dominance-are communicated through distinct nonverbal displays. Given the divergent messages that prestigious and dominant leaders need to send in order to attain and retain their place in the social hierarchy, theoretical accounts would suggest that individuals use distinct sets of nonverbal behaviors to communicate these 2 forms of high rank. In the present research, we tested this hypothesis in 7 studies, using carefully controlled experimental designs (Studies 1, 2, 3, 4a, and 4b) and the assessment of spontaneously displayed nonverbal behaviors that occurred during a lab-based group interaction (Study 5) and a real-world political contest (Study 6). Results converged across studies to show that prestige and dominance strategies are associated with distinct sets of nonverbal behaviors, which are largely consistent with theoretical predictions. Specifically, prestige, or the attainment of rank through earned respect, and dominance, or the use of intimidation and force to obtain power, are communicated from different head positions (i.e., tilted upward vs. downward), smiling behaviors (i.e., presence vs. absence of a symmetrical smile), and different forms of bodily expansion (i.e., subtle chest expansion vs. more grandiose space-taking). These findings provide the first evidence for 2 distinct signals of high rank, which spontaneously emerge in social interactions and guide social perceptions and the conferral of power.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)89-120
Number of pages32
JournalJournal of personality and social psychology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • Dominance
  • Nonverbal display
  • Prestige
  • Signaling

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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