Behavior

You really can judge people by their shoes

June 13, 2012 at 6:27 PM ET

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Maybe you were already judging people by the shoes they wear, but now, a new study reveals that at least some of those judgments are accurate. We can correctly guess a person's age and income from their footwear -- plus, incredibly, whether they're more likely to be an overly-attached girlfriend or boyfriend

"We were interested in how people are able to form quick first impressions," says study researcher Dr. Angela Bahns, an assistant professor of psychology at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass. Shoes are just one outward marker of an individual's personal style that may carry information about their personality traits, she suggests. 

In the study, which will appear in the August issue of the Journal of Research in Personality, researchers asked 208 college students aged 18 to 55 from the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kan., to bring in a photograph of the shoes they wear most often. Students also completed various online personality tests. 

Researchers then asked a different group of 63 college students (also from the University of Kansas) to look at the pictures of the shoes and rate the owners on their personality, attachment style, political bent and demographic measures, such as age, gender, and family income.

Video: Are high heels empowering or oppressive?

After reviewing the photos of boots, flip-flops, lace-ups, loafers, sandal  and sneakers -- the most common type of shoe submitted -- people were best at judging an unknown person's age, sex and income. (Remember, these were college students in Kansas, which means lots of work boots for the guys and UGGs for the gals. This likely wasn't a Jimmy Choos and Manolo Blahnik kind of crowd.) 

"Age, gender, and income are usually pretty 'visible" characteristics [from shoes], so it's not surprising that observers picked up on them," says Bahns. After all, stylishness or a designer label may hint at a shoe owner's wealth, sex, or age.

But she says researchers were surprised that people could accurately guess attachment anxiety based on footwear, because signs of attachment anxiety are usually expressed in the context of close relationships.

Attachment anxiety refers to how concerned you are that your close relationships will reject abandon you; people with high levels of it are often clingy or wracked with self doubt. Bahns says it's unclear how people can pick up on attachment anxiety by the looks of your shoes. But the researchers think it might be from visible signs like color or upkeep (freshly polished shoes or worn down heels), which may convey a message about how laid back (low on attachment anxiety) or concerned people are about appearances (high attachment anxiety). 

"The study's most novel finding is that people can show some accuracy in judging a person's attachment anxiety," says Dr. Laura Naumann, an assistant professor of psychology at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif., who has studied the personality judgments people make based on physical appearance, but was not involved in this research.

Shoes are one avenue where people may be consciously (or unconsciously) expressing their personalities, suggests Naumann. "I think when people choose to wear a 'unique' shoe, they are hoping to convey that they are cool, style-conscious or open to being different," she points out. 

Naumann says distinctive shoe choices probably do reveal something about the wearer, especially in special circumstances or events, such as graduations or weddings. "I once saw a bride who had a very traditional wedding, but under her gown she wore red Chuck Taylor high tops," she adds.

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