Imagine preparing for a job interview or a promising first date. You probably consider your outfit and general grooming—a fresh shower, plus hair products and makeup, if you use them. Glasses or contacts? Hair up or down? Various decisions signal different levels of erudition or sexual appeal, and people spend considerable time and money trying to use them to their advantage in high-stakes situations.
New research suggests, though, that elements of your appearance that are far more difficult to control also have a substantial impact on those all-important first impressions. In a recent study, researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas asked a group of American subjects to look at bodies of different shapes—not just thin and fat, but detailed variations such as pear-shaped and broad-shouldered—and assign personality traits to those shapes.
The results showed not just the range of stereotypical moral judgments people make about others’ appearances, but also how difficult it can be to change conventional wisdom—even decades after the science underpinning it has been disavowed.
The study’s 76 subjects readily assigned personality traits to body types, and they did it with considerable consistency, based only on small differences in shape. “Waist-to-hip ratio, for example, was the most important feature in women,” says Ying Hu, the study’s lead researcher. “For men, an important feature is shoulder width relative to waist size.” The subjects’ associations make clear that even small changes in body shape can still have a meaningful effect on what total strangers assume a person will be like. The fatter a body got, the more negative the traits associated with it were, like carelessness and disorganization. The leaner a body, the better a person was assumed to be, with characteristics of determination and curiosity.