More than meets the eye: Physical sensations influence first impressions

Can bodily states influence accurate perceptions of other people? In the studies discussed earlier, bodily states led to person perception biases (e.g., seeing others as Republican or Democrat, regardless of their actual political affiliation), but it turns out that bodily states can also influence the accuracy of impressions. For example, when women have higher fertility (i.e., when they are near peak ovulation), they are more attuned to reproduction-relevant or sexually-relevant cues including (for heterosexual women) greater attention to masculine features and wearing more attractive clothing (Macrae, Alnwick, Milne, & Schloerscheidt, 2002; Haselton, Mortezaie, Pillsworth, Bleske-Recheck, & Frederick, 2007). Thus, the biological state of increased fertility seems to lead to an enhanced sexual interest, and thus we predicted that this would lead heterosexual women to be more accurate in judging male sexual orientation (which is necessary for finding a mate). Indeed, as heterosexual women neared peak ovulation, they were better at accurately perceiving male, but not female, sexual orientation from merely observing faces (Rule, Rosen, Slepian & Ambady, 2011). Similar results were found when a mating interest was promoted by reading a story. From these studies discussed above, we can see that sensory and biological states influence how people are perceived, whether they judge others as male or female, Republican or Democrat, biracial or monoracial, and whether they can accurately perceive someone’s sexual orientation.


A long line of work has examined how people think about social categories and how people make impressions of others. When someone walks toward you on the street, we know what visual, emotional and motivational factors will influence how you perceive that person. New research is demonstrating that your own bodily state can also influence how you perceive people, whether you think they are trustworthy, what their political affiliation or profession is, and even their race, gender and sexual orientation. Everyday experiences such as how hard you press down on something or whether you lean forward or backward can influence how you see the people around you.


Ackerman, J.M., Nocera, C.C., & Bargh, J.A. (2010). Incidental haptic sensations influence social judgments. Science, 328, 1712–1715.

Adolphs, R., Tranel, D., & Damasio, A. R. (1998). The human amygdala in social judgment. Nature, 393, 447-470.

American National Election Studies. (2005). ANES cumulative data file, October 31, 2005 [Data file]. Available from Survey Documentation and Analysis archives of the Computer-assisted Survey Methods program at the University of California, Berkeley Web site,

Ambady, N. & Weisbuch, M. (2010). Nonverbal behavior. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of Social Psychology (5th Ed., pp. 464-497). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Barsalou, L.W. (2008). Grounded cognition. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 617–645.

Chandler, J., & Schwarz, N. (2009). How extending your middle finger affects your perception of others: Learned movements influence concept accessibility. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 123–128.

Chao, L. L., & Martin, A. (2000). Representation of manipulable man-made objects in the dorsal stream. NeuroImage, 12, 478-484.

Cloutier, J., Mason, M.F., & Macrae, C.N. (2005). The perceptual determinants of person construal: Reopening the social-cognitive toolbox. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 885–894.

Feingold, A. (1994). Gender differences in personality: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 429–456.

Gibson, E.J., & Walk, R.D. (1960). The “visual cliff.” Scientific American, 202, 67–71.

Haselton, M. G., Mortezaie, M., Pillsworth, E. G., Bleske-Rechek, A., & Frederick, D. A. (2007). Ovulatory shifts in human female ornamentation: Near ovulation, women dress to impress. Hormones and Behavior, 51, 41–45.