You are Contagious: Vanessa Van Edwards (Full Transcript)

Vanessa Van Edwards

Full transcript of behavioral investigator and author Vanessa Van Edwards’ TEDx Talk: You are Contagious @ TEDxLondon conference. She is the author of Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People.


Listen to the MP3 Audio: You are contagious by Vanessa Van Edwards @ TEDxLondon


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Vanessa Van Edwards – Behavioral Investigator & Author

Hello, my name is Vanessa, and I am a recovering awkward person.

This is me at the peak of what I like to call my plaid vest phase. Luckily, my years of social awkwardness led me to a fascinating career trying to figure out how people work.

So, what I didn’t realize is that many years ago, I would do an experiment that led me right on this stage in front of you here today.

My lab researchers and I were curious about TED Talks. We wanted to know: Why do some TED Talks go viral and others don’t?

So we embarked on a huge experiment. We analyzed thousands of hours of TED Talks, looking for patterns. I wasn’t sure if we would find anything, so we were analyzing body language, hand gestures, vocal variety. We even looked at outfit choices, which made today particularly pressure-filled.

And very quickly, there was a pattern in the data that made me curious. And after we coded more and more TED Talks, we realized there was a pattern.

Now, before I tell you what that is, I have a personal question for you, which is: when you see someone, what part of the body do you look at first? You can just call it out. What do you look at first when you see someone?

Face, eyes — so most people — shoes. They are very high.

So most people say eyes, face or mouth. But actually, when we first see someone, the first place we look is the hands. And this is left over from our caveman days. Because if we were approached by a stranger caveman, the first place we looked was the hands to see if they were carrying a rock or a spear. We wanted to know if we were safe, if they were friend or foe.

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Now, this actually still remains from caveman days, and when we can’t see someone’s hands, something interesting happens. So I just did something a little mean to your brain. You should start to feel just a little bit uncomfortable. And the reason for that is when you can’t see my hands, you wonder, what is she doing back there?

And then, the longer I leave my hands behind my back, you get more and more distracted because you can’t see them. And eventually, your brain is just screaming, “Can’t she just bring her hands off from behind her back?”

And the moment I bring them back out, ahh, it feels so much better. And this is because our brain knows that if we can’t see hands, we can’t see intention.

And we found — as we compared the most viewed TED Talks side by side with the least viewed TED Talks, we found a pattern with hand gestures.

Specifically, on average, the most popular TED talkers use an average of 465 hand gestures in 18 minutes. Yes, we painstakingly counted every single one. I have 465 prepared for you today.

And the least popular TED talkers use an average of 272 hand gestures. Almost half.

What’s happening here?

So when TED speakers take the stage, they are showing you first “Friend, friend, friend.” You’ll notice when I walked onto the stage, I waved. I was saying, “Friend, friend, friend, friend.”

And the other thing that TED speakers do — see if this looks familiar. So they come onto the red dot, and they do something like this. “Today, I want to talk to you about a big idea. I am going to break it down into three different areas that are going to change your life.” Right?

So the most viral TED talkers seem to sit in the same way with these hand gestures because what they are doing is they are showing you, “I know my content so well that I can speak to you on two different tracks. I can speak to you with my words, but I can also explain my concepts with my hands.”

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And this way, they underline their concepts with their words. For example, if I were to say, “Today, I have a really big idea. It’s huge.” You laugh, and you are like, “Vanessa, it’s so small, it’s not very big,” and that is because your brain gives 12.5 times more weight to hand gestures.

So today I have a really, really big idea, and I am going to explain it to you in three different ways.

My big idea is that we are contagious. Specifically, as humans, we are constantly sending and decoding body language signals. We also do this emotionally and chemically.

To explain this, I have a rather disgusting but very fascinating study. So, in this study, researchers collected sweat pads from people who ran on a treadmill. Then they collected sweat pads from skydivers on their first time skydive. Two very different kinds of sweat.

Here is the disgusting part. Then they had poor unsuspecting participants — I know — they had unsuspecting participants in the lab (sniffing) smell these sweat pads while they were in an fMRI machine.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Even though the participants had no idea what they were smelling, the ones that smelled the skydiving sweat pads had their fear response in their brain activated. In other words, they caught the fear.

This means that our emotions are contagious. Our fear is contagious. Our confidence is contagious. And this begs the big question: If our emotions are contagious, how do we make sure that we are infecting people with the right ones?

So, I believe that we can be contagious in three different ways. The first one is non-verbally.

Now, to test this idea, I did a very simple experiment in the streets of Portland, Oregon. What I did is I stood in the street, and I looked up at nothing. And I wanted to see if people would catch or mirror my non-verbal.

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So you can see in this video, I stand in the streets looking at nothing, and slowly one by one …I infect people walking by. And slowly…we begin to gather a crowd.

So this poor woman, you know — she was standing there with me, and we are standing there, and remember, we’re looking at nothing. And we are standing, and I am going, how long are we going to stand here? Who’s going to break first?

And after about 40 seconds, we are looking, and she leans over and says, “Is he going to jump?”

And this experience taught me that we catch emotions, and then we create rationales for why we’ve caught that emotion.

Now, this is actually a good thing. As humans, this keeps us safe. Dr. Paul Ekman has studied something called the microexpression. It’s a universal facial expression, and he’s discovered there are seven of them. Across genders and races, we all make the same expression when we feel an intense emotion. This is the fear microexpression.

So, fear is a really important emotion because we want to catch it from someone else to warn us if something is about to go wrong. And this facial expression also keeps us safe.

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