When scientists ask people to evaluate others based on the way they walk, there are a few standard answers people give.
Loose gait: must be an adventurous extrovert. Clipped shuffle: must be neurotic.
But scientists say those personality judgments are generally wrong.
The only thing that current research suggests we can accurately predict from someone’s walk is how vulnerable they are. That’s a scary idea, suggesting that our thoughts and feelings are perhaps more visible than we’d like them to be.
Recent evidence of that phenomenon comes from a 2013 study that found prison inmates who scored high on measures of psychopathy could pick out people who’d been victimized in the past, based partly on their walk.
For the study, researchers recruited 47 male inmates from a Canadian prison, all of whom had at least one conviction for a violent offence.
The researchers showed the inmates 12 video clips of men and women walking, and asked them to rate each person on their vulnerability to victimization and explain their rating. The people in the video clips had already told the researchers whether they had ever been victimized in the past.
Results showed that inmates who displayed certain psychopathic traits were better able to discern which people had been previously victimized. What’s more, some of those inmates reported that they’d made their judgments based on the people’s gaits.
These findings build on earlier research on walking style and perceptions of vulnerability. A 1981 study, for example, found that inmates who’d been convicted of sexual assault consistently said people who had long or short strides and shifted their weight up and down would make better targets.
The researchers behind the 2013 study say their findings may help explain why certain people become repeat victims: “[S]ocial predators are attracted to external displays of vulnerability.”
While experts say psychopaths make up about 1% of the general population, the researchers on the 2013 study cite data suggesting that psychopaths are responsible for about 50% of violent crime. In other words, many violent criminals may be adept at picking up on vulnerability cues and spotting a potentially vulnerable target walking by.
Is it possible to change your walking style to give off an air of invulnerability? Maybe. But the researchers say that the effects of this training generally wear off over time.
If you’re looking to keep yourself safe by changing the impression you make on potential criminals, it’s probably best to focus on other factors besides your gait.
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