More than meets the eye: Physical sensations influence first impressions

Although abstract concepts are intangible and have no obvious associated sensory or embodied states (the way a hammer does), they can also be embodied through the use of metaphors (Barsalou, 2008; Lakoff & Johnson, 1999). For example, the concept “importance” is described by the metaphor “having weight.” This metaphor is not merely linguistic: Participants who hold a heavy versus light clipboard judge a variety of items as more important (Jostmann, Lakens, & Schubert, 2009). Thus, it seems that people do not only use language to metaphorically describe something important as “heavy,” but that people actually think metaphorically about importance. They metaphorically match their concept of importance to sensations of weight, and this helps people think about abstract concepts like the importance of a decision, describing it as a “weighty matter.” There are many such examples of abstract concepts being embodied, including time, morality and secrets (Miles, Nind, & Macrae, 2010; Lee & Schwarz, 2010; Schnall, Benton, & Harvey, 2008; Slepian, Masicampo, Toosi, & Ambady, 2012; Zhong & Liljenquist, 2006; for a review see Meier, Schnall, Schwarz, & Bargh, 2012). However, until recently, an embodied perspective on person perception has not been taken. As described above, humans are a uniquely social species and person perception is a special case of perception. Thus applying embodied cognition theory to person perception is likely to bring valuable insights to both fields of study, with potential everyday applications.

Bodily sensations and person perception

Studies of person perception have discovered that many motivational and emotional factors influence the impressions we form of others (see Macrae & Bodenhausen, 2000), and recent studies demonstrate that physical sensations also influence how people are perceived. Experiencing physical warmth leads others to seem interpersonally warm and socially close (Williams & Bargh, 2008; IJzerman & Semin, 2009), experiencing physical roughness leads others to seem less socially coordinated (Ackerman, Nocera, & Bargh, 2010), smelling fishy smells makes others seem more suspect (unlikely to cooperate; Lee & Schwarz, 2012) and making hostile gestures (e.g., extending the middle finger) makes others seem more hostile (Chandler & Schwarz, 2009). Simple metaphors like “good is up” also influence how people are perceived; when learning positive information about another person, people remember this information better if they are moving upwards at the same time (Palma, Garrido, & Semin, 2011). Even how one perceives oneself can be influenced by sensations. For example, tasting a sweet candy can make people feel that they themselves are more kind and sweet (Meier, Moeller, Riemer-Peltz, & Robinson, 2012). These findings refine our previous understanding of person perception. Past work has only considered prior knowledge and other people’s perceptual cues (i.e., what they look like) as information to inform judgments, for example how dark someone’s skin is to judge race, how long someone’s hair is, or the shape of someone’s face to judge gender, or the position of someone’s mouth or eyes to judge internal states like emotion (Cloutier, Mason, & Macrae, 2005; Maddox, 2004; Slepian, Weisbuch, Adams, & Ambady, 2011). Yet, this recent work demonstrates that perceivers’ own sensations influence their impressions of others.

Impression formation

Think about a fundamental social judgment—whether someone is trustworthy or not. People effortlessly judge others as trustworthy or untrustworthy, and this has a variety of consequences, such as how you treat that person, or think about them (Adolphs, Tranel, & Damasio, 1998; Oosterhof & Todorov, 2008; Rule, Slepian, & Ambady, 2012).