Standing alone in a dark alley, you whirl around at the sound of footsteps. A figure moves in the distance, its silhouette barely visible by a sliver of moonlight. Is the stranger coming toward you? If he's a man, your senses will tell you yes, according to a new study, even if he's actually walking away.
How someone walks can reveal their feelings. Slumped shoulders and a labored gait, for example, indicate unhappiness. Researchers often study these kinds of signals using something called a point-light figure, a collection of dots arranged in a human form. The figure is supposed to convey minimal information, but simple manipulations--broadening the dots on the shoulder region or narrowing dots that represent the waist--can make figures seem more masculine or more feminine.
Ben Schouten, a psychologist at the University of Leuven in Belgium, and colleagues tested whether giving the point-light figure a distinctive gender would affect how an observer perceives its motion. They asked five volunteers--three women and two men--to watch videos of point-light figures on a computer screen. By changing the point arrangements, the researchers made the figures seem either very masculine, very feminine, or gender-neutral. The subjects watched a 3- to 4-second clip of the figure walking and had to identify whether the figure was moving toward or away from them. The researchers then showed a second set of videos that incorporated subtle shifts of movement in the background to give more information on the walker's direction.
In each trial, the subjects--on average--judged the more feminine figures as walking away and the more masculine figures as walking toward them, the researchers report today in Current Biology. There was no difference between the response of male and female volunteers.
Why this occurs is unclear, but the researchers speculate that there could be evolutionary advantages and plan more research to better understand the correlation. "The approach of a male figure could signal some danger, whereas the retreating female figure could elicit a tendency for children to follow them," Schouten says. Gene R. Stoner, a neuroscientist at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, cautions that there could be other possible interpretations.