Body language is more likely to be perceived as masculine when it appears angry, and feminine when it conveys sadness, according to a UCLA-University of Glasgow study of baseball throws.
For the study, researchers recorded male and female actors throwing baseballs in a way that conveyed a specific emotion. Then, volunteers watched the videos (technology was used to disguise the thrower’s gender) and were asked to guess both the throwers’ gender and emotion.
“Even when observers received minimal information, they were able to discern the thrower’s emotion,” said Dr. Kerri Johnson, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of communication studies and psychology at UCLA.
“The findings fit with a growing body of work that shows some ‘snap’ judgments are highly accurate. But when it comes to deciding whether the actors were male or female, judgments tended to be less accurate, and that may be because perceptions are colored by longstanding stereotypes about masculine and feminine behavior.”
The study appears in the current issue of Cognition.
For the research, Frank Pollick, a cognitive scientist at the University of Glasgow, and Lawrie McKay, then a graduate student at the university, recorded 30 male and female actors wearing markers with 3-D motion-capture systems similar to those used in the making of computer-animated films such as “Avatar.” The technology consists of strategically attaching little white dots to the actors’ arms and hands, allowing observers to see only the body’s movements against a black background.
The actors were then asked to throw balls in ways that expressed specific emotions, including anger and sadness. The researchers chose baseball throwing because it is easily recognizable and gender neutral but lends itself to a wide range of variations.
Randomly selected video clips were then shown to 93 college students, who were asked to guess the actors’ sex and mood based on movements alone. Sadness was correctly pinpointed 30 percent of the time (25 percent would be expected by chance). Anger was even easier to judge, with an accurate guess 70 percent of the time.
Judging an actor’s sex turned out to be trickier as observers associated particular emotions with being feminine or masculine. For example, viewers judged “sad” throws to be female about 60 percent of the time and “angry” throws to be male over 70 percent of the time.
“It’s OK — even expected — for men to express anger,” Johnson said. “But when women have a negative emotion, they’re expected to express their displeasure with sadness. Similarly, women are allowed to cry, whereas men face all kinds of stigma if they do so. Here, we found that these stereotypes impact very basic judgments of others as well, such as whether a person is a man or woman.”
Other studies have demonstrated the possibility that gender stereotypes affect our judgments of others. For example, it was found that when a crying baby was labeled as a boy, listeners judged the cries to be angry; yet when the crying baby was labeled a girl, listeners judged the cries to be sad.
“Here, we applied a similar logic to the perception of emotions as expressed in body language,” Johnson said. “We found that prior beliefs and stereotypes can lead to systematic errors in the perception of body motions, which otherwise tend to be fairly accurate.”
Source: University of California