When you go out in public, what do you suppose other people notice about you? Sure, they see your clothing, hair, mannerisms, and certainly your smile. But we tend to underestimate the attention strangers give to one of the most functional aspect of our ensemble—our shoes.
Many people know this, and select footwear accordingly. Others honestly love shoes and have closets full of options. Yet even avid shoe collectors fail to appreciate the consequences of a bad choice. And first impressions are hard to change.
When it comes to footwear there is a balance (sometimes quite literally in the case of women´s heels) of function and fashion. Lest we think such choices go unnoticed, however, research confirms that quite the opposite is true.
Well Grounded: Shoes are Made For Walking
We have all seen women in expensive tailored suits dashing across town wearing running shoes, designer heels stashed in their briefcase until they reach the office. We have seen men who are similarly impeccably dressed—except for their three year old (but certainly comfortable) scuffed loafers. Upon viewing either one of these working professional prototypes, sometimes the shoes become the focal point—often to the exclusion of the rest of the ensemble.
That doesn´t seem fair, you might think, particularly because of the impracticality of sacrificing flash over function during transit. Yet research shows that we often consider exactly that, when judging a person by the shoes they wear most often.
Walk a Mile in My Shoes: Judging Others Based on Shoe Selection
One of the more interesting aspects of shoe research involves the accuracy of some of the conclusions reached. It turns out that when expressing some aspects of our personality, shoes speak louder than words.
In “Shoes as a source of first impressions,” (2012), Gillath et al. explain how in some ways, shoes accurately reflect the personality of the wearer in terms of status, personality and politics.[i]In their study, they had participants provide photographs of the shoes they wore most often, and also self-reported personal information. Study subjects then rated the shoes on a variety of dimensions—some of which correlated with the personal characteristics of the owners. A new group of participants then provided accurate judgments of the shoe owners in terms of income, age, gender, and even attachment anxiety, simply by looking at the photographs.
In their experiment, participants were not shown photographs of special occasion shoes (Cinderella´s glass slippers), but of shoes the owner wore most often. Their study also advised participants not to think too hard, but rather to make judgments based on first impressions. Results revealed some very interesting conclusions.
Specifically, they found that shoe cues accurately transmit information on agreeableness. High top or masculine shoes, for example, conveyed an owner who is less agreeable. Cues also accurately transmit information on openness, and of all things, politics.
There were, however, some areas in which observers defaulted to stereotypes. Perhaps this is to be expected, as Gillath et al. noted that shoes are often the most expensive part of an outfit. Participants viewing well-kept, attractive shoes assumed the owners were more conscientious, contrary to the owner´s self report. So it appears that in some cases we can dress the part and appear to walk the walk.
When the Shoe Fits
In other categories, Gillath et al. found that perceiver judgments were more likely to be accurate. Considering the overall patterns of perception, they concluded that comfort and attractiveness of shoes most accurately reflect the personal characteristics of the wearer.
They also found that study participants could detect attachment anxiety. They speculated this might be because anxious people crave attention and caring, which they might pursue through expressive decoration, selecting shoes designed to make them literally stand out. In contrast, individuals with avoidant attachment who are more aloof and do not care how they are perceived might engage in more indiscriminate shoe selection. Consequently, their shoes would not necessarily reveal their personality.
The Walk Away: Practical Application
The fact that we are analyzed from the ground up may impact the choices we make when completing the perfect outfit. You might reconsider paring a stylish suit with a worn pair of (deliriously comfortable) sneakers. On the other hand, depending on what type of impression you are seeking to make, well-maintained attractive shoes can convey a meticulous image, regardless of accuracy.
Perhaps this research helps explain why we describe a good friend being as comfortable as an old shoe, and why that favorite pair of slippers always feels so good when we get home. The most comfortable setting, of course, is one where we can forget about impression management and put our feet up.
[i]Omri Gillath, Angela J. Bahns, Fiona Ge, and Christian S. Crandall, ”Shoes as a source of first impressions,” Journal of Research in Personality 46 (2012): 423-430.