The way a person walks may reveal whether he or she has aggressive tendencies, according to an exploratory study published earlier this month in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior.
"To most people walking is a relatively automatic behavior," write researchers from the University of Portsmouth in the UK, "yet it is reflective of individual psychology."
They asked 29 study participants to walk a treadmill for 60 seconds, using their natural style and speed, while wearing reflective markers attached to their upper and lower body, legs, and feet. With the help of motion capture technology, they recorded each person's movements and created three-dimensional models to analyze thorax and pelvis movements, as well as the speed of their gaits.
Participants then completed personality questionnaires; researchers used the Buss–Perry Aggression Questionnaire, which measures trait aggression, and the Big Five Inventory, which measures conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness to experience, and extraversion.
After comparing the participants' answers with their walking characteristics, researchers determined that "the increased relative movement of the thorax (upper body) and pelvis (lower body) together was reflective of increased physical aggression."
"When walking, the body naturally rotates a little," the study's authors write. "[A]s an individual steps forward with their left foot, the left side of the pelvis will move forward with the leg and the left shoulder will move back and the right shoulder forward to maintain balance. Put simply, an aggressive walk is one where this rotation is exaggerated."
How quickly a person walks, however, appeared to have little significance in determining personality traits. While "there was a moderate correlation between gait speed and aggression for males," the authors write, there was no connection between between gait speed and aggression for females or the sample as a whole.
In terms of the relationship between gait and the Big Five, conscientiousness and agreeableness were found to have the largest correlations, but researchers found it "challenging" to explain why. Furthermore, more research is needed to determine whether gait affects personality or personality affects gait.
we have demonstrated that aggression and other personality traits are present in the mathematics of walking
Ultimately, lead researcher Liam Satchell tells Broadly, this study confirms that body language can speak volumes. "From what we've done here, we have demonstrated that aggression and other personality traits are present in the mathematics of walking," he says.
According to the researchers, one real-world application could be crime prevention: the possibility of training closed-circuit TV observers to recognize this "aggression-relevant gait." Satchell says that body language can also help officials "detect 'high risk' aggression targets in a crowd of people."
People who struggle to detect aggressors might benefit from being able to read approaching strangers as well, Satchell suggests. "Lots of people have generally had the experience of being intimidated by an approaching person," Satchell says. "They then try and suss out whether or not that person poses them harm. If aggression information is available in how someone walks, then we could train people to recognize potential aggressors from a distance."
The research also reveals the importance of first impressions. "You can be seen in how you walk," Satchell says. "You are always giving off signals about your personality, and these can go on to influence how other people act and react towards you."