It probably won’t shock you to hear that psychologists have discovered that how much skin your outfit reveals influences what others think of you.1 Perhaps, back in high school, your dad told you that you were not allowed to leave the house with that mini skirt on. (Or was that only me?) Long before high school you probably knew that what others wore and how they looked influenced what you thought of them. This knowledge is what leads most people to dress more conservatively at work and perhaps reveal a bit more skin on a first date.
But have you ever thought to ask yourself why would you make these choices? Personally, when I’m at work I know that I want to be taken seriously. I want people to focus on my intellect and abilities. I care about looking nice, but I purposefully try to not look “sexy.” On a date, I want my partner to view me as attractive.* Of course, I hope my partner views me as both smart and attractive, but whereas being “smart” is important at work, it may be less relevant to show off your intellectual abilities on a date.
A new study by Gray and colleagues1 helps to explain in more scientific terms why our physical appearance influences others’ perceptions of us. In a series of six studies, they found that focusing on someone’s body tends to lead us to think less about their abilities and more about their emotions. These findings contrast with past research,2 which suggested that focusing on someone’s (particularly women’s) body caused others to objectify the person and disregard his or her “mind.” Gray and colleagues contend that viewing others’ bodies changes how we view them but it doesn’t necessarily cause us to view them more negatively. Rather, we focus on qualities such as their perceptions and vulnerabilities, which is important in certain contexts. For example, when we are physically intimate with another person, it makes sense to focus on their emotions and their perceptions of the shared experience.
In the researchers’ own words (p. 1218), “Those perceived in terms of their physical characteristics are not completely stripped of mind but are, instead, seen to possess a different kind of mind, one…relatively more capable of pain, pleasure, and emotion.” Interestingly, these findings apply to both men and women. So, choose your attire carefully. The implications may be more far-reaching than previously recognized.
*Disclaimer: I’ve been married for ten years, so being on a date with my husband is not quite the same thing as a “first date,” but some of the same principles apply.
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1Gray, K., Knobe, J., Sheskin, M., Bloom, P., & Barrett, L. F. (2011). More than a body: Mind perception and the nature of objectification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 1207-1220.
2Fredrickson, B. L., Roberts, T.A., Noll, S. M., Quinn, D. M., & Twenge, J. M. (1998). That swimsuit becomes you: Sex differences in self-objectification, restrained eating, and math performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 269-284.
Dr. Charlotte Markey – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Markey’s research addresses issues central to both developmental and health psychology. A primary focus of her research is social influences on eating-related behaviors (i.e., eating, dieting, body image) in both parent-child and romantic relationships.