A new study explores the notion that touch is associated with the gender steretypes of men as tough and women tender.
Researchers found that when people look at a gender-neutral face, they are more likely to judge it as male if they’re touching something hard and as female if they’re touching something soft.
Several studies have found recently that we understand many concepts through our bodies. For example, weight conveys importance; just giving someone a heavy clipboard to hold will make them judge something as more important than someone who holds a light clipboard.
In the new study, researchers wanted to determine if thinking of physical concepts could influence the perception of gender roles.
For one experiment, people were given either a hard or a soft ball to hold, then told to squeeze it continuously while looking at pictures of faces on a computer. Each face had been made to look exactly gender-neutral, so it was neither male nor female. For each face, the volunteer had to categorize it as male or female.
People who were squeezing the soft ball were more likely to judge faces as female, while people who handled the hard ball were more likely to categorize them as male.
The same effect was found in a second experiment in which people wrote their answers on a piece of paper with carbon paper underneath; some were told to press hard, to make two copies, and some were told to press lightly, so the carbon paper could be reused. People who were pressing hard were more likely to categorize faces as male, while the soft writers were more likely to choose female.
“We were really surprised,” says Michael Slepian, a doctoral student at Tufts University who cowrote the study. “It’s remarkable that the feeling of handling something hard or soft can influence how you visually perceive a face.”
The results show that knowledge about social categories, such as gender, is like other kinds of knowledge—it’s partly carried in the body.