We garner a surprising amount of accurate information from the briefest glimpses of other people – their faces, voices and clothes. That much we know from past research. But what about the way they walk? Does a swagger betray an ego? A new study shows that in judging a person’s personality from their gait, you and I (and others) are likely to agree with each other. And yet our judgments would be wrong.
John Thoresen and his colleagues created their stimuli for the study by asking 26 young people to walk naturally between two locations eight meters apart. The volunteers wore reflective markers on their joints so that the researchers could create simple point-light videos of their gait. In the videos, all visual detail is removed except for the movement of 13 main body joints.
Twenty-four participants then viewed the video clips and, instructed to “go with their gut”, they rated the personalities of the different walkers. There was high consistency between the ratings of the participants – they agreed with each other. But they were wrong. At least they were wrong based on a comparison of their ratings with the walkers’ scores on a personality questionnaire.
The researchers analysed the point-light videos to try to identify what cues the participants had used to make their judgments. This led to the identification of two main factors – one was related to an expansive, loose walking style, which participants tended to interpret as a sign of adventurousness, extraversion, trustworthiness and warmth; the other was a slow, relaxed style, which the participants interpreted as a sign of low neuroticism. Although linked with these observer perceptions, the two walking styles were not in fact associated with walkers’ actual personalities (based on the questionnaires they completed).
In further experiments, the researchers used this information to doctor the point-light videos, to see if they could provoke particular personality judgements in a new set of viewing participants. This worked after exaggerating the first “expansive” cue (triggering stronger judgments of adventurousness, extraversion, trustworthiness and warmth), but not for the other cue, perhaps because the manipulations in this case led to unnatural looking walks. Thoresen’s team also looked for other assumptions that might have mediated participants’ judgements of personality from gait. Key here were emotion, masculinity and attractiveness – the two walking cues affected judgments of these factors, and in turn this influenced participants’ inferences about personality.
The researchers said their findings could have practical relevance for the creators of computer avatars and cartoon characters. Another tantalising possibility is that people might be able to learn to walk a certain way to create a particular impression on others. However, Thoresen and his team urged caution about this: “it is not certain that minimal cues identified here can be taught or that such instructions may be effective,” they said. “We also do not know whether people use bodily motion as cues for personality when information such as facial expressions, clothing or verbal behaviour is available.”
Thoresen JC, Vuong QC, and Atkinson AP (2012). First impressions: Gait cues drive reliable trait judgements. Cognition, 124 (3), 261-71 PMID: 22717166