More than meets the eye: Physical sensations influence first impressions

People are special. Person perception is quite different from rock perception, for example. Geologists, those with a rock in their shoe, and pet rock owners aside, the perception of a rock is often merely the perception of a collection of lines and surfaces. Yet people are not simply collections of lines and surfaces. People have inner worlds such as mental states and emotions, and unique expressions of those inner worlds, such as personalities, emotional expressions, and behaviors. The study of person perception examines how we perceive people and infer their inner worlds from our perceptions and interactions with them.

Unlike the rocks around us, we spontaneously and immediately form impressions of the people around us, making inferences from the way they behave or appear. When seeing a person walk down the street, for example, you are immediately able to tell their gender and about how old they are. From whether that person is male or female, or old or young, you will likely assume a host of other things about what that person is like. As the person nears, you might also have a sense of how friendly or trustworthy that person seems. How are you able to do this? A long tradition of research on person perception shows that people can automatically perceive social categories, and also make surprisingly accurate judgments about other people’s personalities from limited information (Ambady & Weisbuch, 2010; Macrae & Quadflieg, 2010). The majority of this work describes how our visual perceptions allow us to categorize others and form impressions of their personalities. Yet is visual perception the only way we “perceive” people? New research demonstrates that other sensations, for example smell, taste and touch, originating from sources unrelated to a person perceived, can nonetheless influence how we perceive people.

Embodied cognition

People can’t help but slot others into social categories, and immediately form impressions of other people. Thus, knowledge of social categories and what people are like is constantly used. Traditional work in person perception suggests that this knowledge—which links learned categories of people (e.g., gender, race, age) with attributes that ostensibly describe features of those groups (e.g., stereotypes)—is stored in long term memory, similar to how files are stored on a computer’s hard drive. Yet such “files” would only contain descriptions of people, and link to other files; none would contain actual sensory, bodily information (e.g., what a person looks or sounds like), but only re-descriptions of this information. The emerging field of embodied cognition, however, suggests that knowledge is based, in part, in bodily sensation (Barsalou, 2008). For example, the simple sight of a hammer produces a partial activation of the muscles used when handling a hammer (Chao & Martin, 2000; Tucker & Ellis, 2001). This occurs because our mental representation of a hammer is not a set of symbols stored somewhere in the brain (the way a computer would represent what a hammer is like), but instead includes specific sensory and motor experiences associated with the use of a hammer (such as how a hammer feels, and the actions used when handling one).