September 8, 2008

Odd Finding of Gender Differences In Walking

gender gait.JPG

A story about a study which claims to find a relationship between the perception of gender-- are the walking dots men or women-- and the direction those dots are going-- towards you or away.


The story is easily summarized: researchers find that the perceived direction of motion is gigantically influenced by our perception of its gender. 

Subjects watched "light point walkers," on a monitor, which have been standardized to exist on a continuum from extreme male to extreme female.

It is based on this computer model from this article.  Play around with it.

Subjects uniformly identified the walkers as the appropriate gender.  Interestingly, however, walkers judged as male were then judged to be walking towards them, while female walkers were judged to be walking away from them.

More interestingly, even when perspective information was added to the walker videos, it had no effect on perceived direction.  Men were still coming, and women going.

This effect existed for both male and female subjects.


It is "tempting to speculate" that this effect reflects the potential costs "of misinterpreting the actions and intentions of others," [study author van der Zwan] added.  "For example, a male figure that is otherwise ambiguous might best be perceived as approaching to allow the observer to prepare to flee or fight. Similarly, for observers, and especially infants, the departure of females might signal also a need to act, but for different reasons."

Yes, it is tempting, in the same way it is tempting for evolutionary biologists to default to Lamarck when Darwin doesn't seem to fit the data.    As with all "cool" science, it pays to read the actual study.

Though not shown in the paper itself, the online version offers links to the videos themselves.

First, there were only five subjects, 3 women and 2 men.  This is important because of my next surprising observation: am I insane, or does what they have labeled as "extreme male" look like a super sexy woman, and what they have labeled as "extreme female" look like a male Zinjanthropus?



etc. No, I didn't copy those wrong.  There were several videos, and 80% of them looked (to me) to be the opposite gender of their label.   If these are indeed the videos watched by the 5 subjects, then it's not hard to see that not only is the study invalid, but those five subjects can never be called as witnesses.