Study: Your body shape leads people to make assumptions about your personality traits

New research shows that people associate being heavy-set with negative personality traits, while a slimmer shape is linked to positive characteristics.

DALLAS — You may be dazzling others with your smile, but what does your body shape say about your personality? Plenty, according to a new University of Texas at Dallas study.

“Our research shows that people infer a wide range of personality traits just by looking at the physical features of a particular body,” says lead study author Ying Hu, a psychological scientist with the university, in a news release. “Stereotypes based on body shape can contribute to how we judge and interact with new acquaintances and strangers. Understanding these biases is important for considering how we form first impressions.”

Past research verifies that we learn a lot of information from other people’s faces, but few studies until now have looked at how we are influenced by body shapes.

“We wanted to know whether we could link personality descriptor words to body shape in predictable ways,” explains Hu. “That is, do people look at a person’s body and make snap judgments about whether the person is lazy, enthusiastic, or irritable?”

Researchers came up with three-dimensional renderings of 140 realistic body models. The 70 male and 70 female body models were created from random values across 10 different body dimensions based on laser scans of actual human bodies. This made it possible for researchers to know exactly what the physical measurements were for each body type in the study.

For the study, 76 undergraduate students were asked to view each body representation from two angles and then answer whether 30 trait words on the screen matched that body shape. These trait words came from a list commonly used in psychology research for the “Big Five” personality traits. Traits are usually seen as being either positive (e.g., extraverted, enthusiastic or dominant) or negative (e.g., reserved, quiet or shy).

The authors wanted to know whether there were patterns in what participants attributed to certain body types. Did the participants consistently match certain specific traits to certain specific body types?

The results of the study indicate that body shaming may be real. Participants tended to judge heavier bodies as having more negative traits, such as carelessness and laziness. On the other hand, participants judged lighter body types to have more positive traits, such as being enthusiastic and self-confident.

Participants also linked classically masculine (broad-shouldered) and classically feminine (pear-shaped) bodies to such “active” traits as being extraverted, irritable or quarrelsome. But when either male or female bodies were more rectangular shaped, participants thought these people would have more passive traits — being trustworthy, dependable, warm and shy.

Researchers went over the participants’ responses in the study and concluded that it would be easy to predict the personality traits that would be matched to specific combinations of different body shapes.

Authors say this tendency to prejudge personality traits from body shapes is probably universal among humans, but note that it varies by culture, ethnicity and age. And while their study did look at factors beyond simple height and weight, they caution that other influencing factors, such as gender and overall attractiveness, were not included in this study.

The findings do give us some additional information behind the science of first impressions, revealing what Hu calls “the complicated and value-based judgments that people make about strangers based only on their bodies.”

Findings were published in the journal Psychological Science.

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