A Soft Touch
By Marjorie Howard
Gender stereotyping can be influenced by even simple things such as touch
Does the body have its own intelligence—or at least influence what we think of as the mind? Some psychology researchers think so. If you’re holding a mug of hot coffee, they’ve found, you’re more likely to describe someone else’s personality as warm and friendly than if you are holding a cup of iced coffee.
Such findings inspired Michael Slepian, a graduate student in psychology, to conduct his own research into the notion that we don’t just understand concepts in our mind, but unconsciously use our bodies to help process information through what is known as embodied cognition. “I wondered if more social phenomena could be understood this way,” he says.
In an article published in the January issue of Psychological Science, Slepian describes a study he conducted with his collaborators to determine if embodied cognition influences gender stereotyping.
“People describe men as tough and women as tender,” he says. “The idea was that we might understand what it’s like to be a tough male by the experience of handling something hard, and a tender female by handling something soft.”
In his first experiment, Slepian had 70 participants view eight computer-generated gender-neutral faces. They were made by a computer program that scanned thousands of real faces and created realistic ones “midway along the male-female continuum,” according to the researchers. Participants squeezing a hard ball and viewing a face said it was male 48 percent of the time. When squeezing a soft ball participants said the face was male 35 percent of the time.
In a second experiment, participants were given two sheets of paper stapled together, with a piece of carbon paper separating them. They were asked to categorize each face they saw in a separate booklet by circling “male” or “female” on these sheets of paper. One set of participants was told to press hard while writing, because the carbon paper wouldn’t otherwise make a copy; others were told to press lightly so the carbon paper could be reused. When looking at a gender-neutral face, participants said the face was male 67 percent of the time while pressing down hard and 52 percent of the time while pressing lightly.
Slepian says it is “remarkable” that notions of hardness and softness can influence how we perceive another person.
Slepian’s co-authors on the work were Nalini Ambady, a professor of psychology and Neubauer Faculty Fellow in the School of Arts and Sciences, Nicholas O. Rule, G08, G10, and Max Weisbuch, a former postdoctoral fellow at Tufts.
Marjorie Howard can be reached at email@example.com.