Research reveals the snap judgments we make about strangers' personalities based exclusively on body shape.
Despite the wise adage, "Don't judge a book by its cover," we tend to make instant assumptions about strangers' personalities based solely on superficial traits, such as their age, gender, or the shape of their face.
Past findings indicated that people often form first impressions of trustworthiness, dominance, and emotional stability based on facial shape. In addition, facial characteristics may even hold the key to predicting physiological health, according to recent research.
Until now, scant research in psychology had linked these judgments to body shape.
A new study, published in the journal Psychological Science, has filled this gap, investigating the personality traits that people tend to associate with specific body shapes.
Psychological scientist Ying Hu, of the University of Texas at Dallas, is the study's first author. She explains her team's motivation, saying, "We wanted to know whether we could link personality descriptor words to body shape in predictable ways."
"Do people look at a person's body and make snap judgments about whether the person is lazy, enthusiastic, or irritable?"
Studying body shapes and first impressions
To find out, Hu and the team designed 140 realistic 3-D body models, half of which were male and half of which were female. To create these models, the researchers used laser scans of human bodies.
Then, the scientists asked 76 participants to look at the body models, viewing each from two angles.
The researchers presented 30 personality traits, and the participants identified which trait terms applied to each model.
The 30 traits came from the so-called Big Five personality domains, which include extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience. The Big Five is a traditional method of assessing personality.
We judge strangers based on body shape
Overall, the study found that participants associated heavier body models with negative personality traits, such as laziness and carelessness.
In contrast, they tended to associate lighter bodies with more positive traits, such as self-confidence and enthusiasm.
Also, participants linked more "active" traits, such as extraversion, irritability, and being argumentative, with body shapes stereotypically identified with femininity or masculinity, such as a "pear" or broad-shouldered shapes.
Meanwhile, participants associated rectangular male and female body shapes with trustworthiness, shyness, reliability, and warmth, all of which are more passive personality traits.
The researchers report that, by combining specific characteristics, they could accurately predict how a person would judge the model's personality type.
However, they caution that their study did not account for the influence of attractiveness or gender on these judgments.
Also, they say, while the tendency to judge someone's personality based on their body shape may be universal, the specificity of the conclusions could be determined by culture.
"Our research shows that people infer a wide range of personality traits just by looking at the physical features of a particular body," explains Hu.
"Stereotypes based on body shape can contribute to how we judge and interact with new acquaintances and strangers. Understanding these biases is important for considering how we form first impressions."
Alice O'Toole, a co-author of the study and professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, notes, "To our knowledge, this is the first study to consider the role of more nuanced aspects of body shape — beyond height and weight — in personality judgments about people."