More than meets the eye: Physical sensations influence first impressions

Judgments of trustworthiness should particularly be influenced by physical sensations and movement as trust implies that a person can be approached, whereas distrust implies a person should be avoided. Approach and avoidance are regarded as fundamental dimensions of behavior. That is, the most basic action you can make is whether to move toward something or away from something. Across the animal kingdom, this is a fundamental action, and so for humans it might have an influence upon an everyday part of social life, impression formation. Indeed, in a recent study (Slepian, Young, Rule, Weisbuch, & Ambady, 2012) we found that when experiencing motor movement of approach, new people are judged as more trustworthy, whereas when experiencing motor movement of avoidance, new people are judged as more untrustworthy. In that study, just the briefest experience (a few seconds) of approach movement (by only temporarily activating arm muscles used when pulling something toward oneself) made other people seem especially trustworthy. And likewise, briefly activating the muscles used when pushing something away made people seem untrustworthy. Another study demonstrated the reverse relationship. Upon sight of a trustworthy face, relative to an untrustworthy face, people’s bodies were subsequently in a state of approach: It was especially easy to make an approach motion after seeing a trustworthy face, and easy to make an avoidance motion after seeing an untrustworthy face. This work suggests perhaps that whether you are leaning forward or backward when meeting someone could influence how trustworthy they seem, as trustworthiness judgments are intertwined with approach and avoidance movements.

Social categorization

Considering that we are inherently a social species and on a daily basis must make sense of the information from the complex social world we live in, we hypothesized that social categorical knowledge might also be embodied (Slepian, Weisbuch, Rule, & Ambady, 2011). For instance, one of the largest trait differences between males and females is tenderness, and perceivers bring the extremes of this trait to mind when they think of males (as “tough”) and females (as “tender”; Feingold, 1994). Tough and tender also describe opposing forms of sensory experience (i.e., the sensations experienced when handling hard and soft objects). Perhaps, then, those sensations that are metaphorically related to knowledge about social stereotypes provide a foundation for such categorical thinking. Indeed, we found that sensations influence gender categorization. Experiencing sensations of hardness by squeezing a hard ball, or pressing down hard on paper, led perceivers to categorize sex-ambiguous faces as male, whereas experiencing soft sensations led perceivers to more often categorize the same faces as female. Simply experiencing sensations of hardness led faces to actually look more masculine, and experiencing sensations of softness led faces to look more feminine. In these studies, sensory experience changed the visual perception of gender.

We also examined just how far this effect would extend, and tested whether other social categories might be embodied in this way (Slepian, Rule, & Ambady, 2012). Other social categories are metaphorically related to hard and soft sensations. For instance, American Republicans tend to show greater support for capital punishment and aggressive military action: political stances associated with being “hard” or “tough” (American National Election Studies, 2005). Democrats, in contrast, are more likely to support policies regarded as “softer,” such as social and economic security (e.g., universal health care and affirmative action policies; American National Election Studies, 2005).