Obituary: Professor Michael Argyle ; Interpreter of 'Body Language' and Nonverbal Communication
Mary Sissons Joshi and Roger Lamb, The Independent (London, England)
MICHAEL ARGYLE was one of the handful of British psychologists to have gained an international reputation. He was a pioneer in the scientific study of social behaviour. His research on interviews and conversations established that nonverbal rather than verbal communication dictate the impressions people make on others. So much is the primacy of "body language" now taken for granted that it is easy to forget that it required Argyle's research and that of others in the 1960s to demonstrate how it works.
The painstaking examination of the functions and interplay of gaze, gesture, posture, touch, proximity and facial expression was a significant part of the revolutionary growth in our scientific understanding of human communication which was at its zenith in the 1960s and involved disciplines such as philosophy and linguistics as well as psychology. Argyle and his team at Oxford University revealed that nonverbal communication is a complex system in which elements can be mutually supportive or antagonistic. The multi- channel nature of everyday human communication leads to potential confusion and ambiguity, but Argyle's work showed that people can automatically adjust their communication in one channel to compensate if they notice that communication via another channel is being misinterpreted.
Argyle's work established that people differ in their ability to utilise the various channels of communication successfully. From this insight Argyle invented the idea of social skills, arguing that they are not very different from motor skills such as riding a bicycle. In consequence he believed that these skills could be taught and learnt through demonstration, practice and video feedback.
He created a programme of training for those who were shy or suffering from minor mental disorder whose lack of social skills might increase their problems. Members of his research team applied such training to help troubled adolescents control their own anti- social behaviour and violent offenders manage their anger. One of his doctoral students was appointed by the Royal College of General Practitioners to institute a training programme to improve doctors' listening and communication skills. The social-skills approach is now pervasive in modern life, for example in the training of health- care professionals and the police, and in courses for those involved in selection procedures whether as interviewers or interviewees.
By the late 1970s Argyle and his team were moving beyond the study of specific gestures and two-person conversations to study longer and more complex sequences of social behaviour, such as family interaction. They employed the techniques that were being so successfully applied to the study of animal behaviour and are now familiar to us all through television wildlife programmes. In the human case this sometimes involved placing hidden cameras in the homes of volunteers. Argyle was much amused that one of his team from that period became a psychological consultant on Big Brother.
In the last part of his academic career, from the mid-1980s, Argyle embarked on the study of happiness. He felt that psychologists concentrated too much on the causes of unhappiness and depression and he thought that research on happiness was equally necessary. Argyle found that removing the causes of unhappiness did not in itself lead to happiness. What emerged repeatedly from his research was that happiness depends principally on wholehearted involvement in an activity and the possibility of sharing this activity with others. In this work, Argyle anticipated many of the ideas about social capital and trust which are so popular with economists today.
Michael Argyle was born in Nottingham in 1925. He attended Nottingham High School and graduated with first class honours in Experimental Psychology from Emmanuel College, Cambridge. In 1952 he became a …
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Publication information: Article title: Obituary: Professor Michael Argyle ; Interpreter of 'Body Language' and Nonverbal Communication. Contributors: Mary Sissons Joshi and Roger Lamb - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: September 3, 2002. Page number: 16. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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