Tough and tender: How touch affects sex categorization


LOOK at the photograph on the right. Does it show the face of a man or a woman? There's no right answer - the photo has been manipulated to look sexually ambiguous and can be perceived as either. But according to a recent study published in the journal Psychological Science, the sense of touch can influence how you perceive and categorize the face.

Last year a team of European psychologists found that bodily movements alter the recollection of emotional memories, and an American group showed that the sense of touch influences social judgements and decisions. The new study adds to the growing body of evidence for embodied cognition, which refers to the way in which our thought processes are grounded in the body and the sensations arising from it.

Men and women are believed to differ in certain personality traits. "Toughness" is one dimension that is often used to characterize stereotypical differences between the sexes, with men generally being perceived as "tough", and women as "tender". Because the words tough and tender are also describe different types of touch sensations, Michael Slepian of the Interpersonal Perception and Communication Laboratory at Tufts University and his colleagues decided to test whether sensory experiences of toughness might affect the way we categorize sex-ambiguous faces.

They used a computer program called FaceGen Modeler to create eight realistic faces lying mid-way along the male-female continuum and showed them, in randomized order, to 71 student participants. The students were given a hard or a soft ball to squeeze while viewing the faces, and asked to categorize each face as either male or female. The researchers found that the faces were categorized as male more often by the participants squeezing the hard ball than by those squeezing the soft ball. Conversely, the faces were categorized as female more often by participants squeezing the soft ball.

In a second experiment, another 48 students were given two sheets of blank paper stapled together with a sheet of carbon paper between them. They were shown the same faces on seperate pieces of paper, and asked to write down the sex of each one on the blank sheets. This time, the participants were told either to press down hard with the pen to make two copies of their answers, or to press gently so that the carbon paper could be re-used. Those told to press hard on the paper were more lkely to categorize the faces as male than those who pressed softly, and vice versa.

The new findings provide further evidence that abstract concepts are grounded in sensory metaphors. Just as holding a heavy object makes us perceive an issue as being more important,  and physical warmth makes us perceive an interpersonal relationship as also being warm, so does touching something tough or tender influence our mental representation of social categories such as sex.  


Slepian, M., et al. (2011). Tough and Tender: Embodied Categorization of Gender Psych. Sci. 22: 26-28. [PDF]

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It'll be interesting to see what effects cultural perceptions of gender would have on the results. Also, what effect priming with different gender stereotypes would have (eg if women as shrewish, or as sneaky, or as reliable, would affect the touch outcomes).

By stripey_cat (not verified) on 02 Mar 2011 #permalink

The photo looks a bit like my partner, who is a gender weirdo. Ha! What a coincidence! Her childhood pictures were extra cute with dark thick eyebrows making her look all serious.

By CS Shelton (not verified) on 08 Mar 2011 #permalink

I wonder if this information would be useful to physicians like me who often have to impart difficult, hard-to-hear information. Would a soft touch on the arm set the stage for a kinder interpretation of my motives/empathy as I speak?