The Influence of Body Shape on First Impressions
We make personality-related assumptions about others based on their body shape.
Posted Feb 18, 2019
Categorizing human physique is nothing new. Decades ago, William Sheldon categorized bodies into endomorphic, mesomorphic, and ectomorphic. Neither is the assumption that body types and personalities are linked. Sheldon went a step further and tried to prove, using questionable methods, that one could reliably predict personality and character based on body shape.
Regardless of whether an actual relationship between personality and appearance exists, there may be a link between a target’s body shape and people’s first impressions of the target individual. In an article, published in the December 2018 issue of Psychological Science, Hu and colleagues discuss people’s “shape-to-trait inferences from bodies,” suggesting that these inferences “reflect the valence and agency of traits as well as nuanced personality features related to the Big Five domains of extraversion, conscientiousness, and agreeableness.”1
Body shape and personality: Methods
The participants were 76 undergraduate students (17 men; average age, 20 years) from the University of Texas at Dallas. The stimuli comprised of random, computer generated bodies (70 males, 70 females) in neutral standing poses; these images were generated using the skinned multi-person linear model, which is based on the Civilian American and European Surface Anthropometry Resource (CAESAR) data set. See video below.
The stimuli also included a list of traits — based on the Big Five or the five-factor model of personality (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience). The final list included 30 terms divided into the five personality categories. Each of the five domains contained six positive and negative personality traits: For example, neuroticism included the three positive traits of calm, easy-going, and self-confident; and the three negative traits of irritable, anxious, and moody.
For each trial, participants saw two views of a computer-generated body (from the front and a 45-degree angle), along with the trait list; they then decided whether any of the 30 traits applied to the body. This procedure was repeated until all bodies were rated.
Body shape and personality: Results
Researchers visualized the results separately for male and female bodies. For both men and women, one axis of body-trait space was related to weight. In general, heavier bodies were linked with more negative terms, and skinnier bodies with more positive ones.
Body weight also corresponded with conscientiousness-related traits. Namely, heavier bodies were more likely to be judged as lazy, disorganized, and careless; slimmer bodies as careful and self-disciplined. The authors speculate that the observed link may be explained by how conscientiousness influences body weight via lifestyle choices. For example, disciplined and careful individuals are expected to exercise more and watch what they eat.
The vertical axis of body-trait space separated traits according to agency, with more agentic personality traits (e.g., extraverted, dominant, quarrelsome) in the upper half and more passive ones (e.g., shy, dependable, trustworthy) in the lower half. Patterns involving this axis appeared more complex and gender-dependent. Overall, more classically masculine (i.e. wider shoulders) and classically feminine shapes (i.e. pear-shaped) were associated with greater agency; more rectangular bodies were linked with greater passivity.
When examining the Big Five, the following patterns emerged:
The bodies of seemingly reserved and passive women were less curvy and more rectangular and heavy; extraverted women, in contrast, had trimmer and more pear-shaped bodies. The bodies of passive men were more heavy and rectangular compared to those of extraverted men — which were trimmer, with wider shoulders and an “inverted-triangle shape.”
Almost the opposite pattern emerged for neuroticism and agreeableness. Negative traits for both neuroticism and agreeableness correlated with “bottom-heavy, powerful-looking figures with short legs” in women, and with broad shoulders in men. In contrast, less neurotic and more trusting men and women had a more rectangular shape.
Patterns for openness were more complex and difficult to interpret, so they will not be discussed here.
We must exercise care in interpreting the results, as the study reviewed here had several limitations (e.g., representativeness of participants, the target bodies in the CAESAR database, and neutral standing pose).
With these limitations in mind, this investigation provides preliminary evidence that individuals reliably infer personality traits and form first impressions based on body shapes, especially when “we have nothing but appearance to rely on.”1 These included negative assumptions about heavier bodies (e.g., careless, lazy) and positive ones about thinner bodies (e.g., disciplined). Rectangular bodies were judged as being more reserved, shy, passive, easygoing, dependable, and trustworthy. Classically feminine (pear-shaped) and masculine (wide shouldered) bodies were judged as having greater agency, being more extraverted (e.g., dominant, enthusiastic), irritable, stubborn, and quarrelsome.
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1. Hu, Y., Parde, C. J., Hill, M. Q., Mahmood, N, & O'Toole, A. J. (2018). First impressions of personality traits from body shapes. Psychological Science, 29(12), 1969–1983.