More than meets the eye: Physical sensations influence first impressions

Likewise, scholars in the natural sciences are described as “hard” scientists, whereas scholars in the social sciences and humanities are thought of as “soft” (Hedges, 1987; Storer, 1967). Across four studies, we found that the relationship between sensation and person perception extends to these other social groups. Experiencing hard (versus soft) sensations led male and female faces to be more often categorized as Republicans than Democrats, and it also led male professors to be more often categorized as physicists than historians. The meaning of hard and soft traits, however, was found to be context specific. For example, while hard politicians were perceived as tough and unwavering, hard scientists were seen as rigorous and precise. Soft politicians, in contrast, were seen as agreeable and tender, and soft scientists were seen as imprecise and flexible. Interestingly, then, these metaphorically hard and soft social categories rely upon two distinct metaphors, demonstrating that different properties of the same sensation can be metaphorically related to different, although similar, concepts. Relating a stereotypically resistant, firm, and unyielding Republican to sensations of hardness metaphorically resembles the experience of resistance when handling a hard object. Relating a stereotypically precise and exact hard scientist to sensations of hardness metaphorically resembles the experience of the rigid boundaries of a hard object. Thus sensations can be metaphorically mapped onto different social traits, but in contextually specific ways.

Hard and soft sensations are not the only bodily states that influence social categorization. How you move, more generally, can influence social categorization. For instance, moving your arm fluidly can lead you to think more fluidly, allowing you to think more broadly and flexibly (Slepian & Ambady, 2012). Thus, fluid movement can influence how fluidly you think about something. Based on this idea, we examined whether fluid movement would influence how people categorize others by race (Slepian, Wesibuch, Pauker, Bastian, & Ambady, in press). People often think about race in a rigid way. For example, people often categorize someone as belonging to a single racial category (e.g., Black) who actually belongs to several social categories (i.e., is biracial, e.g., Black/White; see Peery & Bodehausen, 2008). We found that moving one’s arm fluidly, relative to rigidly, led participants to categorize racially-ambiguous faces more often as biracial, demonstrating fluid thinking about race from fluid movement. In sum, everyday activities from how fluidly you move to how hard you press on something such as when typing on a keyboard or exercising can influence how you see other people.

Accurate perceptions

Traits including extraversion, conscientiousness, interpersonal warmth, and self-esteem can all be perceived accurately from a brief glimpse of someone (see Ambady & Weisbuch, 2011). People’s appearance and nonverbal behavior can actually provide a better indicator of what they are like than what they say (Weisbuch, Slepian, Clarke, Ambady, & Veenstra-Van der Weele, 2010). Thus, surprisingly little information is needed to accurately perceive information about another person. People can even accurately judge others when the stakes are high. For example, from the way professional poker players move when placing bets, people can accurately guess how good their hand is—not every time, but better than they would by random guessing (Slepian, Young, Rutchick, & Ambady, in press).