Last year the psychologists Steven Tipper and Patric Bach asked students to perform an identification task with a difference. Two men were shown either kicking a ball or typing at a keyboard. Crucially, the students had to signal their recognition of the men by either pressing a keyboard key or pushing a foot-pedal. The interaction between the men’s activities and the students’ mode of response led to some intriguing effects.
If a man was shown typing and students had to respond with a keyboard key, they were not only faster and more accurate, they also subsequently rated that man as more academic than other students who responded with a foot-pedal. (Similarly, a foot-pedal response to a man kicking a football led him to be rated as more sporty).
At first Tipper and Bach interpreted these effects in terms of the brain’s mirror-neuron system, which is active when someone else is seen performing a given movement or that movement is enacted by oneself. The idea was that the sight of a man typing triggered neural, key-pressing activity that was then accentuated by the student’s own use of a key. All this key-pressing activity was then thought to bias judgement over how academic the man was.
But now a follow-up study has debunked that explanation and shown that the effects have to do with response fluency, rather than having anything to do with the specific actions performed.
This time students always responded with a computer key, but sometimes the key was on the same side that the men’s heads appeared in the photos, while other times their heads and the key were on opposite sides. This kind of stimulus-response compatibility is known to influence how quickly and easily participants can respond.
For instance, one man’s head might be presented on the same side as the student’s key response when he was shown typing, but on the opposite side when he was depicted kicking a ball. This man would then be identified more easily when shown typing on the keyboard than when kicking, and would subsequently be rated as more academic and less sporty than if the key / head position arrangements had been the other way around.
In other words, the researchers think the students were sensing how easily they had responded and that was then subconsciously impacting their judgement of the men’s characters. It’s as though the students had confused the fluency of their own response with how fluently they believed the men had performed their key press or football kick.
“Such findings have implications for how people interact, especially during joint activities,” the researchers told us. “For instance, if you want your boss to think you are particularly skilful at some joint task, it is best to perform this in a way that allows him to undertake his aspect of the task easily. Your boss’s more fluent processes will be attributed back to your performance.”
TIPPER, S., BACH, P. (2008). Your own actions influence how you perceive other people: A misattribution of action appraisals. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44(4), 1082-1090. DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2007.11.005