Michael Argyle (psychologist)

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John Michael Argyle (August 11, 1925 – September 6, 2002) was one of the best known English social psychologists of the twentieth century. He was a pioneer in the advancement of social psychology as an academic field in Britain.

Did you know?
Michael Argyle suggested the idea that social skills can be learned

Argyle's academic career was based at the University of Oxford, where he supervised numerous doctoral students as well as conducting research into a wide range of topics in social psychology and publishing numerous works based on his findings. His work on nonverbal behavior transformed our understanding of interpersonal communication, bringing the concepts of body language and social skills into public awareness as well as developing training programs to help people become better at social interactions. aspects of human life, such as happiness.

Throughout his career, he was committed to the use of experimental methods which he applied even to areas such as the psychology of religion. A committed Christian, Argyle did not let his faith interfere with objectivity in his research other than to fuel his interest in understanding the psychology of religious belief and its impact on various


Michael Argyle was born in Nottingham, England, on August 11, 1925. He was the only child of Phyllis and George Edgar Argyle, both of whom died when Michael was eleven years old (Coleman 2004). He attended the Nottingham High School for Boys and entered the University of Cambridge to study Mathematics.

The Second World War interrupted his studies, and he trained and then served in the Royal Air Force (RAF) as a navigator. He left the RAF in 1947 and returned to Cambridge where he completed his undergraduate studies, gaining a first-class degree in Experimental psychology in 1950. During his time at Cambridge he met and married Sonia Kemp, a graduate of Girton College, Cambridge. They had four children: three daughters (Miranda, Rosalind, and Ophelia) and a son (Nicholas).

Argyle spent a further two years at Cambridge, doing postgraduate research, before being appointed the first lecturer in Social psychology at the University of Oxford (Coleman 2004). At the time, Oxford University was, along with the London School of Economics, one of only two universities in the United Kingdom to have a department of social psychology.

He remained at Oxford, becoming a founding Fellow of Wolfson College in 1966, a Reader in Psychology in 1969, Vice-Regent of Wolfson in 1989, and Emeritus Professor at Oxford Brookes University. In addition to lecturing, Argyle was very active in research and his work attracted many distinguished colleagues as well as supervising over 50 doctoral students who enjoyed both his scholarship and warm social support during their studies. His presence enlivened social events with his jokes and humor which included a fondness for brightly colored ties, including a pink flashing bow tie (Joshi and Lamb 2002).

Argyle also served as visiting professor at universities in Canada, Australia, and the United States, and was awarded honorary doctorates from several universities, including Oxford (1979), Adelaide (1982), and Brussels (1982), as well as many other distinguished awards.

In the course of his career Argyle authored or edited 44 books and numerous articles in academic journals. His book, The Psychology of Interpersonal Behaviour first published in 1967 was an international best seller. The article, "Eye-contact, distance, and affiliation," co-authored with Janet Dean and published in Sociometry in 1965, became a citation classic in Current Contents, as did his 1975 book co-authored with Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion. One of the co-founders of the British Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, Argyle regularly attended social psychology conferences and promoted the field energetically and successfully. He was also the founder and chair of the Social Psychology section of the British Psychological Society.

Argyle was a deeply religious man and played an active role in the Anglican church, especially in his later years (Coleman 2004). He also had a great passion for Scottish country dancing and a love of twentieth-century art. A devoted family man, he shared these passions with his wife and children. When Sonia became ill he supported her throughout her long illness until her death in 1999. Although devastated by the loss of his wife, he remarried in 2000. His second wife, Gillian Thompson, also shared his passion for dancing and swimming and they were actively involved in church life.

Argyle died on September 6, 2002, at the age of 77, of injuries suffered in a swimming accident from which he never fully recovered.


Argyle was a pioneer in the development of social psychology in Britain, advancing the field as a scientific enterprise and as a valuable approach to solving social problems (Robinson 2002). In his research, which attracted visits from many American social psychologists, Argyle maintained a different approach, one that emphasized more real world problems and solutions over laboratory-style investigations, but always without sacrificing the integrity of the experimental method:

We were impressed by their ingenious and well designed experiments, but we found them too artificial, insufficiently related to real behaviour. We could not see how this kind of research could be applied to real problems. We were looking for a different way of doing it. (Argyle 2001, 340-341).

He made contributions to many areas including: social behavior, the psychology of social class, the psychology of happiness, and the psychology of religion. He wrote numerous scholarly books, based on the experimental research that he and his team of colleagues and graduate students conducted. Written in clear and readily understood prose, several of Argyle's books were very popular, becoming best sellers.

Social behavior

Argyle's interest in psychology began with his observation of a school friend who was very shy and did not interact successfully in social situations (Coleman 2004). Wondering if social skills might not be learned in the same way as manual skills led Argyle to research interpersonal behavior.

Some of Argyle's best-known contributions were to the area of nonverbal communication. He quickly realized that there are many nonverbal aspects of behavior, such as gaze, posture, proximity, facial expressions, and so forth, which are at least as important as the words spoken in communicating to others.

Argyle put forward the hypothesis that whereas spoken language is normally used for communicating information about events external to the speakers, nonverbal codes are used to establish and maintain interpersonal relationships (Argyle et. al. 1970). Using video tapes shown to the subjects, they analyzed the communication of submissive/dominant attitude and found that nonverbal cues had 4.3 times the effect of verbal cues, with body posture being the most powerful method of communicating superior status.

In his book, Bodily Communication originally published in 1975, Argyle concluded there are five primary functions of nonverbal bodily behavior in human communication:

  • Express emotions
  • Express interpersonal attitudes
  • To accompany speech in managing the cues of interaction between speakers and listeners
  • Self-presentation of one’s personality
  • Rituals (greetings)

He also found that people differ in their ability to use the complex array of nonverbal behaviors and interpret their meanings. He then set out to teach people how to use these channels of communication more effectively, using demonstration, practice, and video feedback to develop their social skills.

In the 1970s Argyle set up a successful social skills training program for patients with mental disorders who were unable to behave appropriately in social situations. Other members of his research team expanded the training to benefit adolescents who exhibited anti-social behavior and violent offenders to deal with anger. One of his doctoral students developed a training program for doctors to improve their listening and communication skills in dealing with patients.

One of his best-known books in this field, The Psychology of Interpersonal Behaviour, first published in 1967, became a best-seller. As a result of his work, the significance of nonverbal communication became widely known and terms such as "body language" became part of the everyday language of the general public.

Psychology of religion

Argyle, a committed Christian, published several empirical works on the psychology of religion. Although he had profound religious beliefs, he was also committed to the scientific method and did not allow his faith to interfere with his experimental research. Equally, his research on religious behavior never shook his faith.

His early work in this field was summarized in his book Religious Behaviour (1958), which includes a systematic attempt to evaluate the various theories in this field. He later collaborated with Benjman Beit-Hallahmi to produce a later book, The Psychology of Religious Beliefs, Behaviour and Experience (1997). Both books show Argyle's commitment to empiricism in psychology, and list results of surveys into topics such as beliefs in the afterlife or frequencies of religious experience in the general population.

Psychology of happiness

One of Argyle's most notable later contributions was to the psychology of happiness, which he considered to have been under-researched by psychologists who spent more time researching depression.

Keen that more research should be done in this field, he published The Psychology of Happiness in 1987. In this book he listed and discussed empirical findings on happiness, including findings that happiness is indeed promoted by interpersonal relationships, sex, eating, exercise, music, success, and other factors, but probably not by wealth. A significant finding was that happiness did not increase simply by removing causes of unhappiness, but rather by involvement in an activity that can be shared with others.

Up until his death, Argyle was continuing his research on happiness, extending it to study the relationships between happiness and religion and personality factors.

Psychology of social class

Although social class is a concept largely studied by sociologists, Argyle's later work showed increasing interest in promotion of a socio-psychological perspective on social class. Differences in religious involvement as well as patterns of social relationship across social class were areas of interest to him, and where he was able to link this field to other areas which he had studied.

He focused on connections to topics that were positive aspects of life: cooperation, leisure, happiness, and religion. When he studied social problems and topics that could be problematic, such as money and work, his emphasis was on improving the human condition.


Michael Argyle had a long and distinguished career in which he advanced the field of social psychology, promoting it as a scientific discipline that gave valuable insights into social problems. His work on nonverbal communication greatly developed this area, with his The Psychology of Interpersonal Behaviour becoming an international best-seller. Concepts such as social skills and body language have become integral to our understanding of communication, and training programs based on the ones he and his colleagues developed are now pervasive in the professional world.

Argyle was active as a teacher, supervising over 50 doctoral students many of whom went on to become distinguished psychologists in their own right. Oxford Brookes University, where Argyle served as Emeritus Professor for ten years supervising many graduate students, awards the Michael Argyle Memorial Prize for the best Psychology Project submitted each year.

Major Works

  • [1957] 1974. The Scientific Study of Social Behaviour. Greenwood Press Reprint. ISBN 978-0837171081
  • [1958] 1965. Religious Behaviour. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. ASIN B001NXVCJG
  • 1962. Training Managers. London: Acton Society Trust. ASIN B002LG2QKS
  • [1964] 1967. Psychology and Social Problems. London: Tavistock Publications Ltd. ISBN 978-0422723305
  • [1967] 1999. The Psychology of Interpersonal Behaviour. London: Penguin. ISBN 978-0140172744
  • [1969] 2007. Social Interaction. Aldine Transaction. ISBN 978-0202309125
  • [1972] 1989. The Social Psychology of Work. London: Penguin. ISBN 978-0140134728
  • 1973. Skills With People: A Guide for Managers. New York, NY: Random House Business Books ISBN 978-0091164812 (with Elizabeth Sidney and Margaret Brown)
  • [1975] 2010. Bodily Communication. London: Routledege. ISBN 978-0415051149
  • 1975. Social Psychology of Religion. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0710080431 (with Benjamin Beit- Hallahmi)
  • 1976. Gaze and Mutual Gaze. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521208659 (with Mark Cook)
  • [1978] 1990. Social Skills and Mental Health. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0415012621 (with Peter Trower, Bridget Bryant, and John S. Marzillier)
  • 1979. Person to Person: Ways of Communicating. New York, NY: Harper & Row. ISBN 978-0063180970 (with Peter Trower)
  • 1981. Social Situations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521298810 (with Adrian Furnham and Jean Ann Graham)
  • 1985. The Anatomy of Relationships: And the Rules and Skills Needed to Manage Them Successfully. London: Penguin. ISBN 978-0140134711
  • [1987] 2002. The Psychology of Happiness. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0415226653
  • 1991. Cooperation: The Basis of Sociability. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0415035453
  • 1992. The Social Psychology of Everyday Life. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0415010726
  • 1993. The Psychology of Social Class. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0415079556
  • 1996. The Social Psychology of Leisure. London: Penguin. ISBN 978-0140238877
  • 1997. The Psychology of Religious Behaviour, Belief and Experience. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0415123310 (with Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi)
  • 1998. The Psychology of Money. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0415146067 (with Adrian Furnham)

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Argyle, Michael, Veronica Salter, Hilary Nicholson, Marylin Williams, and Philip Burgess. 1970. The communication of inferior and superior attitudes by verbal and non-verbal signals. British Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 9: 222-231.
  • Colman, Andrew M. 2004. Argyle, (John) Michael (1925–2002), social psychologist. Oxford University Press.
  • Argyle, Michael. 2001. The development of social psychology at Oxford. In G.C. Bunn, A.D. Lovie, and G.D. Richards (eds.), Psychology in Britain: Historical Essays and Personal Reflections, 333–343. Leicester, UK: British Psychological Society Books. 978-1854333322
  • Lamb, Roger, and Mary Sissons Joshi. 2002. Michael Argyle. The Psychologist 15(12): 624-625. Retrieved September 3, 2011.
  • Robinson, Peter. 2002. Obituary: Michael Argyle. The Guardian. Retrieved September 3, 2011.
  • Robinson, Peter. 2003. In memoriam: Michael Argyle. Social Psychological Review 5(1): 3-7.


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