If you saw a man walk into a bar with a John Wayne swagger, you might assume that he’s a confident, tough kind of guy. Or perhaps you’d have less polite thoughts. Either way, you probably wouldn’t be able to help yourself from jumping to conclusions about his personality based on his gait.
Psychologists have been studying these assumptions for well over three quarters of a century, and their findings suggest that most of us do tend to make very similar interpretations of other people’s personalities based on their walking style. After watching that wannabe cowboy walk into the bar, the likelihood is that you and I would agree about the kind of personality he has.
But how accurate are these assumptions? And what other kinds of characteristics can we read from someone’s gait? Chillingly, the best person to ask may be a psychopath.
What can we read from someone’s gait? The best person to ask may be a psychopath
Let’s look first at the research into gait and personality. One of the earliest investigations was published in 1935 by German-born psychologist Werner Wolff. He filmed five men and three women without them knowing, as they took part in a ring-throwing task while wearing overalls (to conceal other personality give-aways).
Later, the participants watched back the films, which had been edited to hide their heads, and they made interpretations of each other’s personalities based purely on their gaits.
The study features some quaint details - the sound of the recording reel had to be camouflaged with a ticking metronome, for instance. More importantly, Wolff found that his participants readily formed impressions of each other based on their gaits, and that there was often a lot of agreement in their judgments. For example, consider some of the descriptions given independently by the participants for “Subject 45”:
“Pretentious, with no foundation for it.”
“Somebody who wants to gain attention at any price.”
“Conscious and intentional vanity, eager to be admired.”
“Inwardly insecure, tries to appear secure to others.”
“Dull, somewhat subaltern, insecure.”
It seems amazing that the participants formed such similar impressions for this subject and others. Of course, with such a small sample and the possibility that the participants were picking up on other cues besides gait, there are problems with this early research (the participants also knew each other, although they were poor at recognising who was who from the videos).
Modern experiments are more sophisticated, not least because of digital technology that can transform a person’s walk into a simple point-light display against a black background, with white dots showing the movement of each of their key joints. This strips out any other cues besides the motion of their gait.
Swing or sway
Using this approach, US psychologists in the late 1980s found that there are broadly two kinds of walk, which could be characterised by either a more youthful or older style of movement. The former involving a more bouncy rhythm, more swaying of the hips, larger arm swings and more frequent steps, while the latter was stiffer and slower with more leaning forward. Crucially, the gait did not necessarily correspond to the walker’s actual age – you could be young with an old gait and vice versa. Furthermore, the observers assumed that people who walked with a younger style were happier and more powerful. This remained the case even when their actual age was made apparent by revealing their faces and bodies.
There are broadly two kinds of walk: youthful, or older style of movement
Such research shows again how readily and consistently people make inferences about others based on seeing the way they walk, but the study didn’t address the question of whether these assumptions are accurate. For that, we must turn to a British and Swiss study published just a few years ago, which compared people’s ratings of their own personalities with the assumptions other people made about them based on point-light displays of their walks.
Their results suggested again that there are two main walking styles, although this study described them in slightly different terms: the first was said to be an expansive, loose style, which observers saw as a mark of adventurousness, extraversion, trustworthiness and warmth; the other was a slow, relaxed style, which observers interpreted as a sign of emotional stability. But crucially, the observers’ judgments were wrong – these two different walking styles were not actually correlated with these traits, at least not based on the walkers’ ratings of their own personalities.
The message from all this research is that we treat a person’s gait much like we treat their face, clothing or accent – as a source of information about the kind of person they are. It’s just that, whereas the evidence suggests our assessments are rather good for faces, we tend to make false assumptions based on gait.
At least, that’s the case for most of the judgements we make. But there is a rather more sinister way that we do make more accurate judgments about each other based on our walks – and it has to do with our vulnerability.
We treat a person’s gait much like we treat their face
Some of the earliest findings showed that men and women with a shorter stride, smaller arm swing and slower walk tend to be seen as more vulnerable (note the similarity to the older walking style found in the personality research). A rather disturbing Japanese study, published in 2006, added to this by asking men to say how likely it was that they would chat up or inappropriately touch different female students who were depicted in point-light displays. Based purely on the women’s gait, the men tended to say that they would be more likely to make uninvited advances towards the women with more vulnerable personality traits, such as being more introverted and emotionally unstable.
More worrying still, research has shown that imprisoned inmates with higher psychopathy scores are particularly accurate at detecting which people have previously been attacked in the past, simply from watching video clips of them walking down a hall. It seems that some of the inmates were fully aware of this ability: the higher scorers in psychopathy specifically stated that they paid attention to the people’s gait when making their judgements. This tallies with anecdotal evidence. For example, serial killer Ted Bundy reportedly said that he could “tell a victim from the way that she walked down the street”.
Some research suggests you can learn to walk in a way that sends a message of invulnerability
This entire field of research raises the question of whether you can adapt your walking style to change the impression you give. Some research suggests you can learn to walk in way that sends a message of invulnerability – faster with a longer stride and bolder arm movements – and that women instinctively adopt elements of this style when in less safe environments. But the psychologists who examined the personality profiles associated with those expansive and slow or relaxed walking styles say that it is by no means clear whether these particular gaits could be taught.
So it’s probably not advisable to try too hard to make an impression. Otherwise it may just come across as a desperate attempt at the bravado of “Subject 45” – or that swaggering cowboy.
Dr Christian Jarrett edits the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog. His latest book is Great Myths of the Brain.
Join 600,000+ Future fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn and Instagram.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, Travel and Autos, delivered to your inbox every Friday.