It's no secret that we unfortunately make snap judgments about others based on how they look. Now, though, for the first time, psychology researchers have pinpointed exactly what people might think of your personality based solely on what your body type is like.

Led by Ying Hu of the University of Texas at Dallas, the study used laser scanning of human bodies to create 140 male and female 3D body models. Then the researchers had 76 participants check out the models from two angles and pick which of 30 personality traits from the Big Five domains (extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticisim, openness to experience and conscientiousness) applied to them. Based on the labeling, the researchers could predict how people would judge models with specific combinations of characteristics.

The study findings revealed that there's a big range of stereotypical judgments people can make about your appearance when small differences in body type are present. The key findings, however, showed that

  • Heavier models received negative personality traits, such as laziness, while lighter models received positive traits, such as confidence. (OK, this one probably isn't a surprise to anybody.)
  • Participants associated models with pear-shaped bodies or that had broad shoulders--that is, classical feminine and masculine body types--with "active" traits, such as irritability and extraversion.
  • Rectangular models received "passive" traits, such as warmth, dependability and shyness.

The study does have some caveats. The researchers didn't account for elements like age or culture, for example. Additionally, as Amanda Mull points out in her article for The Atlantic, the connection between personality and body types has a shaky history, with many of the stereotypes revealed in Hu's study grounded in scientifically debunked ideas originating from psychologist William Sheldon.

With these elements in mind, conscious and subconscious biases based on body type or other physical factors can influence important business areas like hiring, networking and giving an effective presentation. And as Hu told Mull, one of the hopes for the study was to raise awareness of the stereotypes and how unreliable they truly are. If you understand the basic assumptions you're up against, you're in a heck of a lot better position to create company policies and procedures that are fairer for everybody.

But it goes beyond your personal business operations. You can dig deeper and ask yourself what the origin of the stereotype really is and what the facts are behind it. For example, research shows that overweight people often have lower incomes and struggle to have access to healthy, lower-calorie diets. Fixing that would mean addressing much bigger problems, such as education gaps and complex economic factors that influence how much companies can pay workers. Once you grasp these wider connections, you can take a bigger leadership role as a social advocate, lobbying for wider, positive cultural changes. After all, if you've got some influence, there's more to do with your time than just make money.

Published on: Nov 16, 2018